Book review: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

Posted on January 8, 2009

Talent Is Overrated is a very readable study, backed up by scientific research, into why some people achieve great success. The answer? Not talent, but great effort: a type of effort called ‘deliberate practice’. This book suggests that around 10 years of deliberate practice are required for someone to master their chosen skill or knowledge area. This is consistent with the 10,000 hours suggested in Katherine Tyrrell’s blog, Making a Mark, here.

The author goes into depth on what deliberate practice consists of, giving examples from the world of writing, sport and business. Geoff Colvin is Senior Editor at Large at Fortune magazine so his main focus is on how a business person or company can take the deliberate practice principles and apply them. He also devotes a chapter to how deliberate practice can enhance creativity, postulating that this is, and increasingly will be, an essential skill in business. These principles could be applied to any skill area and I believe that includes painting, perhaps because it is a subject I have been thinking about for some time (see my earlier post on music practice and art).

In fact, reading this book has helped me understand some areas of Josh Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning, specifically the chapter on ‘Numbers to leave Numbers’ – how experts spend so much time studying the basic units of their skill (chess pieces in Waitzkin’s case) that they stop seeing individual pieces and start seeing groupings: a little like a beginner reader learns letter sounds, then letter combinations, building up to words. I recommend reading these books together to get a good grasp of how we can each take control of our learning in all areas of our lives.

I confess to being fascinated by the concept of deliberate practice (remembering the satisfaction from a good music practice session as a child) and excited at all the possibilities this could open up. Finally, I think I see a way to structure my own studio time without needing an external course to provide that structure. Perhaps, after 37 years, I am ready to leave school?

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