The Talent Myth: 5 Essential Insights on Deliberate Practice

Success SignLife seems a lot better for the talented. They’ve got more options, have more success and in Tiger Woods’ case, they get to live in beautiful houses. But don’t despair if you weren’t born brilliantly talented. Two recently-released bestselling books are here to help. Outliers (by Malcolm Gladwell) and Talent is Overrated (by Geoff Colvin) show us that it doesn’t matter what you’re born with; outstanding success is available to anyone who will follow a few simple tips, the ones you’ll find below.

But first, the obligatory sports example

Jerry Rice was the best receiver in NFL history and in my opinion the best in any position. His records for total receptions, total touchdown receptions and total receiving yards all beat out the second place totals not by 10% or even 20%, but by a staggering 50%! No one else has even come close. How did he do it?In a word: practice. (In two words: deliberate practice, but we’ll get to that).

He would typically continue practicing long after the rest of the team had gone home. Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons he did equally strenuous weight training. These workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league… (Talent is Overrated, p. 53)

But don’t be distracted by how hard he worked. (Hard work is just part of the answer). It’s that he worked hard in the right ways.

  • He ignored enjoyment. Rice worked mostly on his own, spending less than 1% of his football-related work actually playing games.  Forcing himself to do the activities that would help him improve, rather than the ones he enjoyed the most.
  • He designed his practice to work on his improvement needs. While most receivers focused on speed, he focused on acceleration and endurance. Speed was actually a big weakness for him, but he realized he could overcome this by being outstanding in other ways.

Drawing on these types of insights, researcher Anders Ericsson has identified the types of practice that result in expert performance. It’s called Deliberate Practice.

How to Apply Deliberate Practice

  1. Design your activity to improve your performance. Carefully choose the specific aspects you need to be great at and stretch your abilities in those areas. Find a way to measure where you are now and make sure that you are actually improving. And even if you are, keep your mind open to other ways to get a better return on your practice time.
  2. Look for repeatable tasks. Top performers put the time in to ensure consistent performance in any repeatable area (i.e. shooting free throws) and then they practice these like a maniac.
  3. Make sure that feedback is continuously available. You need to see how you’re doing, what you’re doing wrong. With free throws it’s easy, but if your activity requires interpretation (i.e. getting better at job interviews) you’ll need expert feedback, the more the better.
  4. It’s mentally demanding. If your practice-activity is something you can do mindlessly, it’s not deliberate practice. You need to keep your mind involved. In fact mindless practice can actually reduce performance over time, which accounts for some very-experienced professionals performing below novices. You have to keep your mind in the game.
  5. It isn’t much fun. (Sorry). Geoff Colvin says, “Doing what things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.” Maybe you don’t need to hate practicing, but it’s certainly more hard work than play (remember Jerry Rice). This is precisely why most people avoid deliberate practice: the unpleasantness-barrier.

Both books also note the “10,000 hours” rule, the time it seems to take to become an expert performer. That’s roughly how long it took for Tiger Woods and Mozart (being trained by their dads), for the Beatles (mostly playing in Germany), Bill Gates (messing around on his high school computer) and for all the other geniuses you’d think were born uniquely talented. They deliberate-practiced for about 10,000 hours before they made any outstanding contributions to their field. On the bright side, this suggests that such greatness is more widely available than we’d think. The dark side of this insight of course is that finding the time is probably the biggest obstacle. This is why getting started young is such an advantage; kids have a lot more free time.

This is why Gladwell writes that “It is not the brightest who succeed.  Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” It’s talk like this that makes Gladwell the apologist of the mediocre performer, so read Outliers if you’re looking to blame mom and dad for not forcing you to practice the piano after school. Colvin, on the other hand, is a better read if you are looking for practical, actionable tips and more of an optimistic outlook.

If you’re interested in learning more, you might enjoy some of these other resources:

Thanks for reading.

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Update: A student just sent me this Micheal Jordon commercial, which relates well to all of this.

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10 Responses to The Talent Myth: 5 Essential Insights on Deliberate Practice

  1. Tim Woods says:

    Well that is a great and honest question. I can certainly relate to that. For me, the one thing I’ve always felt drawn to is writing. I felt that it helped me to grow and it’s always challenged me as a person. So that was my answer. As far as general advice, if you really don’t have any particular aspirations, I’d try to find something that you enjoy doing that will also be useful in a career. You might enjoy these insights from Randy Komisar (about how to think differently about your career) Alternatively, just stick with something you enjoy doing and forget the career part altogether. I have a friend who only ever wanted to play the guitar and that actually worked out really well for him. Guitar playing still makes him happy and he loves being amazing at it (having put in the practice time).

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  3. Daniel says:

    I just came across your article today. I really enjoyed it. I’ve read both books. These concepts really were key to both books and this article is a great reminder that I need to get to wok.

    Really interesting points. However, great results in your performance will be reached if you put your heart into it, talent and skills comes naturally, just have fun and enjoy…

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  6. John Bardos - JetSetCitizen says:

    Great article. Bounce is another book on the topic that I enjoyed.

    Despite the research of books like these, it still seems like most people still put more faith in the nature side of the argument. World class success really is available to all of us (with a few exceptions) if we put in the work.

    The problem in our societies is that everyone is telling us we have to “kick ass,” “be awesome,” or live an “unconventional” life in order to be happy. We all want to be extraordinary but very few of us will ever put in even a fraction of the 10,000 hours, and that is okay. Great personal satisfaction can be found in just being mindful with everyday activities.

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  8. Ralph says:

    Good post. Talent is Overrated is a great book and it reinforces hard work. I think people are forgetting the effort that it takes to succeed greatly.

  9. Ralph says:

    Good post. Talent is Overrated is a great book and it reinforces hard work. I think people are forgetting the effort that it takes to succeed greatly.

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