November 4, 2009
Talent is overrated

By Krista Skidmore, Indiana Humanities Council board member, and president of FlashPoint Human Resources Consulting

We all know the rhetoric that great organizations are made up of great people — and with this in mind, most companies spend a significant amount of time, energy, and focus trying to find and develop talent. One of the toughest challenges leaders face, though, is trying to understand how to develop peak performance in their employees or volunteers. Is it born or bred? Is it nature or nurture?

Geoff Colvin attempts to tackle this question in his book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. He concludes that great performance is not reserved for a preordained few. It is available to everyone. He asks his readers to confront the myth that abilities are innate and encourages us to consider that deliberate practice is the common factor that explains great performance.

After all, Colvin points out, Mozart became Mozart not because he was born with talent but because he furiously worked to develop his skills through finger-bloodying practice. Colvin discusses a study he conducted of high performers in various fields; it showed that the most excellent performers develop their skill not only through participation in organized activities but through hours of individual practice as well. For example, he found that the best violinists practice during scheduled hours with the orchestra but also devote many hours to solo performance; meanwhile, Jerry Rice became arguably the greatest wide receiver to play the game of football because he spent most of his time honing his skills through rigorous workout routines. Deliberate practice requires intense concentration and commitment; it far exceeds what most of us do when we think we are “practicing.”

Colvin admits that deliberate practice alone does not fully explain excellent performance. He acknowledges that the performer must also have a supporting environment in which to work. This is an especially important concept for those leaders who are seeking peak performance in employees. But those who wish to apply it to the workplace should beware—most of our organizations simply are not designed to support deliberate practice. Goals aren’t always clear; activities that would make us better are usually not highly repeatable; there are few incentives to exceed our limits; feedback is not consistent; and most activities are within our comfort zone, not our learning zone. Those organizations who want to get the most out of top performers must address these issues.

Fortunately, Colvin gives several helpful tips on how to apply his concepts. Leaders who are interested in the idea of deliberate practice and who want to eliminate environmental challenges in order to build an organization that truly supports peak performance will find Talent Is Overrated insightful.

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