News: Talent is Over-Rated by Geoff Colvin

Talent is Over-Rated by Geoff Colvin

The famed chessmaster Capablanca was once asked how many moves ahead he saw when playing a game of chess. His answer? "I see only one move ahead, but it is ALWAYS the right move."

Such confidence! How did he get it? Cognitive scientists and neurologists have long been fascinated with the neural component of peak performance. Professional coaches and athletes have followed pied-pipers galore in search of that millisecond edge over the competition.

Geoff Colvin's book, Talent is Overrated, culls the latest scientific research into peak performance and finds that your grandfather or grandmother were right. It turns out that the way to Carnegie Hall does indeed run directly through Practice. Colvin's contribution to the growing list of popular non-fiction books treating this issue is his ability to clearly articulate exactly what kind of practice is needed in order to become a high-quality performer in your chosen field.

If you want to get better at something, better than you ever thought you could get, the way to get there is through Deliberate Practice. Great; what's that? Deliberate practice is an activity or cluster of activities specifically designed to improve your performance. It usually requires that you have a coach or teacher. The activity/cluster can be repeated a lot. In fact, it has to be able to be repeated a lot. You have to lay down a strong neural net/groove in the brain and repetition is how you do it.

Most of know that, but what Colvin points out, and what is supported by the scientific literature, is that practice alone is not enough. The real difference-maker in rising to the next level is creating a way to practice that provides you with immediate and reliable feedback. Seido karate, along with all the other combative arts and sports, offers just such a feedback giver. It's called sparring. 

Before getting to that, though, there are two other things you should know about Deliberate Practice. First, it's highly demanding mentally. You have to study and use your powers of analysis and reasoning to achieve outstanding results. Second, it isn't much fun. In fact, it's drudgery! Colvin encourages us to think of how a top notch comedian puts together his or her act. They go out on the road, playing the small clubs far removed from the big metropolitan hubs, where they try their "material" out on the crowd. They take copious notes and always record each performance to create a record of how the jokes fared. These road trips aren't brief affairs, either. The pros go out on the road for months at a time in order to test their material out in as many environments as possible before deciding to take it to the bigger shows and cable TV. These months of trying the material out are decidedly not glamorous. But it's all part of the process in which "the act" gets made.

Now all of this might not be news to you. I understand. It isn't that much of a secret that there's no such thing as an "overnight sensation." All those "overnighters" spend years honing their craft before recognition finally came their way. Colvin treads a lot of familiar territory in this regard. What he does that distinguishes his book from many others, however, is his inclusion of the weird presence of Luck in the prescription for success.

How can this be? Luck is something you have no control over. True. But being lucky is a result, in many cases, of being prepared. The old adage has it right. The harder you work, the luckier you get. There's no guarantee of success. There is, however, a guarantee for failure. As the late John Wooden often proclaimed, if you're failing to plan, you're planning to fail.

This brings us back to the issue of feedback and how it needs to be delivered. Colvin's perusal of the research shows that good feedback is quite a bit different than "judging." In fact, judgment is counter-productive to good feedback and high performance. Good feedback is constructive, non-threatening and work-centered, not person-centered. A good teacher or coach should look at outcomes or results and separate those from the personality involved. It may be harsh to hear. I'm sure Bill Parcells, the ex-coach of the Super Bowl winning Giants and Patriots, was not a player's dream coach in many ways, but Parcells was able to be brutally honest with the athletes about the quality of their performance without getting into what kind of person he thought they were. To him, that didn't matter. All that mattered was results. If you showed results, you got the chance to take on more responsibility and, with that, more freedom.

So how did Capablanca practice? He often bragged that he didn't practice at all, but the historical record tells a different story. He dropped out of Columbia University to pursue his study of chess, so consuming was it. He practiced relentlessly and developed his understanding of and insight into strategy through playing and studying the outcomes. He was deeply immersed in Deliberate Practice, though he liked to put on that it all came naturally to him. Far from it. He was gifted, for sure, but that gift would have withered and died had he not feed it with the countless hours of attention to chess that he did.

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