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The myth of talent

 Posted: 2:00 AM May 02, 2014

When we think of famous athletes, musicians or business tycoons, we often attribute their greatness to natural talent, supported by hard work. But according to Geoff Colvin, author of "Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else," talent is not what makes people like Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett or Mozart the greatest in their fields.

Colvin says top achievers do not have special gifts, but they do have a driving force, either internal or external — such as a parent — that pushes them to push themselves harder than most of us. Most importantly, they succeed through what he calls "deliberate practice."

Colvin writes that deliberate practice is not merely repetition, but slow, highly demanding and often painful repetition of a skill until it is perfected.

"Talent is Overrated" is the Ashland library's Brain Book Discussion Group's pick for May.

The group, led by Sandra Coyner, meets from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. the fourth Tuesday of every month in the Guanajuato Room. Members choose one book a month that focuses on brain research and the mind. Everyone is welcome. Just read the book (or most of it) and head to the library to join in the talk.

In the book, Colvin, a senior editor at Forbes magazine, shows his skill as a researcher and backs up his theory with loads of examples and anecdotes. He discusses one study that found top violinists put in more than twice as many hours of solo practice as average violinists. However, they don't just practice for the sake of practicing; they figure out what they need to study most and they do it repeatedly until it is perfect. He offers stories about chess champions, technology leaders and CEOs. There's a great story about how comedian Chris Rock previews his act at many small clubs, so that by the time he plays larger events he knows exactly how the audience will respond to his jokes.

Colvin debunks the popular view of Tiger Woods and Mozart as prodigies and instead points out the importance of deliberate practice in their lives. Colvin explains that both started practicing at early ages under the guidance of very demanding fathers. Mozart did not compose his best symphonies until he had been studying composition and seriously practicing for well over a decade. Tiger Woods, coached by his father, began playing golf as a toddler. By the time he started winning major titles, he had been sharpening his skills daily for 20 years.

The good news for those of us who want to achieve excellence in something, but didn't start practicing as a child, is that "great performance is in our hands far more than most of us ever suspected."

Colvin turns this theory to business practices and urges business leaders to apply aspects of deliberate practice to their companies, figure out what needs improvement and work single-mindedly to that end. He says company chiefs should challenge employees to do the same, to nurture everyone's inner Tiger Woods.

There's a lot to talk about with this book, and I expect the library's discussion group will be pretty lively. I like the message that we should nurture our high-achievers, and especially that achievement comes at a cost. Intellectually, we know that high-achievers work hard, but we may too heavily discount just how many times they fell and got up again before they became champions.

For more information on the Brain Book Discussion Group, call 541-774-6996.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at

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