outliers and talent and hope and deliberate practice

Last fall, when I started learning about deliberate practice,  I wanted to read Outliers. I wanted to read Talent is Overrated. I went to Borders, armed with a coupon to buy one of them.

I looked first for Outliers, having heard more about Malcolm Gladwell than Geoff Colvin. If I was going to read one, that was it.  It was supposed to be on the shelf. It wasn’t. So I picked up Talent is Overrated. It has transformed my thinking about learning and goals and spiritual formation and organizational development.

So I reserved Outliers from the library.  It finally arrived on Saturday. I finished reading it on Monday, several weeks after reading the other book. I finished it thinking, “That was a great read, but it won’t change my life.”

Just think what would have happened if I had read them in the other order and not followed through to read both?


That story illustrates a central point of Gladwell’s book, that a significant function of success is timing rather than great talent. And that point is why I find Colvin’s book to be transforming.

Both books set out to consider success. Both take issue with our cultural assumption that the reason some people are so successful is that they are gifted or talented. Both go behind the curtain surrounding people we see as talented and provide a richer explanation.

Outliers: The (real) story of success

Gladwell is the better storyteller. He identified individuals, helps us see them, and then explains how they got to where they are. His ability to use anecdotes to see patterns seems an incredible talent…until we remember that he has been writing for years, telling stories.

  • He talks about opportunities which open because of unique timings in culture (The Beatles get invited to Hamburg, Bill Gates gets access to a time-share computer while still in high school).
  • People take the opportunity and work hard, 10,000 hours of working hard. “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.” 150
  • Some of the capacity for hard work comes from patterns in the cultures of origin. (This is a major theme of the book. However, to offer specific examples without the way Gladwell would sound almost racist. So I’ll send you to the book.)

The stories–why professional hockey players are born in the first three months of the year, of why top professionals come from certain cultural backgrounds–are incredibly compelling.

And in the end, Gladwell argues, the best thing we can do to help anyone is to provide opportunities.

But I end up thinking, “how?” To explain patterns and then to say, “imagine if there had been more people offered the same opportunity” feels flat.

Talent is Over-rated: How to be more successful (however you define it)

Colvin, on the other hand, chooses to work with just one part of success. He focuses on the hard work part and spends his book exploring ways that the right kind of hard work, what Colvin and others call “deliberate practice” can help anyone.

[Deliberate practice]  is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.
Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, page 66.

Colvin spends time, like Gladwell, showing the ways that success isn’t just about being talented. But then, after outlining deliberate practice, Colvin talks about how it works, how it can be applied as an individual, how it can be applied in organizations. He spends a chapter talking about where passion comes from.

The book reads more slowly, but that’s because you are jotting notes in the margin about what you can do, how you can help someone else.

Read them both, own just one

I’m glad for both of these books. I was afraid that they were redundant. Having read both, it’s clear that they overlap in concept but differ completely in application.

To be delighted in how a story is told, read Outliers. Gladwell will give you stories to tell to friends (as happened twice today)

To change how you live however, to identify the weakest parts of what you are best at and to improve them, Colvin will challenge and teach you.


Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else


If you haven’t been part of my word of mouth project to help my son, go here.


8 responses to “outliers and talent and hope and deliberate practice

  1. I recommend the article “The Winning Edge” by Peter Doskoch, Psychology Today, November 2005. That article says in 9 pages much of what Gladwell’s Outliers says in 320 pages.

  2. Good post, Jon. I’m still working on digesting the implications of Colvin’s book. My concern with Gladwell’s is that some folks flatten its message to talk only about the outlier-outliers — the Bill Gateses blessed with perfect outlier conditions — rather than about how *each* of us can be our own kind of outlier.

  3. Agreed. Along those lines, Kathy Sierra said this about the book on Twitter:

    “Much as I liked Outliers, makes me cringe to see people focus on ‘it’s all luck/chance’ rather than the ‘it takes 10,000 hours’ part.”

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  5. Great summary. I have read outliers and agree that he is an amazing storyteller. It made me think, which is all you can really ask for out of any book, but now I am curious – I will Talent is overrated. Thanks for the tip.

  6. good post. thanks for introducing me to Colvin. I will look for his book. My summary of Outliers is that it takes 10,000 hours to be beyond good at something. Choose Wisely (at what you want to be good at) – especially if you are going to spend 3+ years to make it reality.

  7. I came across an article in Scientific American 2 or 3 years ago on this topic, and have seen a few articles since on the same topic. I’m glad the work of Ericsson and others is starting to filter into the mainstream. I have Talent is Overrated on hold at the library and am looking forward to reading it.

    Thanks for the reviews on these books.

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