Tag Archives: talent

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?

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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.

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Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

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

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

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Deliberate Practice

A year ago I wrote about shooting free throws.  In that post I said,

I decided that shooting free throws was an important thing to do. It would make me a better person. It would strengthen me. It would help me accomplish something. So I set a goal of shooting 50 free throws a day.

I talked about how I made, on average, 6 of those shots across the three weeks that I  was shooting.  I realized that I was in the middle of a spiritual metaphor. I preached a sermon out of that experience and quit shooting baskets.

What I understand now is that I focuses on shooting free throws rather than on making free throws. If my focus had been on making free throws, I would have studied. I would have asked for help. I would have taken notes. I would have shot video and evaluated it. I would have taken it seriously.

Deliberate Practice for decades

Late last year, while reading Tim Walker’s website, I heard about the idea of deliberate practice. Many people have been writing about it and talking about it recently. One of them, Geoff Colvin identifies several elements of deliberate practice:

[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.

To give a bit more context, the research into deliberate practice grows out of research into what separates world-class performers from normal people. The historic explanation was talent or giftedness. The new explanation, supported by research, seems to be that world-class performers spend a bunch of time on the kind of work described above. And by a bunch of time, I mean 10,000 hours. I mean about 10 years.

Ten years of working piece by piece with good coaching and consistent feedback on the complex skills that make up golf or music performance or chess or maybe, other things as well.

Arguing with Seth because of Chris

Seth Godin argues with this idea of 10,000 hours. He suggests that in new areas, new disciplines, new media settings, it may take less time to be better than everyone else simply because you are ahead of everyone else. At risk of arguing, I would guess that being able to identify and take advantage of new niches still takes a bunch of time. And I wonder about how new some new niches are. I wonder whether, perhaps, even people in new niches are able to succeed because they have spent 10,000 hours on a skillset that underlies the new area.

For example, my friend Chris Brogan gets lots of attention. He has 31,000 followers on twitter. He has 15,000 people that subscribe to his blog. He is pretty world-class in his niche of “how to use social media and social networks to build relationships and deliver value.” He fits, I would argue, with the kind of people Seth is talking about. Lots of people look at Chris and want to be like him, wonder how he writes the way he does, how he networks the way he does, wonder how he is Chris.

Recently he talked about how he writes. In his post he talked about reading all the time. He talked about starting writing as a child. He talked about thinking about how to write, about the ways that he thinks about ideas, about different contexts for writing. He says,

Writing has made me a better speaker. Writing is why I’m a businessman. Writing is how I interpret the world. Others make music. Others paint. Others create code. Me? I communicate. It’s what drives everything forward for me.

In other words, Chris has been doing this communication thing that he does so well now for more than 20 years. He spends thousands of hours a year on the parts of the writing process.

In other words, Chris started deliberately practicing the skills that are propelling him into new niches before the technology are built on existed. He is not a technologist, he is a communicator. And I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that many of the people who are world-class at new things, even things like being Seth, have logged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Looking ahead in the mirror

I understand the principles when applied to sports or chess. Looking at Chris’s post and thinking about his life helps me apply the principles to writing and expression. The challenge I’m taking on for this year is to understand how this idea can apply in other areas. That’s why deliberate practice is one of my three words for the year (in addition to focus and singing) (and I know, it’s two words). My particular interest in the area of what I’m supposed to be about: spiritual formation.  I’m committed to helping people understand what it means to become more like Jesus. Eugene Peterson says of that process:

“Forming people in Christ as a slow work, so it can’t be hurried;
it is an urgent work, so it can’t be delayed.”

That sound a lot like a process that might take 10,000 hours or more. It takes coaching. It takes paying attention and having intention. It might actually involve some pain. It probably isn’t about what we often think of as church.

I mean, think about it. If it takes 10,000 hours to get world-class, to be a world-class Christ follower would take 52 weeks x 1 hour of church x 192.3 years. If you spend 3 hours a week instead of 1, you are down to 64 years.

No wonder so many people see a gap between church and Jesus.

So that’s what I’m working on this year. I’ll keep you posted.