(Innate) Talent is Overrated

I just finished reading a truly incredible book: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

In it, Colvin highlights that world-class performance is not something you’re born with, but the result of years of deliberate practice.

Academics have long studied what differentiates world-class performers from everyone else. They’ve looked at experience, inborn abilities, and intelligence and memory, among many other things. None of these sufficiently explain world-class performance.

What does? Deliberate practice.

After studying Berlin’s best violinists in the early 1990’s, and how they differ from good and mediocre violinists, researchers found that world-class performers had practiced much more, and much more intensely, than others. This research has since been confirmed in many other fields, including sports, chess, science, investing, business, music, fine art, etc. Deliberate practice is what made Jerry Rice, Mozart, Tiger Woods, Sir Isaac Newton, Yo Yo Ma, Benjamin Franklin, Warren Buffett and too many others to count great.

Let me be specific here. Deliberate practice isn’t just practicing, but practicing in a very specific way. It’s activity designed 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, and it isn’t much fun.

Deliberate practice requires that you identify specific elements of performance that need to be improved and then work intently on them. That’s not just going through the motions. That’s figuring out exactly what’s necessary to be good and then working hard on those areas. It’s working at the edge of one’s ability. Think of a violinist practicing a very complex passage of an exceedingly difficult work over and over again until they get it right. Think of them analyzing the way they play and what they must change to get better.

It must be repeated–a lot. Deliberate practice must be done for 4-5 hours a day for around 10 years, or around 10,000 hours, to reach true excellence. It’s not enough to practice every now and again, but to practice at high intensity over many, many years. Imagine a violin player practicing 4-5 hours a day for 10 years, and that such repetition makes them better than someone who practices 2 hours a day for 5 years.

Feedback on results has to be continuously available. It’s not enough just to practice, but to get objective feedback on your performance. This can come from a teacher or other expert. Or, it can come from simply analyzing your performance over and over again. Think of a violinist getting feedback from an experienced teacher, or recording their practice and listening to it over and over again to master a passage.

It’s highly demanding mentally. The intensity of the practice is such that world-class performers break their 4-5 hours a day into 1 to 1 1/2 hour blocks. It frequently takes years to even work up to the point where 4-5 hours a day can be accomplished. Think of a violinist practicing 3 or more times a day to the point of utter exhaustion, and then doing that 5 days a week for years.

It isn’t much fun. If my description so far hasn’t convinced you, then perhaps the research will. The best violinists, as a group, consistently reported that deliberate practice “is not inherently enjoyable.” It requires a lot of effort and self-discipline to practice at this level for years.

I found this research confirmed my own experience with investing. I started teaching myself investing around 14 years ago. Initially, it was a hobby, but within one year I was spending 20 hours a week analyzing investments, expanding my knowledge, learning from the masters, and analyzing my results.

I quickly learned I needed to know a lot more about accounting, valuing companies, analyzing industries and management, etc. I spend several hours a day analyzing new companies. It’s especially easy to get feedback with investing because you can readily calculate your performance relative to the market and other investors. Researching particular companies is very demanding mentally and, although I find the work very rewarding and fulfilling, I don’t necessarily find the process of intense investment analysis fun. As I like to tell my wife, it’s not like drinking a beer and watching a sunset.

Talent is Overrated is a great read. It’s almost a guidebook on how to achieve excellence in a chosen field. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in achieving world-class performance or helping someone else get there.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

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