Management Matters: Who Needs Talent?

It was news to me. For years I thought raw talent was the key to a great performance. When I didn't accomplish something, I attributed it to a lack of natural ability. And when others did something extraordinary, I assumed it was because they had an innate skill. Of course luck and opportunity played a role, but they were not at the top of the list. Talent was. If you had it, great. If you didn't, forget it.

Until now. A new book has turned my head around about what goes into great performance. Its title says it all: Talent Is Overrated (Geoff Colvin; Portfolio; October 2008). It seems that we've been wrong about what separates world-class performers from everybody else. Talent may be irrelevant. What seems to make the difference is "deliberate practice." It has several connected parts:

• Picking out key elements you want to improve to perform better.
• Practicing them one at a time over and over again, until they become perfect.
• Doing this under the watchful eyes of a dedicated teacher who can give you immediate feedback.

Think of someone like Tiger Woods. The raw talent issue with him is tricky because his accomplishments are so extraordinary that you have to assume some degree of talent. But when you scratch deeper, you find that he fits this deliberate practice model perfectly (as do most top performers). After 18 or 36 holes of golf, where does Tiger usually go? Not to the 19th hole where the rest of us mere mortals go. He and his teacher go to the practice area and hit hundreds of balls to work on one small part of his game that didn't go so well that day. In short, he chooses deliberate practice as his standard operating procedure.

When you stop to think about it, this is an encouraging bit of news. All of a sudden, a whole world of possibilities has been opened up to us. Evidently we don't have to be precocious to become great performers. We can become a pro at almost anything. It's just a matter of picking out parts of my life that I want to improve, practicing those key elements one by one over and over again, and finally, doing it under the watchful supervision of a teacher or mentor.

This raises two very personal questions: What do I really want to do (and how badly do I want to do it)? No one said deliberate practice was easy. It's not. But if you want something badly enough, you now have a path you can follow. No excuses about lack of talent allowed.

And don't think about deliberate practice as applying only to big-name performers. If we understand how accomplished people get to be that way, all of us can improve and become, if not great, at least better. That's not a bad ROI.

Had we known this years ago and not been so hung up on natural talent or the lack of it as the reason for our successes or failures, who knows where we might be today?

Dr. Tom McDonald, a Ph.D. in psychology, speaks on "people skills" needed for "business results." Contact him at

Originally published Jan. 1, 2009

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