Journalist and author Geoff Colvin is Fortune Magazine’s Senior Editor at Large and author of the book Talent is Overrated.
Colvin has studied talented athletes, musicians, chess players and others considered to be extremely talented, and he reports that talent is not what separates the average performers from the truly great in any field.
- Joshua Bell (photo credit: Chris Lee)
Mastery, innovation and creativity are the keys to breakthrough performance in any field. How can you apply the principles to your own career? Colvin suggests these guidelines.
First, master the basics of your career. Colvin writes that in study after study, of geniuses and top performers, researchers found that it takes about ten years of deliberate practice to master is needed to break through to great performance. If you start deliberate practice at ten years old, you may break through by the age of twenty. If you are a 35-year old adult, you may see real results by 40. Most people don’t have the patience or focus to work on their skills for that long; there are too many other distracting and more fun things to do. That’s why there’s been only one Steve Jobs so far.
You may ask, can’t I just go back to school and learn what I need to know? Colvin says that the research indicates that you can’t. In fact, after a certain amount of training (about the equivalent of a few years of college), more education actually has an inverse effect on your ability to innovate. When subjects knew an advanced and complex way of doing a task, they became much slower at recognizing a simpler or more elegant solution to the problem. Less educated subjects who did not know a complex way to do a task, recognized and learned new and easier solutions much faster. To reach the pinnacle of achievement, you have to exit the learning mode and enter the practice mode.
Creativity doesn’t, as some of us suppose, spring spontaneously into being. Colvin cites numerous examples of very innovative inventions and works of art that appeared to come from nowhere. When you study the innovators, however, you see a pattern of studying what works for years, then finding the one improvement or innovation that will revolutionize the current standard. Picasso, Eli Whitney, even Steve Jobs, all built on what had come before. By mastering what is, they could spend time thinking about what is next.
By now, after reading over 1,400 words on deliberate practice (if you’ve read all three posts) you may be saying “thanks, but no thanks.” Most of us will say the same. We can go through life being pretty good at most things and very good at one or two. We’ll also be spectacularly bad at doing at least one thing. That’s okay. We can always buy a ticket and enjoy the work of true breakthrough performances with a little more awareness and appreciation. For my part, I have a new Joshua Bell Pandora channel. I will enjoy it all the more for knowing what it takes to become Joshua Bell.