Geoff Colvin on Why Talent is Overrated (and What You Need Instead)


If you want to know what science has to say about the relationship between talent and success, and if you want to know the easiest way to improve your ability to achieve your goals, then you want to listen to this podcast.

Why can some people do things so much better than others?

There’s a question us humans have been wondering about for a very long time.

Many believe it’s due to extraordinary amounts of innate talent–that nature ultimately dictates who can do what and how well they can do it, and that our strengths and weaknesses are more or less immutable.

On the other hand, some people say that talent has very little to do with it, and that outstanding abilities can be mostly explained by hard work and dedication, which anyone has the capacity for.

This is a confusing topic for good reason. We’ve probably known people who have gotten very good at things without appearing to work very hard at it, as well as people who initially displayed absolutely no aptitude for something work tirelessly at it for years without ever becoming excellent.

What does this mean? That luck and randomness are the best predictors of success in any field and endeavor?

Well, according to my guest on today’s episode, Geoff Colvin, both talent and hard work don’t greatly correlate with acquiring top-tier abilities, a specific kind of work does: deliberate practice.

In his book, Talent is Overrated, Colvin explores every angle of this conundrum and uses interesting stories, scientific research, and personal experiences to make a compelling case for what it really takes to go from bad to good to great.

In this episode, Geoff and I discuss why “talent” is often an illusion, what deliberate practice is and isn’t, and how you can incorporate it into your life profitably, why the infamous 10,000 hour rule is misleading, and more.


5:58 – How important is natural born talent in the journey to become the best in your field?

14:24 – What is deliberate practice?

29:00 – What drives people to become a master in their field?

34:42 – What is the 10,000 Hours Rule and is it true?

38:43 – How much deliberate practice does it take to master a skill?

43:32 – What are some techniques to improve memory?

50:41 – What is your new book about?


Mike Matthews: Hey, Geoff, thanks for coming on the show.

Geoff Colvin: Mike, it is my pleasure.

Mike Matthews: All right, so I’m excited to talk to you because this is a subject that I’ve read a fair amount, and I just find it very interesting myself. There are many different ways the discussion can go and I’m kind of curious where you want to take it, specifically, but I think where we can start is with the common belief that people that are very good at things whether it’s a professional sports player or professional anything really got there mostly because they were just talented, and if you don’t have a natural talent, if you don’t have a really strong knack for something that you probably will never be able to become, you don’t have to necessarily say professional, or if we’re talking about sports not necessarily you become all of the best in the world, but you can’t really become top tier at something. Yeah, I think that’s a good place to start, and I’m just going to kind of pass that football to you.

Geoff Colvin: Yeah.

Mike Matthews: What does the research actually have to say, though, what’s reality?

Geoff Colvin: Right, and you’re right it’s a great place to start because it is absolutely what people believe. It is what almost everyone believes. In fact, when I talk to people about this I ask them at the very beginning look into yourself, and ask yourself what do you really think about why the greatest performers in any realm you look at, and most definitely including athletics what do you really think about why they are as great as they are? All of us I have learned from talk and from my research in this field and from talking to so many people we all carry around with us some really deeply held beliefs about this question, so I will say, “What do you really think?” The answer is that most of us, virtually all of us really believe that the greatest performers, the incredibly awesomely great performers did come into this world with a natural gift. They were born with a special ability to do whatever it is that they actually do so well.

Geoff Colvin: So that’s the right place to start because it’s what we all think most deeply, and it’s also very logical in a way. It’s very logical that we think that because when you look at the very greatest performers whether you were looking at Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, once again, he didn’t win it this time, but my gosh you’re not supposed to be able to do what he does at that age in the NFL, or if you think about you watch golf, Jordan Spieth, and if you think about Tiger when he was at the top of his game it all seems superhuman. You think that there is no way any normal human being could do what they do. So, of course, you think that they came into the world with this special gift. It seems to be the only possible explanation for their superhuman performance.

Geoff Colvin: So, yeah, that’s what everybody thinks and the research on this tells a different story. I want to emphasize that what I’m talking about here is not my own personal beliefs. I’m not spouting off my own opinions about this stuff. There is at this point 40 years of good research into this question of where great performance really, really comes from, and the answer is very clear. The reason this book is called “Talent is Overrated” is that the researchers have concluded talent meaning this inborn gift is not nearly as important as we all think it is, and some of the researchers actually say that talent in the sense of an inborn gift doesn’t even exist. Talent in the form on an inborn ability to do something fairly specific whether it’s play tennis, or play baseball, or kick a soccer ball or anything like that talent in that sense they say may not exist at all.

Mike Matthews: What are your thoughts on that because, I mean, you see Tiger Woods, for example, with a better golf swing at three years old than most grown people that play the game and that, of course, has to make you wonder like this little kid was [inaudible 00:08:55] and he was just built to become Tiger Woods, right? Why? How is that even possible?

Geoff Colvin: Right, by the way this comes up a lot because Tiger Woods is one of everybody’s favorite counter examples to the case that I present. They say, “How on earth can you account for that?” Well, the reality is that Tiger Woods did come into this world with an extraordinary gift, and that gift was his father, Earl Woods. He was born into a very unusual situation. His father, Earl Woods, had been married earlier and gotten divorced so he was now sort of on his second family, and Tiger was his only child. Earl Woods was a scratch golfer, handicap of zero. He was an excellent, excellent golfer, and he had spent much of his career teaching young men. He was in the Army, and he was a coach earlier in his career.

Geoff Colvin: He was an expert at teaching young men, and then perhaps more important than anything else he had decided when Tiger was born that he was going to make Tiger the greatest golfer in the world. He put a club into Tiger’s hands before Tiger was one-year-old. He figured out ways how to teach a little kid how to do a golf stroke before the kid was old enough to talk. He put Tiger in a high chair and set it up in the garage where Earl Woods had a practice tee set up so that he could hit golf balls into a big sheet there that would stop the golf ball. As I said, he was an excellent golfer so he would sit Tiger there just let him watch as he, Earl, hit shots, and it was an excellent. As Earl himself said later this was like a movie being played over and over and over in front of Tiger’s eyes how to hit a golf ball. Well, that’s the beginning of the story and there’s much more detail, but the bottom line is.

Mike Matthews: That’s everything you don’t know. You don’t see that. You don’t hear about that. All you see is I think what was it Johnny Carson or something you just see that famous footage of Tiger at three or four and you’re just like, “What?” But you don’t see all this that you’re talking about, and considering that that’s what sons do, I mean, that’s what little kids do they just look around they mimic their parents so if 80% of Tiger’s time from the beginning to three or four years old was spent watching his dad swing a golf club and practice swinging a golf club that starts to make sense.

Geoff Colvin: Absolutely, as I said this was their only child and he and his wife agreed that this was their project. This was their project in life making Tiger the best golfer in the world. So his father was a great teacher, but only taught him up until the age of five or so at which point he engaged professional teachers to start teaching him.

Mike Matthews: So the point here is, sure, it’s amazing what Tiger did, but it could have been somebody else.

Geoff Colvin: It could have been somebody else. I always tell people the reason you’re never going to be Tiger Woods is that your father wasn’t Earl Woods that’s the real explanation. Now there’s an important point to be made here, which has to do with athletics more than anything else, which is the obvious point that in athletics physical dimensions play an incredibly important role, and your physical dimensions are in large part, not entirely, but in large part determined at birth by the genes you’ve inherited, and you can’t do anything about that, right?

Geoff Colvin: So if you’re seven feet tall you’re never going to be an Olympic gymnast. If you’re five feet tall you’re never going to be an Olympic volleyball player, and no amount of practice can change that. That’s important, but within those bounds, within those constraints that we all face because of our size, or our body shape what this research says is the world is open to us, right? Because what makes us great is the way we prepare. I haven’t even really gotten into the specifics of that the type of preparation that the researchers have identified and described, which they call deliberate practice, but that’s what it’s all about.

Mike Matthews: Absolutely, and I think that’s the next thing worth diving into because it’s not just as simple as, hey, if you just work hard enough you’ll be successful at anything whether it’s business or golf, or whatever because there are plenty of people out there that work hard in terms of they put in a lot of time and they put in a lot of effort, but they don’t have much success to show for it. I mean, myself I’m a golfer I’ve seen that a lot on the golf course I’ve seen that a lot on the driving range. I see guys out there, I mean, when I was really working on building a swing I’d be out there for five hours working on camera doing stuff, and I’d see guys out there with me five hours just slamming away at balls swearing, so plenty of hard work out there. It doesn’t necessarily correlate to success, though, right? Because this is where this deliberate practice concept comes in and it applies to more than just athletics.

Geoff Colvin: You’re so right. Yes, this is where it comes in and, yes, I’m a lifelong golfer also. We all understand this at a really deep level. Yes, deliberate practice is not just practice. It is not what most people do when they think they’re practicing, and that fact explains why most of them never get any better even though they think they’re practicing a lot, so let me say what deliberate practice is because it’s fairly specific. It’s not complicated, but it’s fairly specific, and this is what makes all the difference.

Geoff Colvin: First of all, it is neither work nor play. It is not actually performing at whatever it is you’re doing. At the same time it’s not just play, it’s not something that is inherently enjoyable in itself. It is designed. It’s an activity that is designed explicitly for you at this point in your development. What that means is you’re going to get better if you continue doing this, and as you continue getting better your practice is going to have to change because you’re a different person. Then the real heart of it is, it is designed to push you just beyond your current ability. It doesn’t try to push you way beyond your current level of ability because then you’ll just be lost you won’t have any idea what to do, and it doesn’t allow you to operate within your current level of ability because then you won’t grow at all.

Geoff Colvin: So it is constantly pushing you just beyond your current level of ability. It can be repeated at high volume. This turns out to be really important, and when the researchers first identified this that it was repeated at high volume they didn’t even know yet the brain science that would later support this. It turns out that if you do certain things at very high volume it actually builds up connections in your brain, and if you’re really, really deeply into this including the athletics of it you may know a term called myelin, which is a substance in your brain that gets built up by high repetition practice. In fact, some of the coaches now talk about that substance a lot. Anyway, it can be repeated at high volume, and final element you get constant feedback. You can’t get any better if you don’t know how you’re doing, so you must constantly be getting feedback of some kind. It may come from a coach. It may come from video, but you got to know how you’re doing or you can’t get any better, so that’s it. Those are the elements of deliberate practice.

Mike Matthews: Do you have some real world examples? My example of that and my experience with that, actually, so when I started I played a little bit of golf growing up. I never got good and actually it probably worked against me because I kind of just ingrained bad habits more than anything else so then when I got back into it and I wanted to get good, and by my estimation I wanted to be able to shoot in the 70s regularly and what’s the fastest. I wanted also to get there as quickly as possible within the constraints of my life. I can’t just be on the golf course every day, so I read a book called “Every Shot Counts,” which I’m sure you’ve read if you’re into golf and into reading, and I was like, “Yeah, that makes sense, so if I want to get that good then I need a long game first and foremost. It doesn’t matter how good my short game is if I want to play golf, real golf from the back tees, long courses I better have a long game or I’m just never going to get there.”

Mike Matthews: It’s not very fun to play that screenable golf at least in my opinion you don’t really feel like you’re playing the sport. So I was like, okay, so the first thing I need to do is build a swing. What’s the most efficient way to build a swing? Then I studied a bit about this swing mechanics. I found a book, finally, there was one book. I read quite a few I didn’t like, and I found one book it was like, “Decoding the Swing Plane.” It was just a random might have even been a self-published book on Amazon. It was actually very good and explained the mechanical aspects of the swing, and breaking it down in a way that I could really, really understand what each part of my body is supposed to do to produce what is now kind of the modern golf swing, which you see with a lot of younger players on tour the swings are getting more and more homogenous. You don’t see very many erratic swings anymore or unusual looking swings, so I practiced.  

Mike Matthews: I broke it down into different where I was like practicing the takeaway, and practicing each kind of phase of the swing, and doing it on camera so that was kind of the feedback and the pushing myself was to I was kind of modeling my swing off of I’m trying to remember, Adam Smith, because he just has a very technically sound swing. Yeah, I had three or four models I was kind of working off of that everyone, obviously, their swings are a little bit different, but I picked people that, again, were about as technically sound as you can be, and then working on camera just comparing, so I would do five takeaways, and then I would go to I used my iPad, and I’d look at my takeaways and see was I getting the club head into the right position, blah, blah, blah.

Mike Matthews: I would just practice that until I got it, okay, and then I would practice from there getting up into just kind of getting up into the top of the swing, and then I’d put them together and then just repeating that, and then practice the transition, which was incredibly difficult to get. I was amazed just because previously I was so over the top with my swing that that was the hardest thing, actually, to finally put it all together, but I went through that process working on camera the entire time, and also getting feedback I did some lessons with the local pro and some other people just to make sure that I was on the right track, basically.

Mike Matthews: In the end I’d say I probably did that for about 500 hours, and I went from like a pretty shitty looking swing to a very, I mean, people would come up to me on the range and asked if I’m the pro at the club and stuff not that I didn’t get good enough because I wasn’t playing much golf then, but on the range I looked really good, so that’s my experience with it, and it worked incredibly well.

Geoff Colvin: Yeah, you were following the rules. You were following the procedure and it was hard work, undoubtedly, clearly was, and you put in a lot of hours doing it. I mean, if you did 500 hours that’s a lot. There are an awful lot of golfers out there who play the game and they can get around the course who have put in maybe 50 hours. They’re not very good golfers, but they can get around and then they’ll be okay, so you put in a lot of hours, and it paid off. This is the great story.

Geoff Colvin: By the way, it illustrates another important point, which is great performance is available to far more of us than we think, but it’s not free. I’m not giving anything away here, right? It’s hard, it’s hard work, and no one should say otherwise, but the great news is that it’s available, right? You, and I don’t mean necessary you, specifically, although you specifically, but everybody else whose listening you can be much, much better than you think you can be. It is available to you if you.

Mike Matthews: I totally agree, and it applies, again, not just to athletic things, but I think you could really work it out for anything. I’ve experienced very much the same type of thing in my work. I do a lot of writing in my work. You’re a writer yourself, and you’ve probably went through that process as well. I go read stuff I wrote when I started and it’s terrible like I actually wrote this, this is awful. This is really bad, actually, so I don’t think I had any great talent for writing when I started other than I was just willing to go through the process. For the listeners any skill that you want to acquire, or anything that you want to get good at you can absolutely do it, but you have to go about it in the right way. I think something you said, Geoff, is probably worth you just talk a bit more about, and that is, is the process, is focusing on the process because it’s easy to just say you want things.

Mike Matthews: It’s easy to say let’s just go back to my example. “I want to be a very good golfer. I want to shoot in the 70s.” Yeah, anybody can say that, right? Or even just more broad kind of goals that people have. They want to become so good at something that has commercial value that they can make a lot of money, or they want to get so good at exercise that they achieve certain strength goals or something like that because a lot of weightlifting is very similar in that it’s a technical activity. It’s not just brute muscle strength, especially, with certain exercises like a squat, for example, it’s a technical movement and it takes practice, it takes repetitions, it takes deliberate practice to get better at the squat as well as just getting stronger, so it’s one thing to say that, but it’s another thing to go, yeah, it’s the wrong question. It’s not what do I want it’s more like what kind of pain do I want? What kind of process do I want, and what and I willing to go through?

Mike Matthews: Again, in my case I kind of tuned into this kind of stuff, so when I approached golf I more looked at it like that, yes, for me to play golf it was kind of like working it backwards. For me to play golf how good would I have to be for me to enjoy it because I don’t like doing things that I suck at I just don’t. If I’m going to do it I’m going to get good, or I’m just not going to do it all, and then, okay, this is where I want to be. What is it going to take to get there not totally sure, but I think it’s going to start with probably hundreds of hours on a driving range building a swing you know what I mean? So I think I’d be curious as to your thoughts and just more about that in terms of process versus goals.

Geoff Colvin: Yeah, it’s a really good point because the process is clear. In a way you could say this is simple. All you have to do is follow it, but you have to understand it’s a long process, and it’s a hard process, so your goals become really important. How much do you want this? How much do you want it? How much are you willing to give? One of the points that’s important in this book is the idea that if becoming really great were simple then everybody would do it. It wouldn’t distinguish the great performers from the rest.

Geoff Colvin: It’s not simple it’s hard, but we know how it’s done, so the question is be clear what do you want? By the way, this comes up a lot because when I really get into discussions with people about this eventually you get to this really deep question because you say, “Okay, becoming world-class great we actually know how it’s done. We know what it takes.” Then people say, “Okay, I can see what it takes. It takes a lot. Do I really want to do that? Do I really want to give what it takes to become world-class great at whatever it is.” I always encourage people to ask that question, and to answer it honestly for themselves. Don’t fool anybody. Nobody cares what the answer is except you yourself, so be honest with yourself, and think about how good you want to get, and how much you’re willing to give.

Mike Matthews: Speaking of Tom Brady, as you mentioned earlier Facebook had that I saw the first episode Tom versus Time. I have one thing that he said and it just like kind of resonated with me where he made a point of for 18 years he’s given everything to football. He’s given his entire life to football. I used to see him speaking saying, “Hey, if you want to compete with me then you better be willing to give up your life because that’s what I’ve done. I’ve given up everything.”

Geoff Colvin: That’s a great quote. That’s a great quote because that really says it. What I stress to people is any answer is okay. If you decide that you don’t want to go all the way down that road that you’re not willing to give your life for 18 years, and counting in his case that’s okay. You just need to be honest. There’s a story in the book about a chess player. It’s actually an incredible story about three sisters from Hungary who were trained from birth exactly according to the principles of deliberate practice at being chess players, and they became the three best chess players in Hungary. They became the three best women chess players in the world, and one of them eventually near the top of her form in her early 20s just gave it all up.

Geoff Colvin: It was a little surprising, and people said, “Why did you do it?” She said, “It isn’t that chess was too much for me. It wasn’t enough.” She wanted a life. She wasn’t willing to give her entire life to chess, which is what it was going to require for her to be the greatest in the world, so she said, “It wasn’t enough.” She wanted a life. Well, that’s fine. It’s perfectly okay to want a life that’s understandable, but be clear. Don’t think you’re going to be the world’s greatest, the Tom Brady of your sport or field or whatever it is without giving as much as he gives.

Mike Matthews: Absolutely, there’s a few kind of follow-up questions I have, and that’s where do you think some of these people get that drive? You know what I mean? Like why give up your entire life to be good at throwing a football? It’s not like he needs to do it for the money not at this point, and I don’t think that was ever really a driving factor you know what I mean? I don’t think he’s really into the fame, or he doesn’t seem like that kind of person.

Geoff Colvin: You’re raising really, really deep questions here because where does it come from? That’s one of them where does it come from? Where does the passion come from? To some extent that is still a little bit of a mystery because the answer is probably deep inside somebody’s head having to do maybe with childhood experiences or something.

Mike Matthews: Yeah, or even goes into the realm of religion you know what I mean? Who are we really, or at the core of our personality, the core of our being what is that?

Geoff Colvin: Absolutely. There is one other insight on this that is worth thinking about which is it doesn’t appear that anybody really goes into an activity with this incredible passion to be great. A few seem to, but most people including the ones who become the greatest performers typically don’t go into it with this incredible burning passion to give their life to something rather the passion seems to develop just like the ability itself develops with deliberate practice.

Geoff Colvin: For example, there’s a story in the book about Jerry Rice, greatest receiver in the history of football. In high school he wasn’t a passionate football player. In fact, the coach had to go out and recruit him. This was in a little town where he grew up. The coach had heard that this kid was fast. Well, receivers need to be fast, so he went and recruited him onto the team. He didn’t know he was going to be interested in football, but over time the passion built so he was another one of those players who absolutely gave his life to football and he did it for 20 years, which was in itself a near miracle because practically nobody lasts for 20 years in the NFL.

Mike Matthews: Especially in that position.

Geoff Colvin: Just exactly right in the wide receiver position where defenders are going to try to crush you on every play where you’ve got to run like heck on every play nobody lasts 20, and nobody other than him ever has lasted 20 years in that position. He gave his life to it, but he didn’t start off that way.

Mike Matthews: I’ve experienced a little bit of that myself. I mean, again, just coming back to my now just cliché golf story that in the beginning I’m like, yeah, I don’t if I’m going to really like this, but I think you can develop passion through getting good at something because nobody’s passionate about something you suck at. You don’t do something you’re bad at no matter how much it might seem interesting to you. Even if we come to something ridiculous like a video game something that’s engineered to just hook you, and you have some of the smartest people in the world figuring out how to make you play more video games and click more Facebook ads, right?

Mike Matthews: So you start off on a video game that is set up with actually a lot of this science deliberately kind of baked into it to really get you in, but in the beginning you’re not good it’s not like you feel good playing even a video game that you suck at, and that takes no effort. You’re sitting moving your thumbs. How much effort does that take versus playing wide receiver, so I think there’s something to be said for if you have something that just kind of draws it speaks to you in some way if you feel a natural inclination towards something because it’s something you’ve always kind of just thought was neat, or you’re always curious about, and maybe also it fits your personality to some degree, or maybe you do have a little bit of a knack for it or not I think that you can easily develop those things into passions by doing what you’re saying applying deliberate practice by getting good at it and then you’re like, “Hey, I’m good at this,” and all of sudden it becomes fun.

Geoff Colvin: Yes, and this is in fact, typical in the development of great performers. For some tiny reason they do well just maybe a little better than some of the other kids around them they do a little better early in their development so this attracts attention. That makes them feel good, all right, getting some praise they feel good, so they try a little harder because they’re liking this, so then they get a little better. As they get a little better they probably are going to attract more attention and better teachers.

Mike Matthews: And more teaching time. Anybody that grew up playing sports you saw that and in some cases maybe experienced it firsthand where the coach naturally starts putting more time into his better players.

Geoff Colvin: That’s exactly right. So, of course, that makes them even better, and this becomes a virtuous circle, a self-reinforcing cycle where they get better, they get more attention, better teaching, more reinforcement they feel better about it, so then they get still better, and you can see how the passion develops how they come eventually to love this activity even though they didn’t start out that way.

Mike Matthews: You got to figure like I think of something like curling that’s proof enough of this, right? Nobody wakes one day like, you know what I need to do? I need to push a metal thing on ice and sweep the ice that’s just what I was made to do.

Geoff Colvin: Right, and yet they become passionate.

Mike Matthews: People are very passionate about it. So what about the 10,000-hour rule because that’s a thing, obviously, popularized Malcolm Gladwell, “Outliers.” There’s been a lot of additional research because that to some people is kind of discouraging, but they just understand it as it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at something you know what I mean?

Geoff Colvin: Right, and I’m so glad you raised that issue because it does need to be discussed. Let me state it very clearly right at the top. There is no 10,000-hour rule. It simply doesn’t exist. Everybody talks about it because Malcolm Gladwell wrote a very successful and very enjoyable book called “Outliers” that included a chapter that was called “The 10,000-Hour Rule.” Now he based that initially on the research done by a guy named Anders Ericsson who is a professor at Florida State, and who is absolutely the leading authority in the research on all of this stuff. All of this stuff I’m talking about really the foundation for all of it comes from the research done by Anders Ericsson. He is the number one researcher here and I know him and I’m a great admirer of his and he is the guy who is the founder of all of this stuff that we’re talking.

Geoff Colvin: The number happened to come from a very influential study that Anders Ericsson and some other researchers did long ago having to do with violinists at an elite academy in Berlin. They found among other things that the very best violinists there when they were 20 years old had accumulated 10,000 hours of lifetime practice, which was a lot more than the other violinists who were judged by their teachers to be not as good, so that’s where the 10,000-hour number came from, but as Anders Ericsson has always pointed out, A, that was an average. Some of the people had practiced more than that. Some had practiced less.

Geoff Colvin: Two, this had to do with violinists at the age of 20. It didn’t have to do with any other field of endeavor and at any other time. He said, “Look, in the world of being a violinist that’s apparently what you need to have at the age of 20 if you’re going to go on to become one of the really good violinists who can make a living playing with a major orchestra, or even become an international soloist, but,” he said, “that’s at age 20.” Those people don’t stop practicing. In fact, if they’re going to become the future great soloists they’re going to rack up a whole lot more than 10,000 hours. On the other hand, in other fields of endeavor where there isn’t so much international competition you can become world-class great with much less deliberate practice than that, and he gave some examples there.

Geoff Colvin: The idea that something magic happens at 10,000 hours is simply mistaken, and also lost in the Malcolm Gladwell accounting is the idea that this is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice not just 10,000 hours of activity, which is what most people seem to think. They seem to think that if you just do something for 10,000 hours then you’ll become really, really good. No, not at all. They were measuring deliberate practice, which we’ve already defined. What I really would wish people would do is just erase that concept. Erase that phrase from their minds. It doesn’t help at all, and it doesn’t describe a real phenomenon.

Mike Matthews: What would you say is a more realistic estimation of how much deliberate practice does it take to get very good at something? Of course, very good is kind of subjective in nature, but if we could somehow just objectively say we all can kind of agree probably on what very good means in anything that could be quantified to something.

Geoff Colvin: Well, it can, but a lot depends on exactly what field we’re talking about. My own belief, and I know it’s Anders Ericsson’s belief, also, is that there is no number that can usefully be given. The one thing that comes out of that popularization of the 10,000 hour idea the one useful thing is the concept that it takes an awful lot of really hard work at a specific activity before you’re going to become really, really good at it. If that’s all people take away from it then that’s a good thing because it does take a lot of that hard work.

Mike Matthews: Yeah, I mean, I was going to say I think you could probably at least say a few hundred hours of deliberate practice in pretty much anything. Anything that has any amount of complexity is going to get you going. If you’re getting into something it’s just having the correct estimation of effort if you’re getting into something that, again, has any level of complexity and competition if you think that 50 hours, oh, if I just practice 50 hours. I mean, you’re not going to be very good.

Geoff Colvin: You’re not going to be very good and I’m glad you mentioned competition because one of the best ways to think about this is how much competition is there in whatever field you’re talking about. If you’re in a field that has intense, large-scale international competition than it’s going to be really, really hard to become world-class great. So look at the Olympians international competition at the highest levels it takes a long time. They have all had to devote their lives to getting to the Olympics. On the other hand, a very early study that was conducted by Anders Ericsson, and another researcher looked at a very simple activity, simple to describe, which is remembering random digits that are read aloud to you, okay? So does this sound stupid and really basic? Somebody reads you a list of random digits and then stops you have to wait 20 seconds, and repeat the digits in order, and that’s it, okay?

Mike Matthews: That’s a competitive sport, too, they have memory competitions.

Geoff Colvin: They do now, and it’s in part it’s because of this experiment that Ericsson, and another guy did a long time ago because it turns out that it’s really hard to do this. It’s really hard to listen to digits being read out loud then wait 20 seconds that’s what makes it really hard, and then repeat them in order. Most people believe it or not max out around nine digits. After that they just can’t get them in the correct order, so they were training an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University and they got him up past nine digits, got up to 14 digits, which appeared to be the record at that time even though nobody really was taking any of it very seriously. They got him up over 20 digits, which was very, very difficult for him. By just taking him through constant deliberate practice when he finally stopped they had him up to 82 digits.

Mike Matthews: Wow.

Geoff Colvin: He could hear somebody repeat, read 82 digits, wait 20 seconds, and he could repeat them in order. Now they say that was clearly the best. There was nobody else in the world who could come anywhere near 82 digits, but that’s because there was nobody else in the world doing this at all. Why on earth would anybody want to do it?

Mike Matthews: That reminds me of the research the memory research I forget who it was, but it’s spaced repetition learning is based on that research. He just basically tortured himself with a metronome for years and years to figure out how quickly do you forget things, basically. That’s tedium.

Geoff Colvin: It’s tedium, so he became the world’s greatest with a couple hundred hours of deliberate practice didn’t take 10,000, but as you point out they now have competitions at this event, which sounds to me like one of the worst things one could possibly, but anyway, that’s what they do, and by the way, the record is no longer 82 digits it’s twice that up to over 160 digits, but that’s because there’s now international competition.

Mike Matthews: Yeah, and just for people listening I actually know a little bit about that like at least one of the great ways to do that is to use visualization because we remember images, especially, moving images, especially, vivid images a lot better than we remember things we hear or thoughts that we have, so if anybody at home if you want to just have fun what you can do is take a list of not necessarily numbers, you can just take a list of things it’s an easier way to do it. I’ve done this before and it’s very easy to actually learn. With a little bit of deliberate practice you get it pretty quickly, so make a list of 10 random things just look around you, and what you need to do is when you’re looking over the list you need to create a little mental movie, a little movie in your head.

Mike Matthews: So let’s say I’m looking around I just finished eating lunch so I have a fork here, I have a wallet, I have a hat, I have a microphone, so you’d create a mental movie that involves each of these items, and you want to make them a little bit larger than life, a little bit vivid. Maybe the fork is purple and on fire, or something like that, and then if it goes from a wallet let’s say the wallet is after the fork then the wallet falls on the fork and it explodes, so you build this movie in your head that just moves from one item to another. You can get good at it fairly quickly to where you only need to go through it once, and then all you’re doing now is replaying the movie in your head.

Mike Matthews: So I go, oh, I see a fork, there’s the fork, there’s the wallet, and then you can mess with people if you’re good at it because they don’t know what you’re doing where you go, “Yeah, give me a list of 10 things.” You look over you have maybe 30 seconds, and then you can give it forwards, backwards, you can give it at any point. Somebody could say, “Okay, go from the microphone up,” and then you just play the movie in reverse. You’re just, okay, mic, phone, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, so for people wondering how could you possibly remember so many digits I think that’s the primary method used, right?

Geoff Colvin: Yes, absolutely, there are ways. Everybody has to have a structure of some kind to hang these things on, and then it becomes doable, so what you’ve just described is a great way because you can use that structure you’ve described with anything, right? Any group of objects or whatever that you want to remember you can use that. For the guy who remembered the random digits it turns out that he was a very serious runner, he was on the track team, so when he would hear these digits mentally he would put them into groups that made sense as times. Here’s a mile time, or there’s a 10,000 meter time, and he could thus form apparently random digits into groups that he could remember because they had some meaning to him. We all use a structure of some kind to do it.

Mike Matthews: Interesting. I wanted to comment on something that you mentioned earlier, which is just going back to that point of there’s nothing wrong with looking at something, looking at a goal, and then deciding that you are not willing to pay that price, or pay what it costs. I would say that that’s probably to face that and be okay with that and maybe you could change your goal, you could make your goal you go, “Okay, fine, I’m not really willing to give my life to this to become the best, but I am willing to give 10 hours a week to it, and what could that get me?” It just makes me think of one, I just like that and it’s something I’ve said on the podcast and written about particularly in relation to work and making money where not everybody needs to aspire to be a millionaire or a billionaire.

Mike Matthews: The billionaire is the version of that’s the person who gave up unless it’s the guy who made Snapchat or something, but most of your self-made billionaires are people that they’re the Tom Brady’s of business. They gave their entire lives to it, and in many cases their lives they did very well at business and made a lot of money, but the rest of their lives were in shambles. You have broken marriages, you have broken homes, you have broken families, you have in many cases broken people that are very good at, yes, they are very good at making money and they have a lot of nice things, but that’s what you got to be willing to do. I would say if you walk that back to, okay, if you want to be a millionaire, again, it’s not just some fluke thing there’s a price to pay there. Are you willing to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week for long periods on end? Are you willing to do that with no guarantee of success, and you constantly are maybe kind of doubting yourself.

Mike Matthews: Just back to your point I disagree that there’s nothing wrong with looking at that objectively and honestly and saying, no, that’s not for me, but what I could do is I can give 40 hours a week to hard work because I also want to be able to give time to my health. I want to be able to give time to my family, to my friends. I’m going to do as good as I can with the time that I’m allotting to work, and I do actually think people can become millionaires working 40 hours a week. It makes it harder, but it can be done. You have those quadrants. You have your health, you have your work, you have your family, you have your friends, and you can’t have them all, right? So you got to balance. If you say I want to go all in on work and pay everything that I have to pay just know that some of those other areas are going to suffer. One of those quadrants is probably just going to have to go completely black and are you okay with that?

Geoff Colvin: It’s such an important point to make because that’s reality so face it. People have a propensity to fantasize about success. They believe that it can be quick and easy. In fact, this goes back to really what we started with at the very beginning the idea of an inborn gift, something that you are just naturally good at, and people love that concept in part because they think, “If only I could find my gift. If only I could identify the thing that I was born to do then success will be fast and easy for me.” The reality is it just isn’t.

Geoff Colvin: In fact, one thing that I’ve learned in all the research on this is that when you talk to the greatest performers whether it’s in athletics or anything else you talk to the greatest performer a lot of people will say to them, “Gosh, you’re incredibly talented.” They’re trying to be nice. They mean it as a compliment, and the people who hear it know that those folks are trying to be nice so they smile and say thank you, but inside a lot of them are resentful because they know they didn’t get where they are because they were born talented. They know they got where they are because they gave their lives to it and it wasn’t easy.

Mike Matthews: Yeah, I mean, people might as well be saying, oh, you’re so lucky.

Geoff Colvin: Yeah.

Mike Matthews: Okay, well, this has been a great discussion and the book is “Talent is Overrated.” I highly recommend it. Also, Geoff, you have a new book out I thought we might close on what that book is about because I actually just came across it when I was putting together what I wanted to ask you for this talk, so tell us about your new book.

Geoff Colvin: A new edition of “Talent is Overrated” is just about to come out, in fact, it will be in the warehouses I don’t know in a month or six weeks. This spring it will start to appear in bookstores, and it’s been updated with new research and addresses some of the issues that have arisen because so many people have become interested in this, so keep an eye out for it, and it’s really nice looking and everything else, so a new edition of “Talent is Overrated.” In addition, the newer book, the new book is called “Humans are Underrated.” It’s about how you and I are going to earn a living and be economically valuable as technology does more and more stuff better than human beings can do it.

Mike Matthews: So how to not get replaced by robots.

Geoff Colvin: It’s not get replaced by robots. There are some people who think robots are going to take over, and I don’t dismiss that. Robots are going to be extremely powerful more than we realize, but even in that environment some people are going to do very, very well, so this book is about how you’re going to be one of those people no matter what happens with technology.

Mike Matthews: Can you share with us one little tidbit like what’s one area where you think we can really thrive? Cal Newport spoke about this in his book “Deep Work.” I liked what he had to say about it.

Geoff Colvin: Yeah, the fundamental idea here is that our value will come increasingly from the skills of deep human interaction our ability to interact with other human beings in some deep way, which is a fundamental change from what has made us economically valuable through all of history up until now because up until now our value came from knowledge what we could learn in schools, skills that we could acquire in classrooms, and things like that. What we’re moving to is a world in which technology does all of that stuff better than we can ever do it, and our value is going to come from the fact that we humans remain in charge of the overall system, and our ability to deal with the other humans, to collaborate, to solve problems together creatively, to understand, to have empathy with one another, discern what others are thinking and feeling and respond in an appropriate way. Those are not simple skills, and we can learn them. That’s going to be the foundation of our value.

Mike Matthews: Interesting. All right, well, it’s a book I have on my to be read list, which I will never finish. I work kind of on a rotation so I would read on different things and then books move up in priority and down in priority, and I accept the fact that I will die with many books that are not going to get read, but this one was higher on my list because I find this kind of stuff interesting, so I’m sure I’ll be getting to it this year if I look at what I’m in the middle of “Da Vinci Biography” right now and biographies are-

Geoff Colvin: Oh, is it great?

Mike Matthews: Yeah, it’s interesting. I really like the biographies and Da Vinci is a great person to read about, but for some reason, and this is my second Isaacson or is it my third. I enjoyed “Benjamin Franklin.” I guess just for me Chernow has just ruined biographies. He’s just so good that I have a hard time now reading other biographies, but no I am enjoying it, and I like to read them for not just to be entertained, but I’m looking for ideas. I’m looking for things that I could take from it, or how I might be able to model some part of myself after whoever it is I’m reading about, but anyways, my point is those are 1,000 page that you have to just work through them, but yeah, so I’m excited to read your new book. Again, “Humans are Underrated” is the name of the book for everybody listening. I think that’s it. Is there anything else? Do you have a website, and if people want to find you and the rest of your work?

Geoff Colvin: Yeah, very simple it’s just GeoffColvin.com, but I have to spell the Geoff because it’s spelled G-E-O-F-F Colvin, C-O-L-V-I-N. GeoffColvin.com.

Mike Matthews: Perfect. Well, thanks, again, for taking the time, Geoff. Great discussion really appreciate it.

Geoff Colvin: Thank you, Mike, my pleasure.

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