Talent is Overrated

“Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.” is a book by Geoff Colvin.

Colvin challenges the idea that innate talent is the primary driver of exceptional performance. Instead, he emphasizes the role of deliberate practice.

“When we learn to do anything new—how to drive, for example—we go through three stages. The first stage demands a lot of attention as we try out the controls, learn the rules of driving, and so on. In the second stage we begin to coordinate our knowledge, linking movements together and more fluidly combining our actions with our knowledge of the car, the situation, and the rules. In the third stage we drive the car with barely a thought. It’s automatic. And with that our improvement at driving slows dramatically, eventually stopping completely.”

— Geoff Colvin

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Colvin, IMO, is wrong. Most likely he never worked at the intersection of mechanical complexity and physical suffering, and so never had skin in the game.

There is a technical aspect of a job, and then there is the feel for the job, and finally there is the gift for the job.

Industrial jobs are broken down into technical parts made as simple as possible so that the greatest number of employees can fill the technical function, which drives down the cost of labor and decrease hiring headaches.

But only a subset of people will have the feel for the job. People with the feel for the job are the ones that can predict trouble and avoid it before it happens. They can improvise solutions for problems because they intuit how everything works together. They get the why of the job and not just the how.

But more than just having a feel for the job they can somehow infect the rest of the crew with their own enthusiasm, just like certain crew members can drag down the tone of a crew with their carping and malingering.

The gifted ones are at yet another level. They learn the technical aspects overnight. They reach a level of productivity it takes the mere technician months or years to master, and they best everyone at the process. They quickly intuit how the whole picture works, and have an innate desire to polish the process to artistic perfection. They wake up at 0400 wondering if anything was left undone, and have bizarre dreams of how to do things better.

It’s no different than sports. You can teach anyone baseball. But you can’t teach a feel for the game. Play it enough and your technical skill might make up for lack of the feel, but you’ll never really get into the groove of a great player. That’s ok. There are not enough players in the world to make every team great.

Then there are the great players. They were born that way. Sure, they had to practice to reach greatness, but you could pretty much pick them out in Little League. One thing that separates them from the pack: they have this innate ability to get the everyone working together as a crew.

Every team, every crew, is going to be a mix of these types. Each type has their role. Where I work the ones with a feel for the job we call Sparkplugs. They make the engine run. Ideally, the gifted ones rise from the ranks to become captains/chiefs.

If you don’t aspire to greatness in a team you don’t need great players. But that means your team will be, by definition, mediocre


Lifes experience says I cant agree with that.

Born salesmen, if thats combined with man management and leadership skills, they end up at the top.
No education required.
Pretty sure the Army noticed all this decades ago on what makes a good leader.
Play team sports all your life and you see it.

Skilled athletes are all skilled at school, if they keep going they are in the olympics


The title of the book is intended to be provocative but is innate talent underrated?

The point the book makes is that innate talent is necessary but not sufficient and other factors are very often underrated.

Edit: Come to think of it both things could be true. Talent could be overrated but the author could be wrong about which is the more important factor.


Talent can be multi-faceted or limited to a single endeavor. An example I’ve seen more than once is that of a talented journeyman who is wildly successful as long as he is hands-on with the work. When success leads him to hire workers to take his place and handle the additional workload, he moves to a managerial role. Without the requisite management skills, the enterprise crashes and burns; his tendency to micro manage, along with a lack of people skills sends workers in search of a better work environment.

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I’d take a pleasant idiot over a talented grump.

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Ability and performance is a soup with many ingredients in different combinations and quantities.


working for a grump is very distasteful, I can’t say i’ve known many that I’d call “talented” so I’ll work with any idiot, but they gotta have ambition which in my book makes up for any other discrepencies.

Sounds like the “Peter Principle” some 50 years later,


I’ve not read the book, I did read “Peak” about the same subject.

The quote in the OP about the skill of driving an automobile is about the general population, not top performers in the sport of auto racing.

One of the main points of Peak was that people underrate how much improvement is possible.

Levels of performance are possible that might typically be attributed to innate talent.

People can be taught how to score higher on IQ tests. That does not necessarily mean that they become more intelligent, it just means that they can be taught the test.

On the other hand, if the brain is stimulated, exercised, and trained enough there is some evidence that intelligence may increase. Certain drugs also appear to enhance performance.

First time I ran a yard-and-stay rig the person who was showing me assumed my herky-jerky first attempts were a result of my lack of talent for the task. Once I learned after gawd knows how many hours on deck the same person assumed I was a natural.

The trick is once you’ve had a little practice tell everyone you’ve never so much as touched the controls. Then once you can manage with minimum competence you’ll be left alone to get better.

Same goes for many skills, sometimes it’s better not to let on you’ve already had a go at it.

Learning proficiency through repetition, often called ‘muscle memory”, is a verifiable method of assimilating complex tasks until they become second nature. The process of something becoming second nature involves a transition from the conscious effort to unconscious execution.
“This transition is facilitated by the basal ganglia, a group of nuclei in the brain responsible for motor control and learning patterns of behavior. When an action is repeated frequently, the neural pathways used to perform the action are strengthened, leading to a quicker and smoother execution without conscious thought.” (upgradabroad)

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I LOVE this Colvin guy! Thanks to him, I now have the confidence to put myself right up there with Mozart, Rembrandt, Sikorsky, Brunell, Garand, Lafleur, Koufax, or ANY of these so-called “great talents”. Stay tuned, boys! I’m a’comin’!

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Took a while to unpick yard-and-stay. Brits and Aussie and Kiwi parlance it was called Union Purchase.

Don’t bet on it. Beethoven started getting formal music lessons when he was three or four years old. He took lessons from his father who was “a tenor in the court of the Elector of Cologne and also taught piano and violin”.

From here:

When you have developed deep expertise in an area and you greatly underestimate the time and cognitive energy needed for a novice to complete an activity or understand a concept (that you think is straightforward or simple), you are failing to recognize your own expert blind spot.

“Expert blind spot” is likely why someone with a lot of experience might underestimates how much work it was to achieve their level of expertise. So when they see a beginner struggle they quite likely attribute their own skills to natural talent and assume the beginner lacks the same level of talent.

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If we train for test, it’s one time performance & one event performance.

If it’s native, it’s present every single second of our lives.