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Rise & Fall & Rise Again

If you read just one book this year about what it takes to be successful, then it ought to be Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin (Portfolio; $25.95). Forget about Malcolm Gladwell*. If you're going to read just one book this year, then (1) this book will cause you to read more books, assuming that you want to advance in your career; or (2) if you don't read more than one book this year, then unless you are spending an incredible amount of time reading things on line, chances are you are going to slip way, way behind others who do what you do, which means that you are likely to end up with a whole lot of time on your hands. . .perhaps to read books.

If you read just one book this year about what it takes to be successful, then it ought to be Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin (Portfolio; $25.95). Forget about Malcolm Gladwell*. If you're going to read just one book this year, then (1) this book will cause you to read more books, assuming that you want to advance in your career; or (2) if you don't read more than one book this year, then unless you are spending an incredible amount of time reading things on line, chances are you are going to slip way, way behind others who do what you do, which means that you are likely to end up with a whole lot of time on your hands. . .perhaps to read books. And no, I am not joking.

The subtitle of Colvin's book is What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. The book is 228 pages long. Want to know what separates the world-class from the continent-class or country-class or state-class or. . . ? Simple: Work. Hard work. Lots of it. More than you might imagine. And not necessarily on things that you think would lead to superior performance. After all, if it was easy and evident, then we'd all do it, right?

Colvin uses Tiger Woods as an example. He talks about how Tiger's dad started training him young. How the training was on-going and how his dad provided feedback on performance. How there was extraordinary focus and commitment. About how there would not be general practice of driving or putting, but specific, deliberate practice. This concept of "deliberate practice" is key to Colvin's book, as much of the thinking behind it is that of Anders Ericsson, a professor in the Dept. of Psychology at Florida State, who, along with Ralf Th. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Römer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Education, wrote a paper titled "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance" in which this approach is described. As Colvin puts it, "It is activity designed specifically 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, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn't much fun."

Here is an example that puts this into perspective. Colvin writes about Shizuka Arakawa, a Japanese figure skater who won the Olympic gold in Turin in 2006. She was 24 at the time. She'd been skating since age 5. "A study of figure skaters found that sub-elite skaters spent lots of time working on the jumps they could already do, while skaters at the highest levels spent more time on the jumps they couldn't do. . . and that involves lots of falling down before they're mastered. Falling down in figure skating means landing on your behind, protected by a thin costume, on hard, cold ice." Colvin reckons that Arakawa landed on her derriere "at least" 20,000 times before gaining gold. It's not inherent talent. It's deliberate-uncomfortable-practice.

At the end of the day, you are ready to kick back. You are ready to relax. But that won't make you better, and certainly not world-class. Colvin writes: "You could say that work, like deliberate practice, is often mentally demanding and tiring. But that's typically not because of the intense focus and concentration involved. Rather, it's more often a result of long hours cranking out what we already know how to do. And if we're exhausted from that, the prospect of spending additional hours on genuine deliberate practice activities seems too miserable to contemplate. Similarly, work is often not fun. But again, that's not because we're trying to push beyond the edge of our abilities. It's because getting anything accomplished in the real world is a grind." No magic.

The designers who are great in this industry just don't have some facility that the others lack, some genetic predisposition to draw and create in ways that others can't. No, they became great by deliberate practice. Hard, monotonous work. The same goes for engineers or executives. In their own ways, they fell on their backsides. But they kept striving. Working. Improving. Practicing. Then got up and did it again. This is how success is achieved. But, you think, you aren't going to be at the top of your field, but that you'd like to get better (if you don't, see the first paragraph of this). Colvin suggests, "No matter how many steps on the road to great performance you choose to take, you will be better off than if you hadn't taken them. There is no hurdle to clear before the advantages start accruing. This is pure opportunity."

*In Outliers, Gladwell argues that there are environmental factors-family, community-that have a primary effect on one's success. Colvin acknowledges that happenstance does have an effect on what one accomplishes-let's face it, if Paul McCartney had been hit by a bus in Hamburg, we wouldn't know the Beatles-but it is really up to one to succeed-or not. 

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