What’s the difference between Jerry Rice (NFL Hall of Fame receiver) and wide receiver Mike Williams, a 2005 first round pick by the Detroit Lions, whom you’ve almost certainly never heard of before this moment? Besides an unequalled 20-year career in a position that requires strength, grace and speed, 13 pro bowl appearances, 197 touchdowns, almost 23,000 receiving yards, and a lifetime average of 14.5 yards per catch, not all that much. That’s according to journalist and author Geoff Colvin, 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 really what separated Tiger Woods (the one who won all the time) from your neighbor. Colvin spends a lot of time in the first few chapters of Talent is Overrated debunking what we think we know about talent: that you’re born with it (most of us aren’t) or that great performers are simply smarter or have greater memories than the average person on the street. Not true, he says, and goes on to make his case in readable and journalistically sound prose.
What separates the truly great from the rest of us, Colvin says, is the way they practice what they do. First, it’s the number of hours. Malcolm Gladwell famously stated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything. But it’s not just quantity, writes Colvin; it’s the quality of the practice that makes a difference. He calls what he’s observed deliberate practice. Here’s what that means.
Most of us think we practice, and Colvin himself says that he’s a perfect example of what we average humans think “practice” is. Here’s how he describes his work on his golf swing:
“When I practice golf, I go to the driving range and get two big buckets of balls. I pick my spot, put down my bag of clubs, and tip over one of the buckets. I read somewhere that you should warm up with short irons, so I take out an 8- or 9-iron and start hitting. I also read somewhere that you should always have a target, so I pick one of the fake “greens” out on the range and aim for it, though I’m not really sure how far away it is. As I work through the short irons, middle irons, long irons, and driver, I hit quite a few bad shots. My usual reaction is to hit another ball as quickly as possible in hopes that it will be a decent shot, and then I can forget about the bad one.”
Sound familiar? Here’s what Colvin calls deliberate practice. Imagine a series of concentric circles. The inner circle represents your comfort zone (in any given skill): what you do well and feel confident about doing. The outermost circle represents what Colvin calls your “panic” zone. You don’t really have a shot at doing this particular task well – it’s way over your head, beyond your mastery at the moment. The middle circle is your learning zone; it’s where you are pushing past the limits of your comfort zone and experience, and making real progress on advancing your skill level.
Deliberate practice is not easy. Easy is staying in your comfort zone. Deliberate practice means that you take one skill you don’t have and work on it over and over and over and over. And then work on it some more. You work until you’re exhausted. And then some more. Now you understand why most of us never do this. Even some professional performers don’t have what it takes to reach the top of their professions. But you can get to much better performance by using the general principles of deliberate practice. More in Part Two on how deliberate practice can help your career.