Book Review: Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin

Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, is all about “what really separates world-class performers from everybody else.” In fact, that’s the subtitle of the book. This magical “what,” however, is not an easy solution to get better at your life’s work. Just the opposite. The “what” is practice. Hard practice – deliberate practice.

Of course, we’d all like to think that some people are just born with the ability it takes to “effortlessly” produce a beautiful piece of music, or score the winning points in a basketball game. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t seem to be reality. Talent is Overrated takes the reader through scientific research and example after example of how the “greats” did not become “great” because of some inborn talent; they became great through years of deliberate practice.

One of the best known examples of the importance of deliberate practice is golf star Tiger Woods. I don’t golf, but even I know that Tiger is amongst the best in the world at what he does. After reading this book, I can tell you that part of what got him to where he is today is what we could think of as “luck” – but not “luck” because of his being born with some gift of golf. Rather, his “luck” comes from being born to a father that was passionate about sports and teaching. Tiger Woods was given his first metal club at the age of seven months old. Tiger’s father, Earl Woods, would set up Tiger’s high chair in the garage, where Tiger would watch him hit golf balls for hours. Before the age of two, Tiger was playing and practicing at the golf course. The practice he was committed to, however, was of a different nature than how you or I might practice golf. This practice was designed to be deliberate. While I’ll leave it to you to read Talent is Overrated to work out the full definition of “deliberate practice,” part of it is identifying one specific area where performance needs to be improved, and then working intently on that one area. In keeping with the study of Tiger Woods, an example of this is Tiger’s deliberate practice from sand traps. He has been seen dropping golf balls in sand traps, stepping on them, and then practicing shots from that angle. While he may only encounter such a challenging shot a handful of times during his professional career, he has spent hours perfecting how to deal with this situation. This is part of deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice doesn’t sound like much fun. In fact, it is so straining that researchers suggest that it can only be maintained for a few hours at a time. After all, you’re intentionally practicing something you’re not good at until you get it right. That doesn’t sound very entertaining! We might think playing golf is fun (I totally don’t think that, by the way!), but if we are really dedicated to practicing the sport, we need to do more than heading to the driving range once a season. Part of Talent is Overrated deals with how deliberate practice must take precedence over all areas of our lives if we are to truly become successful in a particular area. Is becoming the best worth the cost of sacrificing relationships, vast amounts of time, and the other things we could be doing with our life? If you truly want to become a star in the area of piano, basketball, golf, or even business, the answer has to be “yes.”

This book took me a long time to read. It’s only 234 pages long, and I renewed it four times from the library. It’s not a difficult read by any means, but I struggled to get through it because I had a hard time trying to apply its concepts to my line of “work.” Talent is Overrated typically uses sports and music models (the areas where we most often think of practice as necessary), and applies them to business, so that its readers can grow in their particular fields. How do I apply this to teaching the Bible? For awhile, I was scratching my head about this, and I kept putting this book to the side. The concepts made sense to me – teachers do get better as they continue on with their careers – but how could I deliberately practice teaching?

What has occurred to me is that while I may have limited opportunities to practice teaching itself (in the School of Biblical Studies, the staff study one book at length and teach that book over the course of one or two days, and then spend weeks studying and preparing for the next book), I have almost unlimited opportunities to grow in my knowledge of the content of what I teach – the Bible. I have the tremendous opportunity to sit in on lectures on almost every single book of the Bible. This means I have opportunities to see how others teach, but it also means I have opportunities to expand my familiarity with God’s Word. Each time I read through a book of the Bible, I see nuances and themes that I hadn’t noticed before, but if I am just skimming the books for the sake of being familiar with what the students are studying, my hopes of growing in my knowledge of the text are slim. Yes, I have read the Bible in full more than once, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t continually need to be refreshing myself in the 66 books of the Bible, their content, and the truth God communicates through them. For me, deliberate practice can, among other things, mean paying attention in class (even though I am not a student!), reading through each book of the Bible thoroughly and thoughtfully, and being willing to dig deeper to grow in a more full understanding. Through doing these things, and through the help of the Holy Spirit, I hope that I can grow in my chosen field of teaching the Word of God. What a privilege I have. Lord, help me to grow as a teacher of Your Word.

Whatever your chosen field, I highly recommend Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. It may take some deeper thinking to apply the concepts of this book to your situation, particularly if you are not in music, sports, or business, but I think you’ll find that deliberate practice can truly transform the way you approach your career and/or what you love to do. The good news about talent being overrated is that we can practice our way to better performances and deeper growth in our field. The bad news is you actually have to choose to practice!

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