Geoff Colvin quotes
Fortune's senior editor-at-large, author of "Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class
Performers from Everybody Else"
It's nice to believe that if you find the field where you're naturally gifted, you'll be
from day one, but it doesn't happen. There's no evidence of high-level performance without
experience or practice.
In a wide range of fields, including business, the connection between general intelligence
and specific abilities is weak and in some cases apparently nonexistent. As for memory, the
whole concept of a powerful memory is problematic because it turns out that memory ability
is very clearly created rather than innate.
Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become
outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they
frequently don't even get any better than they were when they started.
Maybe we can't expect most people to achieve greatness. It's just too demanding. But the
striking, liberating news is that greatness isn't reserved for a preordained few. It is available
to you and to everyone.
We can never make progress in the comfort zone because those are the activities we can
already do easily, while panic-zone activities are so hard that we don't even know how to
approach them. Identifying the learning zone, which is not simple, and then forcing oneself to
stay continually in it as it changes, which is even harder - these are the first and most
important characteristics of deliberate practice.
IQ is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at
a job for a few years, IQ predicts little or nothing about performance.
While the best methods of development are constantly changing, they're always built around
a central principle: They're meant to stretch the individual beyond his or her current abilities.
That may sound obvious, but most of us don't do it in the activities we think of as practice.
At the driving range or at the piano, most of us, as adults, are just doing what we've done
before and hoping to maintain the level of performance that we probably reached long ago.
Ambitious parents who are currently playing the "Baby Mozart" video for their toddlers may be
disappointed to learn that Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard.
"World class" is a term that gets thrown around too easily. For most of history, few people
had to worry about what world class was. But now that's changing. In a global, information-
based, interconnected economy, businesses and individuals are increasingly going up against
the world's best. The costs of being less than truly world class are growing, as are the
rewards of being genuinely great. Understanding where extraordinary performance comes from
would be valuable at any time. Now it's crucial.
The reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that
most people won't do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.
When told that specific, innate abilities are far less important than we generally believe, and
may not even exist, most people simply refuse to believe it. I've often wondered why. My
guess has been that people hate giving up the dream of someday discovering their special
gift, the hidden talent that, once revealed, will make them spectacularly successful quickly
and easily. But readers have pointed out a more compelling reason: if inborn gifts aren't the
cause of success, then each of us must be responsible for his or her own achievement - or at
least much more responsible than we believed. That's a heavy responsibility, so heavy that it
makes many people uncomfortable. Thus their first impulse is often to reject the thesis.
Deliberate practice "is not inherently enjoyable." If it seems a bit depressing that the most
important thing you can do to improve performance is no fun, take consolation in this fact: It
must be so. If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would
do them and they would not distinguish the best from the rest.
There's a fundamental couple of facts that I always fall back on:
1. Human desires are without limit.
2. Human ingenuity is without limit.
And when you combine those two things, it will lead us to new and better circumstances
Working on people's development early is a big change at most companies, where
development programs were long reserved for an elite group several years into their careers.
Many of the best-performing companies are trying to move past that. They believe that
developing future leaders earlier than other companies creates a competitive advantage that
lasts for decades, as their pipelines of high achievers become bigger, better, and more
Asked to explain Tiger's (Woods) phenomenal success, father and son always gave the same
reason: hard work.
The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers
call "deliberate practice." It's activity that's explicitly intended to improve performance, that
reaches for objectives just beyond one's level of competence, provides feedback on results
and involves high levels of repetition.
What all of us can achieve – as individuals and as organizations – is far greater than most of
us imagine. It isn't just theory or wishful thinking. We understand great performance much
better than ever before. The first step is thinking in new ways.
One of the best established and least surprising findings in psycholgy is that as we age, we
slow down. Remembering things, solving unfamiliar problems - these take about twice as long
in our sixties as they did in out twenties. We move more slowly. Coordinating our arms and
legs is more difficult. We've all seen it happen, and anyone in their thirties or beyond has
experienced it. So we might reasonably suppose that this unavoidable trend spells doom for
excellent performance. If our minds and bodies deteriorate with the march of time, there
would seem to be nothing we can do to maintain top-level performance beyond a certain
number of years. Thus it's surprising to find that this isn't true at all, and not just in a few
notable cases, but generally. Somehow, excellent performers manage to continue achieving
high levels well beyond the point where age-related declines would seem to make that
impossible... Studies in a very broad range of domains - management, aircraft piloting, music,
bridge, and others - show consistently that excellent performers suffer the same age-related
declines in speed and general cognitive abilities as everyone else - except in their field of
The best organizations assign people to jobs in much the same way that sports coaches or
music teachers choose exercises for their students - to push them beyond their current
capabilities and build the skills that are most important.
The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of
deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.
We know that great performance comes from deliberate practice, but deliberate practice is
hard. It's so hard that no one can do it without the benefit of passion, a truly extraordinary