Has anyone read this book? There was an excerpt in a recent Fortune magazine and it looked really good.

AManagerTool's picture

Practice is the key, talent is meaningless. Good book. The authors assertions are backed up by data and in many facets by the new Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers. I recommend both unless you subscribe to the belief that talent is innate....I don't.

RobRedmond's picture

Talent *is* innate. All you have to do is walk into the Sistine Chapel and look up to see that.

If that doesn't convince you, do what I did and take up an activity for 15 years and practice four hours a day six days a week. Then, after all that time, when you are clobbered by people who practice twice a week half-heartedly, you will realize the truth that some of us have gifts that others do not.

I recommend The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

AManagerTool's picture

Michelangelo's example is specifically cited in the book. The man spend YEARS training to get that good. Other fine examples include analysis of Tiger Woods, Mozart and Beethoven, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and other notable greats. They all spent years training to get to greatness and if you look at their early work...not that impressive....good but not magic. The point of the book is that there is no "divine spark" for greatness. Greatness is achieved through hard work and cumulative advantages.

Your personal example is meaningless unless we look at your life history, physical characteristics and practice regimen alongside that of your competition. They probably had advantages that you were unaware of.

The author urges us to question the medieval concept of "gifts from God" and start to analyse things with the scientific tools that God gave us. We can do better than accepting that "well some folks are just better at some things". Greatness has an explanation. Everything has an explanation even if we currently can't grasp it.

I look at this concept as key to coaching my directs. They can indeed "get it". Now ask me if They or I want to invest the 10,000 hours of intense, focused, coached practice to make them great.

You know I'm one of your biggest fans so I'll tell you what...I'll read your book if you read mine...LOL It really was an eye opener.

galway's picture

I believe that, although DNA plays a role is some development, what often looks like innate ability is the product of enhanced development very early on. For example, a person who is surrounded by math and logic from birth to maturity will likely appear to be much more talented than his peers when training on a skill like linear regression statistics as an adult.

Similarly, a person who is encouraged to be creative and expressive as a very young child likely will eventually blow her peers away at a creative skill that none of them have ever attempted.

They may all start out at similar levels, but with training the people with early development advantages will excel much more quickly than those without, thereby giving the impression of a god-given talent.

The scientific basis of my theory is conflicting, but it's my opinion based on limited experience.

RobRedmond's picture

I'm sorry, guys, but cows can't beat horses in the steeplechase. I taught thousands of people martial arts both in the US and Japan over a 25 year period. My experience is that practice does not make perfect. Practice + talent makes perfect. Practice + no talent just makes lots of practice.


hchan's picture

Practice can make a person better. So even talented people need practice to reach perfection or be even "more perfect" (wrong grammar here, I guess.)

People without talent can also get better, but their ROI is wayyyy lower than those with talents.

I see a lot of these in public speaking with Toastmasters Club too. Toastmasters believe that practice makes perfect. Not entirely true. Some people have latent talent and a little practice helps draw it out and they become excellent speakers. For others who just "don't have it", their practiced speeches are just that ---"practiced" speeches. They achieve a certain level of competency, but will never be as good as those who just have it in them.

On the other hand, those people with talents who don't care enough to practice will never reached their full potential.

Either way, it's the difference between Good and Great.

jhack's picture

Not much you can do with no talent.

Lots of practice, with average talent, though, will yield competent, solid, results. Manager-Tools is effective because folks with modest talent who practice one-on-ones, feedback, coaching, etc, will become competent, solid managers.

Practice alone, however, cannot go toe-to-toe with real talent honed by practice. I still chuckle about how the deal between Apple and Verizon fell apart. Steve Jobs was willing to give Verizon exclusive service rights to the iPhone, but Verizon insisted that their engineers/designers would have veto power over Steve Jobs on the functionality of the iPhone. Really! I have no doubt that the engineers had more "practice" designing cell phones than Mr. Jobs. I also have no doubt that their designs would have been inferior.


AManagerTool's picture

Rob, NOT FAIR. We are talking about human beings (1 species) not cows and horses. As far as physical differences, the book goes into explaining the threshold theory. If you are over 6' tall you can probably play great basketball with 10,000 hours of focused practice. If you are 7' tall and put in those hours you will probably not be much better than the 6' tall person. 5'6" tall (me) and forget it. Should I say that I have a lack of talent for basketball? The NBA abounds with examples of this very thing. We should be very clear that physical differences are not "talent".

What I see here are a whole bunch of knee jerk reactions to the assertion that "talent" might actually mean nothing. What I ask each of you to consider is this: What would be the harm in suspending your own disbelief for a moment and actually reading the book? Believe me, I want to continue to believe that my own lack of greatness is completely attributable to a lack of some magical "talent". It's an easy out and would be quite comforting. Being great at something, takes practice, it's HARD. For those that want to you can also take comfort in that there is another "out" being offered in the theory of cumulative advantage.

Cumulative Advantage Examples: Why are 90%+ of all Canadian Hockey Legue Pros all born between Jan 1 and Feb 15th? Because of the way that they enter into the single cut off for hockey season as childeren. Why are all the innovators in IT (GREATS like Gates Bill Joy, and Steve Jobs etc) born in the same two years (1954-55?)? Because they all turned 21 just when we went from programming on shared computer time/mainframes to parallel tasking and were perfectly positioned as computer nerds (10,000 + hours of practice) at the time. The rags to riches meritocracy that we base our assertions of innate talent upon is flawed. There is a whole lot that goes on between rags and riches that might be a bit too difficult to sum up with a reference to talent.

These examples and more are in the Malcom Gladwell book Outliers which I recommend that you read alongside Colvin's book. Great companion works although Gladwell is MUCH better than Colvin in backing his points with data.

John, the example with Verizon and Apple is a good one but I should point out that you are not talking about talent. You are talking about culture, prejudice and an alternate viewpoint. Nobody would question anyone's ability to get the job done. It is a question of what job should be done that was a concern in that deal.

Talent is simply an excuse. It's an easy bar used to measure someone when we don't have the time to dig deeper. The problem is that this same bar is being used on childeren and I feel that we are missing an opportunity to create greatness in the proceeding generations of humanity. Example: What if we actually admitted that the Canadian Hockey Junior Leagues should have more than one cut off for the year and staggered sign ups? Couldn't we increase the supply of hockey greats?

Think about it....that's all I ask.

AManagerTool's picture

Why the heck doesn't Google Spell check work on the new site. Childeren...No Errors....LOL

Comon Mike...I can't put in the hours to become a great speller...LMAO

jhack's picture

Innate ability without practice yields mediocrity.
Practice without innate ability yields competence.

Yes, talent is overrated - most workplaces could use a lot more competence at all levels, and that's achieved through practicing the right "moves."

I completely disagree that the greats of IT were born in a two year period. Admiral Grace Hopper and Douglas Englebart were profoundly influential and successful (although not as rich as Jobs and Gates - probably more important than Bill Joy). What about Eckert and Mauchley? John Von Neuman? Selective anecdotal evidence is misleading at best.

Are you taking the position that Steve Jobs is entirely a product of his environment? It wasn't "a question of what job should be done" - it was a question of who would have final say regarding the software in the iPhone. Mr. Jobs' talent for complex hardware/software design is, to my mind, far beyond what practice could yield.

Practice is great, it's essential. Everyone should do it. Practice will allow you to reach your fullest potential. However, the world is rich with athletes who dedicated their lives to practice and then fell short in the Olympic trials. Smart folks who studied hard and yet never made tenure track at a top university. So we have solid, smart people teaching at the local college level - what's wrong with that?

As for the hockey, you wouldn't have more of them. It's just the distribution of their birthdays that would change. It’s an interesting statistic, though, and I am going to think about it more, as you suggest.

John Hack

PS: My spell check works on this site; I’m using Google Chrome.

AManagerTool's picture

Are you taking the position that Steve Jobs is entirely a product of his environment?

No, I am saying that he cleared the prerequisite intelligence threshold necessary to take advantage of the cumulative advantages that his environment provided to him and he worked REALLY HARD to become great. It wasn't some magical mystery quality called "Talent".

Sure, there are plenty of examples of people not achieving greatness. The authors of these books would ask you to look at why. Why did they fail to achieve what they were after? Is it because they lacked the "talent"? Is it that simple? I highly doubt it even if they say it was their own lack of talent. Talent seems to be uses as a balm for sore ego as much as it gets used by others to describe why someone failed.

Yes indeed, the world needs smart people teaching at the local college level and it will ALWAYS have them. Average is ...well it's the average. I suggest that we can raise the average. The point is that the world needs more Bill Gates, Michael Jordan's, Michelangelo's and Einsteins. How do we get to them?

NOTE: All the sudden...spellcheck worked...LOL I am clearly not one of the IT greats...but it's not for a lack of talent...

jhack's picture

Gladwell is clear that there is a third requirement: luck.

You need to have the opportunities. You need to avoid dying of cancer or in a car accident. Maybe it's having a mentor come along at just the right time. Or being born in January. Or having to set aside your career for years because a loved one needs a level of care unavailable elsewhere.

So failure, or even simple solid performance, doesn't imply a lack of talent.

There is, nonetheless, a magical thing called talent. Einstein may be the best example of this. He was a patent clerk, good degree, but not an academic hotshot. He worked really hard. He had a supportive and smart spouse who helped clarify his thinking. He was looking at the same data as everyone else. [John spares the reader a recitation of the five papers published in 1905, three of which alone were good enough for a Nobel prize, including "special relativity"]. Call it genius, talent, whatever. It's real, and most of us don't have it.

We can be very good, if we practice the right things. We might even be called to greatness, and rise to the occasion.


jhack's picture

Tool says: Practice is the key, talent is meaningless.

That's right. You can't control talent, you can control practice. So focus on the things you can control.

It doesn't matter if talent is innate or not. You should still behave in a way that leads you to fulfill your potential.


RobRedmond's picture

I have difficulty seeing the value in declaring talent unimportant. By doing so, you introduce risk into your own job performance and your ability to leverage others to their full potential.

By learning the natural born talents of yourself and others, you can:

  • Position employees in jobs that give them more satisfaction, more opportunity for success, and less stress - perhaps just by rearranging a few minor things.
  • Know who to go to for what kind of help.
  • Learn to leverage your own strengths to solve problems or get things done instead of wasting time trying to improve something that is a natural weakness.

Drucker talks about this in all of his writing about leveraging strengths and hiring for strengths. Buckingham's work, which mark refers to as "Drucker on steroids", is entirely based on the concept that you have native talents that no practice for someone without them can ever hope to match.

I took the strengths test Buckingham and Gallup offer - this is what I got in the way of results:

Communication - I have a native talent for getting my ideas across and keeping people informed.
Strategic - I have a natural tendency to see flaws in plans and potholes in the future. Some say I am negative. A smart boss says, "Rob knows what is going to go wrong and how to avoid it."
Restorative - I can take someone or something that is dysfunctional or wounded and turn it around - including myself, apparently, as I did that.
Individualization - I view people as totally unique and do not view them as groups. I interact with everyone differently.
Activator - I can and like to go fast. Impatient or good hustle? Depends on the context.

These are not "skills." I did not learn to restore people and processes. I just can. I learned to speak and write, but I am a published author despite no interest in reading and have succeeded in sales and public speaking without any training. I certainly did not learn to individualize or go fast. I just like to do that.

As I wrote previously, I trained thousands of people in martial arts. I ran a Karate club at a local university. I taught people Karate both in the US and Japan. During that time, I saw people join up and ascend to the heights of skill in six months. I saw other people who trained daily for hours for decades struggling to achieve mediocrity.

And no, Tool, hours of practice will not make me into whatever I want to be. I put in 14,000+ hours on a karate dojo floor myself with some of the best karate coaches on the planet. I was never better than mediocre. I just don't have "it." But I have coached people who do, and there is no way to deny talent when you see the difference it can make.

Talent is real. I think writing it off is to deny obvious facts available. I also think it would be a mistake to toss aside the very sage advice of those management experts who have learned to leverage the native talents of their people.

Buckingham advises to work your strengths and use them, and when it comes to weaknesses, acknowledge them, suppress need for them, compensate for them, minimize them, or find someone else with complimentary strengths to cover for them. He doesn't advise hammering your directs until they fit that mold.

Likewise, Kiersey, in his book Please Understand Me, warns against the Pymalion Project.

Be careful not to try to make someone into something they are naturally not. You will waste enormous amounts of time teaching cows to sprint and horses to give milk when you could just swap jobs.

While you cannot control your talents, you can control who you ask to do what, and you can control how you respond when called upon and what decisions you make based on self-knowledge. You can also control what you try coaching other people to do and what you invest time in trying to learn yourself. Spend time on your strengths and get your weaknesses off the radar.

This is entirely controllable.

Manage to strengths, not to weakness. Spend time on strength.

cwatine's picture
Training Badge

Very interesting conversation on an intellectual level

What about trying to find useful things for us and our directs?

Perfection:there is no such thing in the real world. It is more the "idea of perfection" that makes us try to process.

Control:you can't control talent, you can't control luck but you can control the way you interpret what happens to you (this is what we call luck). And you definitely can control practice.

Knowing that practice can fake talent Is definitely a good news for us. It is one of the cornerstones of manager tools:practice, practice, practice...

An advice I got from my sports trainer years ago:if you are trying to find a model to improve your performance,don't take the champion, take the guy who did the best improvement. The first one is just gifted ... The last one really knows the business of improving.

bug_girl's picture

It really bothers me to see how often physical abilities are being conflated with mental abilities in this thread.

For centuries, women, people of color, and disabled individuals have been assumed to have less "talent." It's something I still run into.

Our assumptions about others are so laden with culture it's sometimes hard to see past. What you may see as lack of talent may simply be a different childhood, or communication style.

The actual research on early childhood suggests that while there are some finite limits to physical and mental abilities, **they are incredibly flexible.**
Heck, just this week a paper came out that showed that chimps given extra maternal care out-scored human babies of the same age.

Are you really seeing differences, or are you projecting what you expect to see?

A major issue in current research is Stereotype threat. Two examples:

How a problem is presented can have a huge effect on performance.

jhack's picture

Rob, your point is well taken: we shouldn't ignore our talents.
Bug girl, you're right that we need to avoid stereotyping people. Mental and physical abilities are nonetheless subject to limits. Treat people as individuals.


1. IDENTIFY STRENGTHS. We must know our talents so we "practice" the right behaviors. If you're a hitter, take batting practice; if you're a pitcher, keep throwing.
2. DEVELOP YOUR TALENTS. Once you know where you can achieve your best, focus most of your practice there.
3. DEFEND YOUR WEAKNESSES. We can become competent in almost anything if we work at it. Some skills require a minimum level of competence (if you're a manager, you need to do one-on-ones and give feedback, even if you're not a high I social type).

The current issue of the Harvard Business Review has an article titled "Stop Overdoing Your Strengths." It's worth a quick read. The summary could be: overdeveloped strengths become weaknesses if your skill set isn't somewhat in balance.


RobRedmond's picture


  • It doesn't matter if a talent is mental or physical. Talents are talents.

  • Identifying talents in individuals has nothing to do with making assumptions about people because of imaginary groups they may are believed to belong to.
  • The method I use to identify talents is a test that hundreds of thousands of people have used successfully.

In fact, I prefer the "Now Discover Your Strengths" concept by Buckingham to DISC.

DISC, which you seem to be a fan of given your "How to Let a High C Let Go" posting, in fact is a "stereotyping" methodology. It lumps human behavior into four categories to make it easy for you to modify your own behavior to try to get along. However, labeling someone a "High C" would seem to be the very activity that you disparage here.

Too often, I find people are introduced to DISC and then start labeling everyone around them as this or that (often inaccurately without giving the person the test) and using that to predict their behavior and abilities. I also find that people tend to use their own DISC results to hand wave at their own foibles, "Well, I'm a high D so there you go. What-ever." I've seen a lot of that in the two and a half years I have been working with DISC.

I've seen this same thing from over 20 years of involvement with the Meyers Briggs personality typing system. "He's an INTJ, don't let him talk to the customers. Get Sally, she is an ESFP."

I like using DISC myself, but my overall point is that it is a stereotyping system.

The strengths finder test is not a stereotyping system. It is an individualization system. You personally answer 180+ questions and your biggest strengths become apparent.

As for my experience as a martial arts instructor - I don't think observing 1000's of my students, all of whom I loved dearly as friends, and noting that some of them obviously had an innate ability to learn and perform karate movements or use good timing and distancing to hit other people seemingly at will has anything to do with stereotyping. I saw nothing about them that could predict they had the talent in advance of them attempting it.

I'm surprised at how much resistance there is here to the concept of talent. It worries me for two reasons:

1. Managers might cruelly leave untalented people in positions where they are struggling instead of finding them work that fits because "practice makes perfect."

2. Individuals might set their own expectations unrealistically high for themselves and engage in self-loathing when endless practice fails to produce desired results because, "anyone can be anything with enough practice."

John, your comment about strengths being weaknesses - I think this is more of an issue of context rather than balancing your skills. Your strength becomes a weakness when misapplied.

Some people have a natural talent for identifying context. Some must learn it and get by. :)


jhack's picture


I was paraphrasing the HBR article, not necessarily agreeing with it. Yes, context is important ("What got you here won't get you there...")


PS: It makes sense to read HBR because colleagues and customers read it, too...

cwatine's picture
Training Badge

DISC (should) be the opposite of "labelling"
It is used for identifying behaviors and communication mode to help relationships to be established
It is also a way to reduce incomprehension and conflict by accepting differences
It is a good tool to quicky adapt to ones interlocutor
In my opinion it should not be used for anything else than that
It has little to do with talent
And ... DISC is context dependant. I am high D at work and high I with friends.

bug_girl's picture

Rob said: "*It doesn't matter if a talent is mental or physical. Talents are talents.
* Identifying talents in individuals has nothing to do with making assumptions about people because of imaginary groups they may are believed to belong to. "

No. You are missing my point.
You are treating talent as a static, measurable property. It isn't.
The way that people perform--on assessments or in life--is affected by many social factors.

Guy Kowasaki has a nice breakdown of some of some research by Carol Dweck:

"The article postulates that people have two kinds of mindsets: growth or fixed. People with the growth mindset view life as a series of challenges and opportunities for improving. People with a fixed mindset believe that they are “set” as either good or bad. The issue is that the good ones believe they don’t have to work hard, and the bad ones believe that working hard won’t change anything."

Interestingly, those labeled as "high talent" may actually become risk averse, so they don't fall off their pedestal.
SO: if you can change your directs' mindset (or yours), you can in fact get better performance. If you have a "fixed-mind set", you may be inhibiting both your performances.

A business related article:

Read the abstract of Dweck's 2007 paper, and you will see how performance can be either encourage or discouraged, depending on mindset.

If you don't think you have an individual bias, fine. I really hope that's true. But our -culture- is biased, and there are many assumptions made about the groups I mentioned that are reinforced in the media and everyday life. Dudes get culturally oppressed too--men aren't supposed to be emotional. Or Hug, if they are hetero.

All these little cultural rules are a part of each individual's environment, and affect their performance. It limits what we can imagine for ourselves and others.

If employees (and us) can see that change *is* possible, and--as in the original articles I cited--learn that stereotypes are *not* limiting, performance can radically improve.

There is useful stuff in some pointy academic heads :D

AManagerTool's picture

Let's try not to see danger or risk in a discussion like this. I don't resist the concept of talent. I accept that it is a useful yardstick to use (like DISK etc) and I will manage "talent" on my team accordingly. I postulate that I am making a compromise in its use.

Talent seems to me to be an over-simplistic explanation of a complex process that over the long hall is probably keeping us from achieving our full potential as a species. We can do better...long term. Short term, we have the right tools already as have been laid out so eloquently by Rob, John, Buckingham etc. This discussion is not about negating the tools we have but rather about enhancing them.

This is supposed to be a book review. If the topic is interesting to you, read the books for yourself.

I like what Bug_girl says. At this point, this is indeed an academic exercise. Further down the road, I hope not.

outthere's picture

This thread reminds me of Jack Daniel's (famous running coach) 4 types. Note he is specifically talking about a talent (ability) for racing distance.

1. Those with high ability and motivation - It is from this group that Champions come.
2. Those with high ability but little motivation - These are the athletes who will forever frustrate the Coach.
3. Those with little ability, but high motivation - these are the athletes who frustrate themselves and are the potential overtrainers.
4. Those with little ability and little motivation - These people should not do any sports that require discipline. They are in the wrong activity.

Unlike the very specific talent for distance running, in management we have a much more diverse number of things for which we can have talent that will lead to success. Just need to figure those out... and then use them... and practice them...

Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

I read the book. Talent matters very little, if at all, and frannkly it's largely irrelevant at this point since no one can agree on what it is, where it comes from, anything about it. Maybe genomics will help.

And, from what I read in this thread, a lot of folks don't know what Colvin meant by practice. It's NOT what most people think..and Rob, I think you're wrong here. Those guys you were coaching weren't engaged in deliberate practice, they were just practicing. BIG difference.

I am convinced that I am perceived the way I am perceived today by many (including some in this thread) due to years and years and years of deliberate practice. I have been so focused on managing and improving my skills and measuring my growth it's cost me family and friends. Grinding, negative feedback-filled deliberate practice. Sadly or not, no complaints here.

When I work out at the gym, I notice that everyone else on the elliptical machines sets it to record their distance over their entire workout period. That's practice. It sure beats the couch. DELIBERATE practice is setting it for revolutions per minute, so one can measure and adjust constantly. I get more miles than anyone else because I measure constantly and adjust. If I drop below my min limit, I go faster the next minute. A high school kid who knows my daughter Kate from years ago said to me the other day, "I wish my dad worked out as hard as you do." Practice gets you something...deliberate practice gets you significant results.

And, based on my experiences, I don't have the talent to be a manager or a teacher - I'm too impatient and demanding. I think my best talent is throwing a football. But I work like hell at being a manager and teacher, and don't bother practicing the football very much. I can say when I do it, I get the feeling I was supposed to - it feels marvelous every time.

I'm absolutely convinced that it's all about work, and the book proved it. I didn't like Seth's book as much - a little too simplistic and sometimes wrong-headed. But quite good certainly.

I do recommend the book, but there were parts I didn't love (the part about innovation seemed out of place).

Read it and decide for yourself.

Key point: READ IT. Some of the comments above are unrelated to the book. Hey, the book has DATA. Gotta love that.


Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

One more thing.

Deliberate practice IS a gift from God.

And, so is talent.


DarrellNorton's picture

Speaking of wanting data, I just found this book about "overrating talent" called The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. 900+ pages of real data.

naraa's picture
Training Badge

BLUF: Does the vision of Malcon Gladwell on the book on role culture and background plays on performance and communication contradicts with manager-tools podcast on culture matters (  Any one that has both read the book and listen to the podcast have a formed opinion on it?

I attach this question to this old discussion thread.  I got into but I got into it typing Outliers to see if there were book reviews on it.  I just finished reading it and I highly recommend it.  Even if one does not agree with all of it, it does get one thinking.   And the book is a pleasure to read.  If nothing else just to follow the persuasion skills Malcon Gladwell has in writing and his hability to connect different seamingly unconnected subjects.  And definetely the way he supports his opinions with DATA, as stated by Mark in the discussion.

The discussion on this old thread seems to concentrates on talent vs hard work.  To me that is only a fraction of what the book is all about.  And in fact, the book does not negate talent, it just states that once one is above a certain threashold opportunities and hard work is what matters. 

The book to me is inspiring as it shows that if one is able to extend opportunities to more people, and by opportunities one also understands the opportunity to experience the clear connection between hard work and reward, we could perhaps find the solutions to a lot more of the world problems we face today.

To me the two issues on the book that struck me most with regards to my management role are:

1)  to look seriously into the responsibility I have as a manager in shaping, or at least playing an important role, in the path towards sucess in the life of the young professionals I come across with;

2) to look seriously into how culture or pre-concieved patterns of action (my own and my directs) might be affecting the way I perceive the performance of this professional person.

Gladwell makes a much stronger point into how culture plays a role into how we perform as an individual, or perhaps more so, how different cultures can crash and generate confusion (or worse than that plane crashes!...must read the book to understand), than what manager-tools advocates in the podcast Managing Cultural Adversity: The Wendii Curve.  Anyone has any thoughts?  I am in the process of assimilating both information and generating my own opinion.  I agree with the podcast, but as I was listening to it it got me thinking that there had to be something more to it, and I believe the book by Gladwell might be the answer.

I appreciate any insights.