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November 29, 2008

BREAKDOWN | Colvin vs. Gladwell

UPDATED: Dec. 19 | Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin explained their understanding of how people achieve world-class success/performance with Charlie Rose. Great interviews. Watch Gladwell. Watch Colvin.

Two books were recently published about how people achieve world-class success: Geoff Colvin’s TALENT IS OVERRATED and Malcolm Gladwell’s OUTLIERS.

Both books are remarkably similar. They each dispel the notion that talent and intelligence are predictors of success. Both rely heavily on Anders Ericsson’s research into “Deliberate Practice.” And both highlight the success pathways achieved by Mozart and Bill Gates.

Colvin’s approach is geared towards business-interest and focuses mainly on one determinant of success. While Gladwell’s approach is much more general-interest and thus, includes a variety of success determinants. Both are worthwhile reads.

To help give you a basic understanding of both books, we’re going to give each one the "WHAT? | SO WHAT? | WHAT NOW?" treatment.


“Talent is overrated. The gifts possessed by the best performers are not at all what we think they are. You are not a natural-born clarinet virtuoso or car salesman or bond trader or brain surgeon—because no one is.” (pgs. 6, 7)

Great performance isn’t a result of inborn abilities, intelligence or experience.

“The fact that seems to explain the most about great performance is something the researchers call deliberate practice.” (pg. 7)

“A number of researchers now argue that talent means nothing like what we think it means, if indeed it means anything at all. A few contend that the very existence of talent is not, as they carefully put it, supported by evidence. In studies of accomplished individuals, researchers have found few signs of precocious achievement before the individuals started intensive training. Similar findings have turned up in studies of musicians, tennis players, artists, swimmers, mathematicians, and others.”

“Such findings do not prove that talent doesn't exist. But they do suggest an intriguing possibility: that if it does, it may be irrelevant.” (source)

To achieve great performance, you must practice, practice, and practice some more. But you must approach practicing with tremendous intensity and be absolutely deliberate with your practicing.

“Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.” (pg. 7)


It’s not extraordinary talent that makes you successful. It’s the extraordinary opportunities that you take advantage of which make you successful.

“Success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages: when and where you were born, what your parents did for a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing will all make a significant difference in how well you do in the world.” (pgs. 175, 176)

“We are so caught up in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth.” (pg. 268)

“People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact, they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” (pg. 19)

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” (pg. 42)

“Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” (pg. 41)

“The 10,000-hours rule says that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good at that unless you practice for 10,000 hours, which is roughly ten years, if you think about four hours a day.” (source)

“The other interesting thing about that ten thousand hours, of course, is that ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time. It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you are a young adult.” (pg. 42)

You will need extraordinary opportunities in order to reach that amount of practice time. Such extraordinary opportunities will include having encouraging and supportive parents, having the financial wherewithal to allow yourself the time to practice, having fortuitous timing, and having the advantageous experience of being involved in a special program/circumstance where you can focus on deliberate practice.


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You hit the nail right on the head! We are always fond of procrastinating. But if we put 100% of our energies into something productive, we will definitely get desired results. Practice indeed makes perfect! :)

I guess this gives homage to the passé recommendation, "Do what you're passionate about."

If you're not passionate about it, why would you practice over, and over? Especially for 10,000 hours?

I have a friend who is a career coach. He asks this, "Can you see yourself doing this for 6-8 hours a day? Would doing that 5 days a week leave you more or less energized at the end?"

He's asking about specific tasks like drawing, writing, calculating, strategizing, brainstorming, selling, presenting, etc.

It's a good question for each of us the answer, or at least think about. What would I truly LOVE to do for 6 hours EVERY weekday? Those are the areas where we can create success.

If you want to make Outliers come alive from a slightly different perspective, filter it through Nassim Taleb's "The Black Swan". Puts an additional spin on Bill Gates' story, for example.

In addition to Taleb's Black Swan - check out his other book, Fooled by Randomness and also The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow and finally add in Duncan J Watts- Big Seed and you have the full-monty of how ideas propagate, how an early advantage (at times based on 'talent' and other times luck) sometimes take hold to gain a superior position. Starts to explain the obsession over self promotion.

The key learning I have is to do what you love, and are passionate about. Whether one earns money doing so - is more problematic as it requires the support of others around you to enable that to happen.

But also remember that chance favors the prepared mind.

Miro - Share of Life brand marketer <= this is the self promotion part

If I want to read only ONE of these...which should it be?! Thoughts, please.

Betsy ... as I wrote, Colvin's take is more BUSINESS-INTEREST while Gladwell's take is more GENERAL-INTEREST. Pick your flavor.

Tonight both authors were interviewed on PBS "Charlie Rose," and while I thought the books were remarkably similar, one aspect of the topic seemed to be surprisingly overlooked by both. When Colvin was asked why a person would be so fascinated with a pursuit as to dedicate 10000 hours, his response was the praise that comes from skill. I think another motivation, at least as influential and completely independent, regards what has been referred to as the state of "flow."

As described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in a book of the same title, "Flow" is a mental state of complete absorption in which one is so captivated with practicing a skill that hours can drift away and one might even lose awareness of one's surroundings. Referred to as an "alpha state", the experience of flow is so pleasurable that necessities of food and sleep can be forgotten or seem like unwanted distractions. Flow transcends definitions of "work" or "play" IS play, and research shows that flow is in fact more enjoyable than our traditional definitions of recreation or relaxation. Flow is a world of one's own. It is the mathematician deeply absorbed in an equation, the artist obsessed with a painting, the writer or musician pondering a composition, an athlete "in the zone". It is previous experience and skill combined with just the right level of creative challenge as to fascinate without overwhelming.

Flow, I believe, is more deeply and personally gratifying than money or praise, and is what makes those 10000 hours seem like nothing to the person who deeply loves a pursuit.

gwyn ... thanks for clueing us in on Colvin & Gladwell appearing on the Charlie Rose talk show. When those videos get posted online, I will share the link.

And yeah, "flow" does seem to play a vital role in keeping someone on the path to their 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.


I started reading your recent post, "It Takes Time" and followed up with this one. Very, very true... success indeed takes time, patience, practice, unwavering dedication and deliberate action. Great posts. Looking forward to reading more from you and checking out "Talent Is Overrated."


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