Is Talent Overrated?

I just finished reading Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin. Fascinating book. Giftedness is a topic that I’ve thought about a lot. Are we selling ourselves short by assuming that we’ll never be as good a keyboardist, vocalist, guitarist, drummer, or whatever, as the people we esteem?

Colvin begins the book by examining the lives of several famous “greats,” including Tiger Woods, Mozart, Jack Welch, and Jerry Rice. He says that most people think their greatness arose either from a) hard work; or b) talent. Colvin says neither, and uses scientific and anecdotal evidence to support his claim. Instead, he points us to “deliberate practice.” Not simply working hard, but working the right way. Deliberate practice, often the fruit of effective mentoring, has five elements:

  • It is activity designed specifically to improve performance
  • it can be repeated a lot
  • feedback on results is continuously available
  • it’s highly demanding mentally
  • It isn’t much fun

In chapter six he explains that deliberate practice works by helping us perceive more, know more, and remember more. In the remaining chapters he covers application, the myth of creativity, the benefits of starting early, and the source of passion. He ends the book this way:

What you believe about the source of great performance thus becomes the foundation of all you will ever achieve…Above all, what the evidence shouts most loudly is striking, liberating news: that great performance is not reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.

I wasn’t fully persuaded. God really does give people different gifts (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Pet. 4:10). And no amount of deliberate or any kind of practice can thwart or change God’s plan to raise up or bring down an individual.

That being said, God holds us accountable for what we do with the gifts he’s given us (Mt. 25:14-29). And that’s where this book is helpful. There’s a lot worth reading here, because most of us could be better than we are.

As I read the chapter on deliberate practice I thought back to my college days when I practiced about 4 hours a day for four years. I could identify with all the earmarks of deliberate practice. A young guy I know intentionally practices more than six hours a day. I can guarantee you, he’s going to be better than most guitarists his age. The question for each of us is this: How much more could God use me as an instrumentalist/vocalist/songwriter if I spent more time purposefully developing my skills and gifts?

Here are a few quotes that stood out:

Frequently when we see great performers doing what they do, it strikes us that they’ve practiced for so long, and done it so many times, they can just do it automatically. But in fact, what they have achieved is the ability to avoid doing it automatically. (p 82)

Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have any natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. (p 119)

The most eminent creators are consistently those who have immersed themselves utterly in their chosen field, have devoted their lives to it, amassed tremendous knowledge of it, and continually pushed themselves to the front of it.

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22 Responses to Is Talent Overrated?

  1. Johnny Sierra December 10, 2008 at 1:24 PM #

    Wow! Great post Bob! Right now I started reading “Teach your team to Fish” by Laurie Beth Jones, which is also a tremendous book but I definately have an interest in reading the one you are featuring.

  2. Keith December 10, 2008 at 1:55 PM #

    I agree with your point about not being able to thwart Gods plan. But I was immediately reminded of Matthew 25:14-29. We can’t thwart His plan. But we are responsible to care for/develop what God has given us.

  3. Bob Kauflin December 10, 2008 at 2:06 PM #

    Keith, you’re absolutely right. I went back and adjusted the post to make that point clearer. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Shannon December 10, 2008 at 3:17 PM #

    Hello Bob…
    I have read your blog for a while and have never commented. I am not a musician at all…but I love listening to music and I have benifited greatly by your wisdom. Something popped into my head from this post I thought I’d ask…you mentioned a chapter in the book called starting early. My husband I would love to have our children learn to play something, but since both of us do not play anything we aren’t sure where to start. We do not have the resources at our church yet like you do at CLC to teach children. If you ever have time I would love to hear your thoughts on what age to start, what instrument to start with, how to know if playing an instrument is just not how God gifted a certain child and how you trained your own children with learning to play but also about the main thing: God’s glory. It is obvious that you children are more concerned about God’s glory than that they are gifted musicians :) Thanks Bob for reading this :) God Bless…

  5. Mike December 10, 2008 at 9:44 PM #

    Certainly God can and does give people abilities they have never had before. But isn’t God big enough to also use deliberate practice to develop giftedness? I think sometimes we too strongly dichotomise the miraculous from the everyday. For instance the sun coming up every day is seen as merely every day, when really it is a miracle. The birth of a child is a miracle. My every breath is because of God’s sustaining providential care. God is and has always been intimately involved in my life, even before I knew him.

    Perhaps a fair part of God giving gifts is the turning of the heart to use my ‘natural’ gifts and abilities in his service, for his glory and the benefit of his people and his kingdom – gifts and abilities that have been nurtured in me since childhood by ‘divine coincidence’. The changing of the human heart is a miracle.

    Often we see churches where people are pushed into leadership roles because they merely have the ‘abilities’; e.g. they are influential leaders in the secular scene and therefore would make a great elder, or they are a talented musician in the secular scene so lets get them into the church music team. But I see a lot more about godliness and motivation (serving for Christ’s glory) in the Bible.

    So perhaps deliberate practice can be part of God gifting people, and we can’t limit God by saying that’s not possible. But turning the heart to seek God’s glory is definitely a gift that only God can give.

  6. Bob Kauflin December 10, 2008 at 10:07 PM #

    Mike, I couldn’t agree with you more. I hope you didn’t understand me to be saying that deliberate practice was unimportant. I believe that’s part of Jesus is saying in the parable in Mt. 25. We are accountable to God to develop the gifts we’ve been given. And many, if not most of us, do far less than we could to be more effective tools in his hands.

  7. Mike December 10, 2008 at 11:59 PM #

    Didn’t mean to sound critical. I love the way God is working through you guys at SG. I don’t think that deliberate practice is overly important or unimportant, but that God uses all things, including deliberate practice – even before becoming Christian – for His glory. Perhaps this should lead us to more ‘deliberate prayerful practice’, where we deliberately practice asking God to use us as his instruments? And perhaps part of the answer to that will be motivation to overcome the boredom of deliberate practice, perhaps the ability/talent to not need so much deliberate practice, or perhaps even the perspective to see that too much deliberate practice in one area of service may hinder our service in other areas. Or perhaps something else altogether..?

  8. Mike December 11, 2008 at 12:13 AM #

    I guess I’m also wondering about precisely what gifting is… and perhaps in some it’s existing talent used for God, in some it’s new God-given talent, and in others the motivation to develop talent, and perhaps many other things beside. But it seems that over all these ways God works is the gift of godly motivation and lifestyle – otherwise we could say that Pharaoh and Babylon were gifted by God for his purposes too, which doesn’t quite seem to work…

  9. Bob Kauflin December 11, 2008 at 7:07 AM #

    Great points, Mike. I’d say that gifting/talent is the God-given ability to do something well, developed or undeveloped, which is a gift of grace. But everything that goes along with that – ability to develop that gift, right motivation, fruitfulness – is also a gift of grace. At least that’s what I get from the way Bezalel’s and Oholiab’s gifting is described in Ex. 31:1-6.

  10. west December 11, 2008 at 10:43 AM #

    Great post Bob.

  11. Michael December 12, 2008 at 12:26 PM #

    Great post, Bob! I may actually pick up the book myself. I’ll admit that I haven’t been reading much outside of Christian authors, but it seems as if this particular book may be well worth a read (of course, keeping Biblical truth ever in mind).

    Dan Phillips posted a blog over at Pyromaniacs yesterday (I believe) dealing with C.H. Spurgeon’s prep-time for many, if not most of his sermons. He may not have gotten the text for the sermon until Saturday, but he spent so much time in the Scriptures and in prayer that he became easily one of the greatest preachers of the gospel we’ve ever seen or heard of. While Spurgeon’s diligence to the Scriptures and devotion to prayer were key in his preaching, we cannot overlook God’s great giftedness that He bestowed upon this “stupid, blind, deaf, dead soul” as he referred to himself as.

    Again, great blog post!

  12. Brett December 12, 2008 at 3:33 PM #

    Bob,
    What does the author mean when he says, “But in fact, what they have achieved is the ability to avoid doing it automatically. (p 82)”?

  13. Tim Wat December 12, 2008 at 5:01 PM #

    Very interesting and apropos. I’m struck that we see this principle in each of our churches if we are blessed to have a gifted man in the pulpit – gifting is honed and polished over time by the Master to greater effectiveness and deeper insight into the Scriptures – which yields greater fruit in the congregation. We presume the principle of discipline, hard work and honing the exegetical & homiletical tools. I’d guess most of us are familiar with John MacArthur’s exhortation that sometimes spiritual maturity is simply keeping one’s tail in the seat until God reveals the passage in the study.

    But it’s only recently I’ve seen the fruit of un-exciting, un-fun, demanding practice in my musicianship. For too long I’ve been one of those guys skating by on a modicum of talent. What poor stewardship. Playing jazz with mature players is kicking my tail and forcing me to dive into scale theory, voicing and actually “practicing in all 12 keys”. Ouch. But it’s the only sure path to fluidity and freedom of expression, right? Which is I think at least one of the points of your post.

  14. Bob Kauflin December 12, 2008 at 5:44 PM #

    Brett,

    Colvin is saying that the goal isn’t to do things “mindlessly,” but to so know your sport/instrument/task that you can focus completely on what you’re doing at the moment. He writes, “Great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested-development stage in their chosen field.” (p 83). That is, they keep on learning, and “their performance is always conscious and controlled, not automatic.” When I’m at my best, I’m not playing on “automatic.” I’m giving careful thought to what I’m doing and how I can make it the best it can be at that moment. Is that helpful?

  15. Brett December 18, 2008 at 4:40 PM #

    Yes, very much. Thanks!

  16. Thomas Dion February 17, 2009 at 10:02 PM #

    Hi Bob,

    I’m a little late getting in on this topic, but feel like I should. You wrote: “How much more could God use me as an instrumentalist/vocalist/songwriter if I spent more time purposefully developing my skills and gifts?”, I could not agree more, so long as your purposeful development does not end up restricting you to be lead by the Holy Spirit during your time leading the congregation in worship.
    I’ve been a part of team that was so devoted to getting better they missed the whole Holy Spirit experience; and it could have been so beautiful!

    God gave me my talent at a young age and I had to be sensitive as I became a Christian to practice with the Holy Spirit; I think that is where you learn how to play with the Holy Spirit and not play on your talent! Spirit lead worship musicians lead to Spirit lead worship. Amen!

    Thanks Bob!

  17. Laura May 25, 2010 at 10:30 AM #

    Thank you for the excellent review of this book. I too am undecided on how “fully persuaded” I am. I know that God gives people different gifts, so I know that plays into this discussion. However, I do want to add that our choices can thwart God’s plan for our lives. People thwart God’s plan everyday. Yes, He is still God and His ultimate plan for mankind will happen, but He may have to use someone else to accomplish it. He has chosen to let us choose. For example, His perfect plan for every person is that we walk in relationship with Him, but many people thwart that plan everyday and God doesn’t force it. My point is that I firmly believe a lack of practice, diligence, character, etc. can thwart God’s plan to “raise up an individual.” There are many Biblical examples of people’s choices messing up God’s plan for their lives. The awesome thing about God is that He is so powerful that He can still get the job done even though He changes the who and the how.

  18. Jorge Leandro August 8, 2010 at 12:59 PM #

    I’m from Brazil and found this blog while searching www about other theories on talent and skills than prof Ericsson’s.

    Great book! It’s really shedding some light onto the issue of talent/giftedness vs practice.

    I loved seeing a couple of words trying to conciliate the book ideas to biblical principles to some extent. If you ask me, I tend to agree with Mike.

    In fact, the book does not deny even the existence of talent, whatever it is, but provides evidence to claim that talent is not determinant for one’s outstanding performance.

    There’s still remain the chicken and egg question: You enjoy doing something because you’re naturally good at doing it or you are good at doing something because you enjoy doing it? Which comes first?

    I’d answer this question by saying you become better at doing something because you enjoy it, hence talent seems to me more of a taste for doing something, rather than a ”naturally” hard-wired brain for a specific task… I myself enjoy thinking all day long (even in the shower, having lunch, driving, and so on) about things that some people may consider boring. There’s no need to say I’m becoming better than them at doing those things. Apparently, such a taste for something would make me able to overcome the down side of engaging in a set of boring or not so fun activities designed to develop some skills. I’ve never heard of someone trying to explain why there are people who enjoys forensic medicine, while others enjoy studying theorical physics and others hairstyling… What if God had distributed the tastes for all those areas, rather than inbord abilities for carrying them out? It sounds fair… Think of someone who enjoys playing piano, but was not gifted to it, despite any sort of practice… Was it fair to him/her? Just asking…

    As for the biblical texts, I ask whether the texts do provide a clear-cut definition for gifts (a God-given talent) or the authors are simply mentioning high achievement as they are able to according to their understanding to those days. I might be a matter of interpretation, mightn’t it?

    People implicitly refers to a gift as that “divine spark” with which someone has been endowed, but how can you tell you’ve been given this gift and not that? I see lots of people in church who look up to some functions, like preaching, leading and singing, and decided on their own that they have gifts aimed at these areas, but all we see is quite regular people, sometimes even

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