Colvin set out to answer this question: "What does great performance require?" In this volume, he shares several insights generated by hundreds of research studies whose major conclusions offer what seem to be several counterintuitive perspectives on what is frequently referred to as "talent." (See Pages 6-7.) In this context, I am reminded of Thomas Edison's observation that "vision without execution is hallucination." If Colvin were asked to paraphrase that to indicate his own purposes in this book, my guess (only a guess) is that his response would be, "Talent without deliberate practice is latent" and agrees with Darrell Royal that "potential" means "you ain't done it yet." In other words, there would be no great performances in any field (e.g. business, theatre, dance, symphonic music, athletics, science, mathematics, entertainment, exploration) without those who have, through deliberate practice developed the requisite abilities.
It occurs to me that, however different they may be in almost all other respects, athletes such as Cynthia Cooper, Roger Federer, Michael Jordan, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Lorena Ochoa, Candace Parker, Michael Phelps, Vijay Singh, and Tiger Woods "make it look so easy" in competition because their preparation is so focused, rigorous, and thorough. Obviously, they do not win every game, match, tournament, etc. Colvin's point (and I agree) is that all great performers "make it look so easy" because of their commitment to deliberate practice, often for several years before their first victory. In fact, Colvin cites a "ten-year rule" widely endorsed in chess circles (attributed to Herbert Simon and William Chase) that "no one seemed to reach the top ranks of chess players without a decade or so of intensive study, and some required much more time." The same could also be said of "overnight sensations" who struggled for years to prepare for their "big break" on Broadway or in Hollywood.
Colvin duly acknowledges that deliberate practice "is a large concept, and to say that it explains everything would be simplistic and reductive." Colvin goes on to say, "Critical questions immediately present themselves: What exactly needs to be practiced? Precisely how? Which specific skills or other assets must be acquired? The research has revealed answers that generalize quite well across a wide range of fields." Even after committing all of my time and attention to several years of deliberate practice, under the direct supervision of the best instructor (e.g. Hank Haney, Butch Harman, or David Leadbetter) I probably could not reduce my handicap to zero but I could lower it under those conditions. Colvin's insights offer a reassurance that almost anyone's performance can be improved, sometimes substantially, even if it isn't world-class. Talent is overrated if it is perceived to be the most important factor. It isn't. In fact, talent does not exist unless and until it is developed...and the only way to develop it is (you guessed it) with deliberate practice. When Ben Hogan was asked the "secret" to playing great golf, he replied, "It's in the dirt."
Others have their reasons for thinking so highly of this book. Here are three of mine. First, Colvin's observations and suggestions are research-driven rather than based almost entirely on theories developed in isolation from real-world phenomena. He commits sufficient attention to identifying the core components of great performance but focuses most of his narrative to explaining how almost anyone can improve her or his own performance. He reveals himself to be both an empiricist as he shares what he has observed and experienced and a pragmatist who is curious to know what works, what doesn't, and why. I also appreciate Colvin's repudiation of the most common misconceptions about the various dimensions of talent. For example, that "is innate; you're born with it, and if you're not born with it, you can't acquire it." Many people still believe that Mozart was born with so much talent that he required very little (if any) development. In fact, according to Alex Ross, "Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard" as did all others discussed, including Jack Welch, David Ogilvy, Warren Buffett, Robert Rubin, Jerry Rice, Chris Rock, and Benjamin Franklin. Some were prodigies but most were late-bloomers and each followed a significantly different process of development. About all they shared in common is their commitment to continuous self-improvement through deliberate practice.
Here's another reason I hold this book in such high regard. Throughout his narrative, Colvin inserts clusters of insights and recommendations that literally anyone can consider and then act upon to improve her or his individual performance as well as helping to improve the performance of a team of which she or he is a member. For example:
1. Attributes of deliberate practice (Pages 66-72)
2. What top performers perceive that others do not notice (Pages 89-94)
3. Benefits of having a "rich mental model"(Pages 123-124)
4. Rules for peak performance that "elite" organizations follow (Pages 128-136)
5. Misconceptions about innovation and creativity (Pages 149-151)
6. How innovators become great (Pages 159-161)
7. How to make organizations innovative (Pages 162-166)
8. What homes can teach organizations (Pages 172-175)
9. The "drivers" of great performance (Pages 187-193)
10. How some organizations "blow it" (Pages 194-198)
Corbin provides a wealth of research-driven information that he has rigorously examined and he also draws upon his own extensive and direct experience with all manner of organizations and their C-level executives. Throughout his narrative, with great skill, he sustains a personal rapport with his reader. It is therefore appropriate that, in the final chapter, he invokes direct address and poses a series of questions. "What would cause you to do the enormous work necessary to be a top-performing CEO, Wall Street trader, jazz, pianist, courtroom lawyer, or anything else? Would anything? The answer depends on your answers to two basic questions: What do you really want? And what do you really believe? What you want - really want - is fundamental because deliberate practice is a heavy investment." Corbin has provided all the evidence anyone needs to answer those two questions that, in fact, serve as a challenge.
Colvin leaves no doubt that by understanding how a few become great, anyone can become better...and that includes his reader. This reader is now convinced that talent is a process that "grows," not a pre-determined set of skills. Also, that deliberate practice "hurts but it works." Long ago, Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." It would be "tragically constraining," Colvin asserts, for anyone to lack sufficient self-confidence because "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."