What’s talent got to do with? Nothing, says Geoff Colvin

06.01.09 8 years ago

Is hard work all that separates the great musical artist from the also ran?  That’s the theory put forth in Fortune magazine senior editor Geoff Colvin’s book, “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else.”

Colvin was the guest on “Samm Brown’s On the Record,” a weekly radio show on Southern California’s WPFK, for which I am a frequent co-host — as I was yesterday. From the start, the discussion was a lively one with Brown insisting that the only thing that separated such greats as Lennon and McCartney from other also-rans is that they studied more and worked harder than their peers.  I disagreed, but more about that later.

In Colvin’s world, there is no such thing as innate talent or God-given gifts: what differentiates the haves from the have-nots, artistically or athletically speaking, is the amount of work and focus they put into their endeavors. His research shows that it takes 10 years to master a skill (this is similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory in “Outliers”).

Colvin uses the example of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. For centuries, people have believed that the classical composer had a talent that relied not so much on dedication, practice and focus than on a great gift. This was reinforced in the excellent movie, 1984’s “Amadeus,” in which Mozart’s rival, Salieri, drives himself crazy because all his skill and hard work does not add up to Mozart’s talent (although I seem to recall Mozart going temporarily insane as he tries to finish a commission).

Part of the premise is based on a letter that Mozart allegedly wrote that composing for him basically amounted to taking dictation from God.  Colvin said on our show that the letter has proved to be a forgery and that Mozart’s edge on Salieri came from the fact that he was composing by the time he was five and, therefore, simply worked harder and longer than Salieri.

Colvin also uses this theory in sports. For example, former NFL great Jerry Rice trained at a level that far exceeded that of his teammates and opponents. That’s what contributed to his success, not a born ability to run fast that he nurtured.  Colvin writes about how the theory is much more than just hard work, it’s something called “deliberate practice.” That means you are working specifically on drills and skills that relate to your interest and, often, you need a coach or guide to ensure you’re doing it right.

If you’re trying to be the next Lindsay Buckingham, you can play Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” all you want, but at some point, you better start dedicating yourself to learning/practicing the same skills that give Buckingham such dexterity.

I’m a firm believer that success is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration, or whatever the cliché is, and I also know that hard work and perseverance go a long way. But I also can’t discount the role talent plays. Did Eric Clapton simply practice more than any other guitarist in history and that’s why he’s the best? I don’t think so. I believe he was born with a talent that he worked tremendously hard to cultivate. If he had simply relied on that talent and not respected and honored it enough to practice and learn, I don’t think he would be the legend we know him to be today.

Plus, if you’re tone deaf, no matter how much you practice, I don’t know if you can become a great singer.

I’ve seen too many performances where there was something magical talking, something divine-whether you want to call it God or not is up to you-to believe that it is only hard work that makes someone the best in their field. Several years ago, I saw famed violinist Itzhak Perlman play at the Barbican in London. The other two people with me and I all felt the same way: that it was literally like the hand of God was on Perlman’s shoulder and Perlman’s talent and years and years of practice were a conduit for this beautiful music to pour forth. It was spellbinding and something otherworldly.

Plus I’ve interviewed dozens of songwriters–and maybe this is just humility on their part–who talk about a song just coming to them and how important it is to always have their “antennae” up in order to receive whatever may come through them. Surely, that is a gift to be cultivated and nurtured, but I believe it’s a gift, nonetheless.

The great part about Colvin’s book (and to confess — I haven’t read the whole book, just snippets of it for Sunday’s radio show) is that ultimately it serves as its own source of inspiration. Using the excuse that you don’t have an innate talent as a reason not to pursue your dreams is a cop-out.  As the old joke goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”  It’s not dream, dream, dream.

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