Introspection – evaluating talent, part 1

This post is not going to be related to cybersecurity at all.  It is going to be about another topic that I am interested in.  However, since it’s my blog and I can write about what I want, i will write what I want.

Recently, I finished reading the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  In the book, Gladwell examines what separates the extraordinary performers from the rest of us.  For example, Bill Gates is a statistical outlier – he’s one of the richest men in the world.  Why was he so successful?  Why are most professional hockey players born in the first three months of the year?  Why do successful lawyers in Manhattan all have the same background? Gladwell’s thesis is that it is a combination of things.  First, it is lots and lots of hard work (at least 10,000 hours worth of practice), time and circumstance (being in the right place and being born at the right time) as well as your cultural heritage.  When these factors converge together, it creates the environment in which people can succeed and succeed exceptionally well.  Nobody does it alone.

After finishing Gladwell’s book, I started to read Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin.  Colvin’s book has some similarity to Gladwell’s.  His central hypothesis is that talent in any field is not innate.  Nobody is born with a disposition to do anything particularly well – at least to the level that makes us superstars.  There are no born leaders, there are no born hockey players, there are no born computer programmers.  Thus, if we see a really good singer and say “Oh, she’s really talented!” we might mean that she has some innate talent.  But in fact, according to Colvin, there is no evidence to support this view.  What separates the elite performer from the rest of us is deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice differs from regular practice in a number of important ways.  First, it deliberately works on improving key skills.  Second, it receives consistent feedback.  Third, it is repeated a lot.  Researchers have determined that the key number it takes to gain sufficient proficiency in a skill is 10,000 hours, or about 10 years.  Finally, deliberate practice isn’t a lot of fun.  You do it and it isn’t enjoyable; you do it in order to get better at what you are doing.  Let’s say I want to join the company softball team but I know that my batting sucks.  If I were to go to a batting cage for 15 minutes a day every day for a week, this adds up to nearly two hours of batting practice over the course of a week.  This does not count as deliberate practice.  For one, all I am doing is swinging at balls by myself.  I don’t really know how to improve my technique, I have no batting coach.  I’m just swinging.  Second, I am not getting any consistent feedback.  I have nobody to tell me if I am doing things right or wrong.  Third, while two hours is admirable, I would need at least 5 times that in order to become really good.  Finally… well, I guess even 15 minutes of doing a mindless repetitive task isn’t all that much fun.  But I could probably tolerate 5 minutes.  I doubt I could tolerate an hour (not to mention, I’d get tired or even pull a muscle swinging a bat for an hour).

I’m not done Colvin’s book but some time ago I picked up Brett Steenbarger’s book Enhancing Trader Performance.  In his book, he looks at what separates top stock traders from average and even good performers.  Many of the things that Colvin talks about are echoed in Steenbarger’s book (actually, it is the other way around because Steenbarger’s book came out in 2006 v.s. 2008 for Colvin’s).  Steenbarger talks about many of the same characteristics for very talented people, but basically lists the same principles.  However, he adds a bit more on some people have a natural propensity for doing certain tasks.  I tend to rephrase that a bit.  I am never going to be a good basketball player because I am not anywhere near tall enough (and I don’t really care for basketball).  However, no tall person is naturally going to be a good basketball player but a tall player might be drawn to the sport because they are tall and being tall really helps you when playing the game.  Thus, in that regards, some natural traits will help with some occupations.  I like to write a lot and that’s why I blog regularly but it’s not a natural ability.  I probably started doing it years ago because I was never big enough for sports and so I filled my time with other activities.  Thus, a physical propensity might suggest that you do one thing over another (Michael Phelps has a body suited for swimming) but it doesn’t mean that you possess an ability that will naturally develop with intense training.

More in my next post.

Comments (1)
  1. JosephW says:

    Good thoughts, but I think (after so many observations), talent is diffusive, ie you do one thing excellent and always other stuff you touch could not be inferior.

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