Book Review: Talent is Overrated

Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.
~ Marcus Tullius Cicero, statesman, orator and writer (106-43 BCE)

Wear the old coat and buy the new book.
~ Austin Phelps

Book Review

Colvin, Geoff (2008). Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else. Portfolio/Penguin: NY.
Length: 208 pages
Chapters: 11
Sections: None

Rating: 3.5/5

The Criticism Sandwich

When I teach teachers and we’re speaking of assessment, I tell them it’s helpful for the one receiving the critique if you make a criticism sandwich. The sandwich consists of:

  • bread (the first statement): a positive thing about the performance and/or product
  • meat (the second statement): the heart and substance of the criticism sandwich, just like a real sandwich if you’re not a vegetarian. This important part is what could be improved or what was lacking in the performance/product.
  • bread (the final statement): This is a remedy or suggestion that attempts to solve the problem(s) brought up in the prior statement.
  • Use condiments as necessary to round out the sandwich.

First Piece of Bread

Author Geoff Colvin is well-versed in the world 0f business. He is one of the senior editors at Fortune magazine (with a readership of around 5 million) and his column “Value Driven” is a staple of the magazine. He’s also no stranger to people in the business world who embody excellence. He has conducted live interviews with top leaders like Jack Welch, Rudy Giuliani, Steve Case, Meg Whitman, Donald Trump and other leaders of industry. Colvin’s business commentary is heard by 7 million people on the CBS Radio Network. He also served as co-host of the popular PBS series Wall $treet Week with FORTUNE. Clearly, Mr. Colvin has some chops and some connections.

He did his research for this book, too, as you might expect. Most of the relevant research on excellence was covered and he explained it in terms that didn’t immediately put the reader to sleep. His examples from the real world were varied and interesting, and although they were leaned towards business heavyweights, there were examples from comedian Chris Rock, football player Jerry Rice and golfer Tiger Woods. One the things about this book I most appreciated is that Colvin was able to speak directly with Professor K. Anders Ericsson, one of the leaders in the research on excellence for the last 30 years.

The Meat of the Sandwich

Colvin’s strength in writing about the business world is also a source of one of the book’s weaknesses. The text is specifically geared towards a business audience, likely by design, because it’s an audience that almost guarantees robust sales for a book, and with Colvin’s notoriety in this realm, it’s no surprise that this was a specific strategy. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but I found many of the attempts to connect the literature on excellence to the business world to be strained and the connections themselves tenuous at best.

This relates to another shortcoming of the book, which is that it’s long on theory and short on practice, as many books about a topic this complex tend to be. We hear a lot about what excellence is, and get anecdotes and vignettes that help us imagine how excellence is embodied in the world, but when the rubber hits the road, when we need to know what to do if we want excellence for our very own, we don’t get much help. Colvin makes many vaguely helpful suggestions, but most are general and abstract and not particularly helpful. It felt like some adult telling a kid, “Just do your best.” Good advice, but not very specific.

The final slice of meat in this criticism sandwich is that we never hear an alternative viewpoint about the “talent” concept in the expertise literature. If you’re out to prove a belief and are using research to back it up, you should also provide the research that points to the alternative hypothesis, namely that innate ability (talent) does matter. One key piece of writing on this is by Simonton in his piece (in a book edited by Ericsson) entitled The Hidden Cost of Expertise, which I’ll review on this blog in the next couple days. The fact that this opposing viewpoint was omitted entirely is perhaps the most significant criticism of the book.

I would have liked to have seen more of his references throughout the book. Granted, this wasn’t a piece of scholarly work in which every reference must be catalogued and clearly cited, so it might be a little unfair to demand this, but for those who want to either read the source material or want to learn more about a particular topic and/or ancecdote, there were many gaps.

Finally, I found I struggled with the tone of the book from the moment I read the sub-title: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everygody Else. This implies an exclusionary bent, which seems to say that experts are somehow fundamentally different from the rest of us, and much of the writing throughout reinforces this approach. It’s my firm belief, which is supported by some of the same research in addition to other research, that experts are normal, everyday people who simply have spent the time and energy in ways that earn them the title of expert. There is no separation involved other than the behavior that anyone can learn to do. The trick is always finding the passion that will sustain the behav

The Other Slice of Bread

If you’re interested in expertise, this book does a decent job of reporting on the research and Colvin brings in a wide array of examples from the real world from disciplines other than business. The writing style is journalistic, so it’s clear and concise and “just the facts, ma’am,” so don’t expect to be captivated by this writing as you might with Malcolm Gladwell, who has written a vaguely similar book, Outliers, which I’ll review here later, too.

If you’re interested in the research and want a pretty easy read, I’d recommend Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


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