Tag Archives: Talent is Overrated

The Long View vs. The Short View; or, the old “Forest for the Trees” issue – A Reflection on Learning from Reading Books

I have actually read a fair amount of Aristotle.  Not in the original language (although, a little bit of that too).  But in my graduate work in rhetoric, we had to read Aristotle.  And he is really, really important.  But, now, centuries later, his main ideas are usually summarized by others.  And the summaries are accessible, make sense, and are profound.  For many, a good summary is enough – enough information, enough to launch the thought processes that lead to real-world ideas and changes for the better.

From Aristotle, for example:  to be persuasive (rhetoric is all about finding the available means of persuasion), you need logos (a good logical argument), ethos (a good ethical case/argument — true credibility on the part of the speaker/writer), and pathos (a good emotional argument – an engaging “this matters to me” by the speaker/writer).  And a few others back from around the time of era of Aristotle add the power of a fourth element, mythos (the narrative appeal – this rings true to our story as a people/nation/company…).  Now Aristotle wrote on many other themes, but you get the point.  A person writes a book.  Others read it.  And with the passage of time, they are able to summarize, really effectively, the truths and principles and insights from books.  And it helps us understand.

I thought of all this as I read this excellent summary of a series of recent books on the financial crisis. What Caused the Economic Crisis?  The 15 best explanations for the Great Recession by Jacob Weisberg.  (from Slate.com and Newsweek – I read it on the Slate site).

Though the crisis is recent, there is a large number of books proposing explanations for the economic crisis with clear themes and explanations proposed for consideration.  Weisberg summarizes many of these, dividing the suggested explanations into themes and explanations, and concludes with this phrase:

But if we haven’t at least learned that our financial markets need stronger regulatory supervision and better controls to prevent bad bets by big firms from going viral, we’ll be back in the same place before you can say 30 times leverage.

I think the article is worth reading.  I have perused a few of the books mentioned, and the article does a good job summarizing the key explanations.  And learning these is important – we would really like to dig out of this crisis, and certainly to avoid similar crises in the future.

But the purpose of this post is more about the process of reading books and then learning something important from what we read.  None of us (ok – very few of us) can remember all that we read.  But we can remember key points, extract the most important principles and themes, and then allow these to inform our thinking and direct our practice.  That is why we read (at least, why we read nonfiction and business books) – to learn, to keep learning.

I have learned this from my own experience from reading, and presenting synopses of, business books.   In the last few months, I have read Outliers (Gladwell) and Talent is Overrated (Colvin), and learned that it takes 10,000 hours to get really, really good at something, and that those hours have to be spent in deliberate practice – practice for the purpose of getting better.  I have read 10-10-10 by Suzy Welch, learning that decisions can be better made if we look at their impact in the next 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years.  I have read The Opposable Mind (Martin) and discovered that to make the best decisions we need to hold two opposing ideas in our heads at the same time.

These are just a few of the “summaries” that I think of just from the last few months.  Are these books worth reading in their entirety?  Absolutely.  But with all of the stories, supporting information and data in the books, it is the key principles that matter, that shape my thinking, and that I remember most from reading these books.

My personal “Bests” — from business books I presented in 2009

In 2009, I presented twelve book synopses at the First Friday Book Synopsis (as I do every year).  At the bottom of this post, I list the books by month. (Remember, my colleague Karl Krayer presented a different book each month).

Here are a few “bests” — my selections —  re. the books from the year:

• Best theme for the year:
• It takes passion, deliberate practice, and 10,000 hours of effort, to get really, really world-class good at something.  The three books with the details and the motivation are:
• Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.
Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin.
• The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything
by Ken Robinson.

• Most enjoyable/engaging books to read
• Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.
• The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson.
• Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition by Guy Kawasaki.
• Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity by Michael Lewis (Editor).  (The chapter by Dave Barry on buying a house is absolutely laugh-out-loud funny!)
• SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.  It is worth reading just for the parable of the horse manure.

• Most practical business read…
• Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition by Guy Kawasaki.  This one is worth keeping and re-reading for its practical advice.

Were there any books that I could have just skipped?  I think I gained value from all twelve, although I do think the Suzy Welch book, 10 10 10, though worth reading, could have been nearly as effective as an essay.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers

• The best book I presented this year…
And now – if you made me choose only one, and that was the only one I could read for the year – the year’s “best” – I think I go with Outliers.  But I would be unhappy at having to choose only one.


Here are Randy’s presentations from the First Friday Book Synopsis in 2009.

January, 2009:
Outliers: The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown and Company (November 18, 2008).

February, 2009
Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition
by Guy Kawasaki
Portfolio Hardcover (October 30, 2008).

March, 2009:
Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

by Geoff Colvin (Author)
Portfolio Hardcover; 1 edition (October 16, 2008)

April, 2009:
Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity
by Michael Lewis (Editor). W.W. Norton & Co. (November 17, 2008).

May, 2009:
The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything
by Ph.D., Ken Robinson.  Viking Adult.  (January 8, 2009)

June, 2009:
10-10-10: A Life-Transforming Idea by Suzy Welch. Scribner (April 14, 2009).

July, 2009:
The Genius Machine: The Eleven Steps That Turn Raw Ideas into Brilliance by Gerald Sindell. by Gerald Sindell.  New World Library (2009).

August, 2009:
The Future Arrived Yesterday: The Rise of the Protean Corporation and What It Means for You by Michael Malone. Crown Business (2009).  

September, 2009:
Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay.  Harper­Business/HarperCollins.  (2009).

October, 2009:
Free: The Future of a Radical Price
by Chris Anderson.  Hyperion.  2009.

November, 2009:
What Americans Really Want…Really: The Truth About Our Hopes, Dreams, and Fears
by Frank I. Luntz.  Hyperion (September 15, 2009).

December, 2009:
SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance
by Steven D. Levitt (Author), Stephen J. Dubner (Author)
William Morrow. (2009).


Many of these presentations, with audio + hadnout, are available for purchase at our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.

Reinforcement for that 10,000 hour rule and the Power of Deliberate Practice (from Coach Wooden, Gladwell, Colvin, and Levitt & Dubner)

I first learned of the 10,000 hour rule — it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at/to truly master any skill –from reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  Then I learned more about how to spend the 10,000 hours in “deliberate practice” from Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

Here’s more.  In Superfreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner refer back to the “father” of the 10,000 hour rule, K. Anders Ericsson.  And yesterday, at a lunch gathering, I presented my synopsis of Wooden on Leadership, by the great, legendary, best-ever-coach John Wooden.  Though he does not refer to the concept directly, he provided the true “deliberate practice” model, with each session of his practices planned to the minute…

So — here are a few reminders from each of these authors, with brief comment a time or two:

From Wooden:
Have a definite practice plan – and follow it.
The coach must never forget that he is, first of all, a teacher.  He must come (be present), see (diagnose), and conquer (correct).  He must continuously be exploring for ways to improve himself in order that he may improve others and welcome every person and everything that may be helpful to him.
You must have patience and expect more mistakes, but drill and drill to reduce them to a minimum.

From Gladwell:
The people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else.  They work much, much harder.

In my synopsis of Outliers, I added these reflections:
• centerpiece to this book is the 10,000 hour rule… — with much intentional practice!
• “Practicing:  that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better”
• Some “observations:
1.              It really does take a lot of hard, hard work – the 10,000 hour rule really is close to an actual rule!
2.              Hard work requires much intentional practice.
3.              Success is the result of “accumulative advantage.”

From Colvin:
There is absolutely no evidence of a ‘fast track’ for high achievers.
Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration.  This is what makes it “deliberate,” as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.  Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone’s mental abilities.

From Levitt and Dubner:
If you don’t love what you’re doing, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good at it.
“Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals; obtaining immediate feedback; and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.”  (K. Anders Ericsson)

(I wrote this in a blog post about Ken Robinson’s The Element:  How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything a while back:
So — here is the question that we each need to ask: What do I care deeply enough about that I am willing to put in significant time, over the long haul, to get better at it? Even if the time I put in is not necessarily fun.

So, we’re always back to this challenge — where are you investing your 10,000 hours?

Steve Martin, Great Banjo Player, and the “Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hour rule”

When does an author “arrive?’  When an idea he or she writes about becomes part of the national vocabulary.  And, by the way, the author who made the word or phrased popular gets the credit, even if someone else originally came up with the idea…

Steve MartinCase in point:  This week, Steve Martin played a concert with his blue grass band, The Steep Canyon Rangers, at the Meyerson Symphony Center to benefit Central Dallas Ministires.  (Larry James is the CEO, and Central Dallas Ministries sponsors the Urban Engagement Book Club, at which I speak monthly).

Steve Martin is known as a comedian/writer/actor, and those of us old enough to remember know him as the “wild and crazy guy” on Saturday Night Live.  But he is a life-long banjo player, and apparently pretty good.  (I was not able to attend the concert).

Here’s an excerpt from the D Magazine Frontburner blog shout out:
Martin is a master entertainer, and he makes it look effortless. But anyone who’s read his memoir of his early days can attest to the fact that he’s a perfect example of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule.

By now, most of us know the Gladwell book Outliers, and its primary premise that it takes 10,000 hours to get really, really good at something/anything.  I’ve posted about this quite a few times before, and mentioned Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated and the need for “deliberate practice” as a good companion volume.  But now, the phrase 10,000-hour rule has entered popular culture as “Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule.” This is quite a feat – he popularized the phrase “The Tipping Point,” and now the “10,000-hour rule.”  (And he came close to adding the phrase  “a blink decision” into the vocabulary).outliers

I think he deserves the credit, even though the idea was borrowed from others.  K. A. Ericsson may have been the first, though even that is in dispute.  Read this and especially this for background and discussion.

But – it is definitely Gladwell who spread the word, backed up with great illustrations in the book, that 10,000 hours is what it takes.  As I said in my handout of my synopsis of this book:
• centerpiece to this book is the 10,000 hour rule… — with much intentional practice!
• “Practicing:  that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better”
It really does take a lot of hard, hard work – the 10,000-hour rule really is close to an actual rule!


You can purchase my synopses of Outliers and Talent is Overrated, with audio + handout, at our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.

The New “Zippies” — and the Growing Skill Deficit

The World is Flat• The new “zippies” — “a young city or suburban resident, with a zip in his stride.  Generation Z.  Oozes attitude, ambition, and aspiration.  Cool, confident, and creative.  Seeks challenges, loves risks, and shuns fear.”
(Describing younger adults in India — Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat)


Last night, I spent a really wonderful evening with a group of very sharp women.  We discussed the book Womenomics by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.  There were many parts of the book that were met with approval and agreement.  But they weren’t so sure about this:  in the book, the authors state that “The millennials are influencing expectations for the entire workforce…the next generation has no interest at all in the sixty-hour work week.”

The Reckoning:  A tale of two cultures as seen through two car companies

The Reckoning: A tale of two cultures as seen through two car companies

I remember reading David Halberstam’s great book The Reckoning.  In the book, he described some bad years for Ford and the ascendancy of Nissan.  The book is in storage, so I can’t give you an exact quote, but I clearly remember this:  younger Americans had become complacent, not driven, not hungry – and a little lazy and apathetic.  At the same time, the younger adults in Japan were working really, really hard because they were so hungry.  He clearly implied that hunger trumps apathy.

I thought of that when I read Thomas Friedman’s column this morning:  The New Untouchables.  Here are some excerpts:

A year ago, it all exploded. Now that we are picking up the pieces, we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.

A Washington lawyer friend recently told me about layoffs at his firm. I asked him who was getting axed. He said it was interesting: lawyers who were used to just showing up and having work handed to them were the first to go because with the bursting of the credit bubble, that flow of work just isn’t there. But those who have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained. They are the new untouchables.

Bottom line: We’re not going back to the good old days without fixing our schools as well as our banks.

I agree that we need to retool our education, or we will be in genuine trouble.  We are definitely growing an alarming education deficit.

But I would suggest that Friedman is hinting at another bottom line.  I would word it this way:  we’re not going back to the good old days unless we get a little more hungry, and develop a new generation of zippies right here in our country.

I don’t think that Kay and Shipman are calling for a lesser work ethic.  They are, in fact, arguing for hard work – when you are at work.  But, this desire of a younger generation to “work less” may translate into a lesser work ethic at the very time that we are in competition with people all over the world who may be ready to work harder than we do.  And if there is anything I have learned in business books lately, work ethic really matters. From the 10,000 hour rule popularized by Gladwell’s Outliers, to the call for deliberate practice in Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, it takes hard work over a long period to get really good at anything.  And that hard work has to start with working hard to learn what is available to learn in school — and then adding skill after skill after skill after school.

In Freidman’s article, he describes that a person can be a very competent lawyer with just the skills learned in school.  But then, the lawyers that survive and thrive in tough times have to develop other skills – skills not taught in school, like client cultivation, networking, the skill to imagine new ways to work…the list grows and grows.  As for the people who learned what they learned in school, and expect that that will be “enough” – well, it isn’t enough.  Not anymore.

So – here is your simple question for the day.  Do you “ooze attitude, ambition, and aspiration?”  When a person watches you walk down the sidewalk, would they describe you as a “zippie?”  If not, you’d better look over your shoulder, because someone is about to pass you.


You can purchase my synopsis of The World is Flat, with audio + handout, at our companion site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.  The Womenomics synopsis is coming soon.

Work Ethic and Success – A Contrarian View?

I have written before (Work Ethic is Always at the Center of Every Success Story — Just Ask Joan Rivers) that work ethic seems to be one of the nonnegotiables for success.  Both Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin trumpet this, with emphasis on the 10,000 hour rule – it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at anything.  People who work hard, really hard, and then practice what Geoff Colvin calls deliberate practice, have a much better chance at success.

Now comes word that the folks who founded Flickr are saying that work ethic is overrated, and not all that necessary.  Here’s an excerpt from an article titled Hard Work’s Overrated, Maybe Detrimental (read the article here):

Caterina Fake, who, with her husband Stewart Butterfield, founded Flickr, knows a thing or two about bliztkreig work schedules. But she points out that late nights are seldom very useful in the grand scheme of things. Hard work? Overrated:
When we were building Flickr, we worked very hard. We worked all waking hours, we didn’t stop. My Hunch cofounder Chris Dixon and I were talking about how hard we worked on our first startups, his being Site Advisor, acquired by McAfee–14-18 hours a day. We agreed that a lot of what we then considered “working hard” was actually “freaking out”. Freaking out included panicking, working on things just to be working on something, not knowing what we were doing, fearing failure, worrying about things we needn’t have worried about, thinking about fund raising rather than product building, building too many features, getting distracted by competitors, being at the office since just being there seemed productive even if it wasn’t–and other time-consuming activities. This time around we have eliminated a lot of freaking out time. We seem to be working less hard this time, even making it home in time for dinner.
Much more important than working hard is knowing how to find the right thing to work on. Paying attention to what is going on in the world. Seeing patterns. Seeing things as they are rather than how you want them to be. Being able to read what people want. Putting yourself in the right place where information is flowing freely and interesting new juxtapositions can be seen. But you can save yourself a lot of time by working on the right thing. Working hard, even, if that’s what you like to do.

I don’t disagree with this.  (And, to state the obvious, I haven’t founded anything as successful as Flickr).  But I do think that it takes a lot of hard work to get to the point where you can “know the right thing to work on.”  It might even take quite a bit of “freaking out,” in order to learn just what does and does not work, what does and does not matter…

The article is actually a call to have “dream space and time,” a concept that I wholeheartedly endorse.  Here’s the last paragraph of the article:
Modern office design is actually converging upon this idea, without any prodding from neuroscience–for example, Facebook’s new offices seem to be organized more around living rooms and DJ booths than cubicles. Elsewhere in office design, conference rooms are quickly being crowded out by lounge spaces. In other words, the very types of places that Watson and Crick found so useful.

And maybe the article hints that when you have learned a few things, you can then work a lot smarter as well as harder.  And I certainly endorse the idea that someone whould be able to be home in time for dinner.

But I’m not really sure this makes the case that success does not come from hard work.  I think it takes hard work to learn how to work smarter. There is still no substitute for work ethic.