Your Mom was right: It pays to practice

I recommend reading Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else.  I found Colvin’s storytelling interesting and the information well-presented.

Cover of "Talent Is Overrated: What Reall...

The longest book I've read on my iPhone, so far (Cover via Amazon)

It seems to be similar to Malcolm Glidwell’s Outliers, which I have yet to read.  Like Gladwell (I think), Colvin concludes that deliberate practice (and lots of it) is the key.  Which means, that what really separates world class performers and everybody else is their ability to find and persevere through deliberate practice.

Several of Colvin’s stories gelled with observations from my own experience, on page 44 (of my edition) he discusses studies done on expert race horse handicappers.

…IQ just didn’t seem to matter.  “Low-IQ experts always used more complex models than high-IQ nonexperts,” the researchers found.  Not only did handicapping expertise fail to correlate with IQ, it didn’t even correlate with performance on the arithmetic subtest of the IQ test.

The researchers’ conclusion: Their results suggest “that whatever it is that an IQ test measures, it is not the ability to engage in cognitively complex forms of multi-variate reasoning.”

That last phrase is not one that most of us use very often, but it’s actually a very good description of what most of us do every day in our working lives, and what the best performers do extremely well.  You just don’t have to be especially “smart,” as traditionally defined, to do it.

I’ve seen this over and over again.  “Smart” people (as determined by school grades and IQ tests) who struggle in the real world as they try to fit it into the supposedly “complex” (but surprisingly simple, once you get past the jargon) models they learned in school and they’re often outwitted by folks that have more contextual experience giving them a much better feel for the dynamics of the situation.

In other words, the “smart” person probably wouldn’t think to consider to factor in details of the horse’s latest bathroom break when handicapping the race, while the expert handicapper probably does that without even realizing it.

I do have one point of contention to offer Colvin.  Later in the book, he explains that folks are taking longer to make significant contributions to their fields.  For example, in 1900 a study of innovators found that people began making contributions to their field at around age 23.  By 1999 that age increased to 31.

Colvin attributes this to having more material for these folks to have to master.

I think there’s another factor, that is a key part of Colvin’s book, but he fails to relate here — the amount of deliberate practice these folks have had.

My guess is that in 1900, folks found their fields at a younger age and were able to spend more time in deliberate practice in those fields, because they didn’t have as many other subject requirements in their education distracting their attention.

My guess is that I could have done without about half or more of the liberal arts education that I was required to take to earn my engineering degree and I wouldn’t have missed a beat.

Had I spent more time while I was studying to become an engineer, doing actual engineering work (as an apprentice or intern), I may have discovered several years sooner that engineering didn’t hold my interest.  I could have spent those years getting an earlier start on my other interests instead.

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3 thoughts on “Your Mom was right: It pays to practice

  1. Gladwell’s thesis is different but relevant. I really enjoyed Outliers and I think you will, too. This also fits in with a recent post of mine at:
    http://mikepoliquin.com/2011/12/28/careers-math-and-work-experience-vs-college-degrees/.

    In it I advocate that people who have skills but no specific sense of direction for a career are better off accumulating job experiences and street smarts than wasting their first years out of high school in more classrooms and other places that appear to be sterilized of wisdom.

    The school-smart (high linguistic IQ) student goes on to college without a second thought. How could that be a bad choice for a book-smart straight-A student? Let’s see how that person does with four more years of straight-As in some questionably marketable academic program. The most that person has to offer is a superior understanding — we hope — about how to learn, because we improve and refine skills only when we use them (let’s hope this person is a St. Thomas Aquinas or Hillsdale graduate, then). A student refines learning skills — but how many jobs these days pay people to learn? Most of them pay people to solve problems and fulfill commitments. The ability to master esoteric academic information may not fit that mode.

    I’ll put this book on my list. Thanks. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Too much education? | Our Dinner Table

  3. Pingback: Precious Childhood Syndrome | Our Dinner Table

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