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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Review: Talent is Over-Rated

Talent is Overrated (Kindle Edition) is a short, quick read with but one thesis: there is no such thing as talent. While there are certain physical and mental pre-requisites, the difference in performance at a high level can all be attributed to but one thing: the quantity of deliberate practice one is able to achieve.

Deliberate practice isn't just doing what you're good at, but a program aimed at expanding your comfort zone --- the challenge has to be tough enough that it improves your abilities, but not so challenging that you're discouraged --- it requires your full attention. In fact, at the start, most beginners require a teacher or some guided program to tell you how to practice, and in certain fields such as sports (golf, or horseback riding, for instance), a coach is essential even for the best athletes, for the same reason that if you can't see what you're doing, you don't know what you're doing wrong.

Colvin expands on several examples, including an interesting case of a Hungarian couple (who weren't great chess players themselves) deliberately setting out to train three daughters to become eminent chess players. When I think about it, this is how I became a decent programmer --- when I started school, outside class, I would work on my own programs. Each successive project would be more and more complex as my abilities grew. The amount of work I did became obsessive, even to the point where I paid no attention to members of the opposite sex during this period of obsession. One of the reason why there's this stereotype of absent-minded professors or computer-obsessed geeks is because it's real. Colvin even remarks on this:
We often see the price people pay in their rise to the top of any field; even if their marriages or other relationships survive, their interests outside their field typically cannot. Howard Gardner, after studying his seven exceptional achievers, noted that "usually, as a means of being able to continue work, the creator sacrificed normal relationships in the personal sphere." Such people are "committed obsessively to their work. Social life or hobbies are almost immaterial." That may sound like admirable self-sacrifice and direction of purpose, but it often goes much
further, and it can be ugly. As Gardner notes, "the self-confidence merges with egotism, egocentrism, and narcissism: each of the creators seems highly self-absorbed, not only wholly involved in his or her own projects, but likely to pursue them at the cost of other individuals." The story of the great achiever who leaves a wake of anger and betrayal is a common one.
(Kindle loc 3266)
This is indeed the price of success, and everywhere I've spoken with folks about famous successful people, it's usually accompanied with whispers about the price paid. (Not that there aren't well-adjusted successful people, I've met some of them and they exist)

One thought comes to mind, in Unlocking the Clubhouse, Margolis and Fisher claim that even though the women in their computer science program came to computers and programming late, they caught up to the men by the end of the four year program. By contrast, this is what Colvin says:
In any field where people can start early, starting late may put one in an eternal and possibly hopeless quest to catch up. For example, when those top-ranked violinists turn professional, they don't stop practicing. On the contrary, they practice even more, averaging more than thirty hours a week, accumulating more than fifteen hundred hours a year. (Kindle loc: 2745)
I was wondering how to reconcile what both books were saying when it struck me --- even at CMU, the computer science program is tracking the mean (or the average) student. The average CS major isn't obsessively writing programs to make himself better every day of the week (unlike the obsessed wizard-wanna-be). Tracking the peak performers probably makes more sense, and there you would expect to see the men and women who were exposed to computers as kids and who grew up programming to far out-strip the average. And in fact, whenever I encounter such men and women, their abilities really shine --- they truly are what others called talented, but I think this book does explain where such apparent talent comes from.

If this is true, then if we want more women and minorities in Computer Science, then we have to dig deeper than at the university level. We'll have reach students at the elementary or high school level, and engender enthusiasm there. I suspect that our current approaches are too little, too late, at least, to produce the kind of advances that software engineers in top performing companies are expected to do.

The flaws of the book show up in the last few chapters, when Colvin tries to think about how deliberate practice might be applied to business management, and how things might work there. I think it's a stretch. Personally, I think that when you look at successful technology companies, for instance, they almost always succeed when you have a founder (or two) who is steeped in the technology leading the company --- it's not clear that they are great businessmen, but their technical knowledge of the domain their firms work in is impeccable, so other firms that are more marketing-driven or financially-driven eventually cannot compete as long as the field requires constant technical innovation (once the field matures, though, history suggests that all bets are off).

All in all, this is a book worth reading, and gave me plenty of think about. Recommended. If you're too cheap to buy the book, read the article in the New York Times instead.

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