Performance is Complicated

USA gold medal winner Heather O'Reilly by Geoff Livingston, Wikimedia Commons,Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The story of success, writes that accomplishment is all about practice, timing and the doors that are opened for you along the way. In fact, Gladwell firmly believes that inherent talent has little, if anything, to do with success. He provides a number of convincing examples and trends that support his premise: success is about being in the right place at the right time with access to the right people and tools; and that mastery of a skill comes from putting in the time it takes to master it—exactly 10,000 hours, in fact.

Peak Performance: Does Practice Trump Talent? 

In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin expands on this idea of practice as the primary driver of greatness by differentiating between regular practice and deliberate practice. According to Colvin, only deliberate practice makes the difference between competence and mastery. He goes on to say that deliberate practice is “hard and not fun.” Colvin further defines deliberate practice as a solitary pursuit characterized by a laser-like focus on developing specific skills and abilities required to become great in the targeted domain. Just as Gladwell identifies a “10,000 hour rule” for becoming an expert in a particular field or endeavor, Colvin refers to the “10 year rule.”

The contributions of Gladwell and Colvin are only two of the most recent views in a discussion that stretches back hundreds of years and which is rooted in the ever-controversial nurture versus nature debate.  Both Gladwell and Colvin fall on the side of nurture, believing that controllable, external factors determine whether expertise and advanced achievement are possible. The other end of the scale would suggest that innate ability (passion, intelligence, heightened memory, etc.) are the best predictors of achievement and that the amount of practice an individual needs to achieve mastery will vary depending on those innate abilities. Those who lean toward the nature side of the debate believe that practice alone is never enough.

Practice Plus Talent for Best Results 

The reality lies not in the middle of the debate but rather across the entire discussion.

  • Does practice improve competence? Of course it does.
  • Does lots of practice improve performance more than limited practice? Yes, for the most part.
  • Does focused, deliberate practice work better than unfocused, less deliberate practice? Yes again. 
  • Are innate talent and genetic traits irrelevant in the mastery equation? Apparently not.

In response to the popularity of these two books by Gladwell and Colvin, researchers are once again digging into the question of what it takes to achieve greatness. While this more recent research confirms that practice accounts for as much as 30% of the difference in achievement among top performers, it also clearly indicates that practice is not the only contributing factor.[1]

Performance is Complicated – In the World and at Work

It seems that performance is not easily defined; nor can the process to achieve greatness in any knowledge domain be easily duplicated. In HR, we are acutely aware of this when it comes to identifying the people who will out-perform on the job. In most cases, we recommend hiring for character and personality (the traits that can’t be taught), and providing training for needed skills (i.e. focused practice). In other words, select for nature and provide the nurture.

Interestingly enough, some of the inherent talents that can best predict performance (e.g. passion, focus, willingness to do the hard stuff, and perseverance), are now being studied for their positive impact in the mastery debate.


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[1] Hambricka, D.Z., Oswaldb, F.L., Altmanna, E.M., Meinzc, E.J., Gobetd, F., Campitellie G. (2013) Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert?

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