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Drive Trumps Talent

Becoming a top musician, athlete, or salesperson doesn’t require immense natural gifts, says author and Fortune magazine editor Geoff Colvin. Practice matters most.

What is talent? A natural gift, a learned ability, or both?

The word “talent” tends to be used broadly to suggest a specific, innate ability to do certain things more easily or quickly than most people do them – play the oboe, sell cars, lead an organization. But if by talent we just mean great performance, then I would say that based on the research, great performance is overwhelmingly a learned ability. It’s certainly true that great performers require motivation, and they seem driven by a passion for the field, but the passion doesn’t seem to be innate. It seems to develop over time, like the abilities themselves.

Is that why you conclude in your book, Talent Is Overrated (Portfolio, 2008), that great performance isn’t reserved for a predetermined few, but available to everyone?

Yes. Research suggests that talent isn’t very important, that it may not even exist. Rather, people become great performers by devoting tremendous time to high-intensity, deliberate practice activities. In fact, the biggest hurdle to achieving world-class status isn’t natural ability, but the need for practice. Most find the commitment overwhelming.

Where do passion and drive come in? Are those things internally or externally motivated?

People don’t come into the world with a passion. They may have a natural ability, but those who succeed have an internal motivation that makes them practice for a cumulative effect. Some external motivations can be helpful, mostly in the early stages of development. Parents can get children to practice. But at a certain point, a person has to develop a personal commitment.

In your book, you talk about different practice models. Is there one that would work best for real estate salespeople?

The best performers think specifically rather than generally. When showing a listing, they think about what they’re going to do before they do it, set a specific goal, evaluate their performance, and determine how to improve. A salesperson works to understand a buyer’s objectives by listening to key words – perhaps the importance of family.

For an organization to succeed, you say, it has to develop leaders. How does a company do this, particularly in this economy?

By identifying abilities. Each person needs to develop and find assignments that nurture those abilities. In a tough environment, people have to push themselves to do things they weren’t prepared to do.

You also say that at times a leader has to “put the fish on the table” and confront reality. How can a broker do this?

By helping people – employees, sales associates, clients – understand how long the recession is likely to last and what needs to be done to prepare. Doing what’s necessary often means layoffs. A good broker tries to talk to everyone and say: “Here’s what we’re doing and why.”

Does world-class performance require success after success?

Nobody achieves great performance without encountering difficulties, but some give up too soon. Everybody experiences failures and disappointments, even the greatest performers.


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