Do you know how to keep your head up when everyone else is down?
When I interviewed Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large of Fortune Magazine and author of bestseller Talent is Overrated, he gave me many tips on how to maintain a positive outlook and explained how you can achieve so much with a certain amount of practice and determination.
Below is a transcript from my interview with Geoff. For a video of the interview, scroll down a little further.
This interview is also included in The Best of Goldstein on Gelt 2012, an anthology of some of the most interesting interviews from the weekly radio show.
Douglas Goldstein: Everyone is so gloomy today. How do you retain such an optimistic outlook?
Geoff Colvin: Today when there’s an awful lot of gloom, frankly there’s a lot of good reason for gloom. I’m optimistic and since I’m at Fortune Magazine, I do a lot of thinking about business and the economy and so forth, so that’s largely what I’m thinking about simply because the history of business and the economy is increasing. It’s fundamentally good news, but it is also a little frustrating because I can’t tell you exactly how things are going to get better - and that’s the nature of the economy. It surprises us, but as long as we have a system where there are fundamentally free markets, where people can do things with their ideas, then we continually get these innovations and things nobody dreamed of, which make things better.
There are a fundamental couple of facts that I always fall back on. One is that human desires are without limit, and two is that human ingenuity is without limit. When you combine those two things, it will lead us to new and better circumstances economically. As I say, it’s frustrating because I can’t tell you exactly how it’s going to happen and so this message amounts to having faith. Just believe that it’s going to get better. This doesn’t satisfy logical, linear people like me and most other folks, but it is the lesson of history. So that’s where the optimist comes from.
Douglas Goldstein: From a personal financial spin, how would you take it that way?
Geoff Colvin: There are a few things that would convey this message, at least in my opinion. First, people in their personal finances should be thinking long term. I’m sure it’s a message you deliver all the time, and it’s certainly a message we deliver all the time in the magazine. People shouldn’t be trading in and out of their personal finances every day. They should be thinking long term.
Another fundamental message is to be widely diversified, more widely than most people even think of, but when you look back over these past five or ten years, people say they have been awful and they have been in many places. Investors who are broadly diversified, meaning they were invested in all kinds of asset plusses all around the world, did fine over these past five or ten years. A lot of Western European economies were doing terribly, while Asian economies were doing great, and if you just keep those two things in mind, super broad diversification plus a long-term outlook, then optimism is warranted.
The other thing I would always say to people is to remember that Warren Buffet is fundamentally optimistic about all of this too. If you don’t believe me, look at him. His first rule of investing is, don’t lose.
Douglas Goldstein: Tell me a little bit about the book Talent is Overrated. Why do you say that?
Geoff Colvin: That is always the first question. What on earth do you mean by that title? It’s important to understand it. We all use the word ‘talent’ very loosely. I do, and everybody does. We use it to mean all kinds of different things. For the title of this book, I mean talent in a very specific sense, and that is talent as an inborn innate ability so that you come into the world with it, an innate ability to do something fairly specific.
In the sense of when we say he’s a born golfer, she’s a born accountant, he’s a born mathematician, and he’s a born leader, that sense of the word ‘talent’ is overrated. Thirty years of scientific research show that it has little or some researchers say nothing to do with great performance at anything, sports, music, business, surgery, flying an airplane or whatever. This has little or nothing to do with where great performance really comes from.
Douglas Goldstein: I’ve interviewed number of people, and it started when I spoke with World Chess Champion Susan Polgar. She and her sisters grew up in Hungary as part of a radical family. Their father was a well-known psychiatrist who believed that genius could be taught and didn’t have to born in someone, and he just told his girls, “Wander around the house, see what you like to do,” and it turned out that they all liked chess and now became amongst the most famous and fabulous chess players ever. When I tell this story to my friends and family they say, “Come on, we all know that Mozart was fabulous,” or you go to school and everything comes easy to the kid sitting next to you, but for you it’s difficult. He’s got talent, and you don’t. So how do you see that?
Geoff Colvin: It’s an objection one often hears. By the way, I tell the story of the Polgar sisters in my book because it is such an incredible story and such a great illustration of the theses of the book. People always do resist this, at least a lot of people do, and here’s what I would say to them. First of all, with the examples that we all think of , such as Mozart, and Tiger Woods is another one you often here, when you look deeply into their stories, you find that innate talent apparently has nothing to do with it. In fact, in these two stories, Mozart and Tiger Woods are almost identical, strangely enough. In both cases, their fathers started instructing them in the fields where they became great at incredibly early ages and taught them essentially full time, music in Mozart’s case and golf in Tiger’s case and they both achieved world class status at the same age, 21. People said, “Wow, how could they do it at such an early age?” but what the researchers who study them say is on the contrary. By age 21, each of them had 18 years of intensive practice and instruction. It’s therefore not at all surprising that they achieved it.
When you see a kid in school and everything is easy for him, the thing to keep in mind is whether they’re six years old, or eight, or 12, whenever you encounter them, think of how many experiences they’ve had in their lives up until that point. There’s research now that shows the experiences you have influence you starting from before birth. You hear things even before you’re born. You experienced things, and these experiences have a tremendous effect on you, starting at the earliest age. By the time you’re five, or seven, or nine years old, you’ve had a huge number of experiences with all these differences that a lot of us instinctively attribute to innate talent. But when you look deeply into them, these often come instead from the experiences these people have had previously.
Douglas Goldstein: The experience you’re referring to is actually some sort of practice in whatever it is that you’re doing?
Geoff Colvin: That’s exactly what the researchers have discovered, what they call deliberate practice, which is a very particular kind of activity. It is doing something that is designed to make you better doing it over and over and constantly being pushed just beyond your current level of ability. That is actually the heart of it, being pushed just beyond what you can currently do, not being pushed way beyond because then you’re lost and you can’t do anything, and not being allowed to operate within your current level of abilities because then you don’t grow, but being constantly pushed just beyond what you can do. That is what the world’s great performers all seem to have in common, no matter what field they’re in.
Douglas Goldstein: Is that something we can apply in our personal business life in order to begin to see improvement?
Geoff Colvin: Yes, absolutely, and applying it in business is actually a great opportunity because even though these principles are well-accepted in some fields like music and sports, learning to fly an airplane and some others, they’re not applied very well or widely in business. We can do all kinds of things. In some ways it’s obvious, for example giving a presentation, a speech or something, it’s obvious how you can practice that and get feedback and so forth. Most people just don’t do very much of it, but the people who do are incredibly good. However, it can be applied much more broadly, no matter what you’re going to do, a sales presentation, a negotiation, a performance review, whatever you’re going to be doing, you can figure out ways to practice it.
There are plenty of other things you can do if you really want to. For example, if you want to be a manager in a particular industry, follow that industry and follow the news, and in a particular situation where a manager at another company or some other manager in your company has to make an important decision, don’t just think it to yourself. Write down what you think the right decision would be with a date, then later as the situation plays out, go back and check what you wrote and see if you’re recommending a good decision or a bad decision and then figure out why it was good or bad. Is that extra work? Yes, it is, and this is one of the themes that come through.
Doing this deliberate practice is extra work. I’m not giving away something for free. It is way more work than most people in any field are accustomed to, but it is what all the great performers have in common, and what they will all tell you is, “Yes, it is a ton of extra work and the payoff was more than worthwhile.”
Douglas Goldstein: Could you tell people how could they follow your work?
Geoff Colvin: The easiest way is just to go to my website which is www.geoffcolvin.com. If you just look online for Talent is Overrated, you’ll quickly figure out a way to get to my website and everything, my Fortune work, radio work, books and speaking. It’s all there.
Why Talent is Overrated
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