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Archive for July 2nd, 2009

Ok, I’ve finished Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and want to summarize a few of the points he makes. The point of these studies (this along with The Talent Code and others) is that though people are born with God-given ability, it is not so much natural “talent” as hard work that distinguishes the average Joe from the world-class performer. Colvin points to two amazingly gifted performers to illustrate this: Mozart and Tiger Woods.

These two men are viewed by most as “naturals” in their fields. Most believe that they are illustrations of the fact that outstanding performance and ability is a matter of genes rather than hard work. After all, they say, Mozart was composing music at age five and performing in public at age eight. And Tiger, well, he’s the Mozart of golf, right? Colvin calls us to question this conclusion with a closer look at their upbringing.

Mozart’s father was Leopold Mozart, a famous composer and performer (as well as a domineering parent). Leopold started Wolfgang on an serious program of musical training at age three. From age three, Mozart was receiving intensive instruction by an expert teacher, who devoted his life to training him to be an accomplished composer.

Most of Mozart’s early compositions were “borrowed” from others and were not original (as you would expect from a young artist). Colvin notes, “Wolfgang’s first four piano concertos, composed when he was eleven, actually contain no original music by him.” None of Mozart’s early works are considered to be great music, indeed, the first piece which is considered to be a true masterpiece is his Piano Concerto No. 9, which was composed when he was twenty-one (after he had been studying, performing, and composing for almost 18 years).

Further, Mozart’s composing was not like it’s sometimes been presented (i.e. he conceived of pieces entirely in his head and merely wrote them down in one go). This view which was based on a letter (a letter that has since been proven to be a forgery) is false as can be clearly seen from surviving manuscripts. Mozart’s manuscripts show extensive revisions, reworkings, and rewritings — just like the work of other composers. Nothing at all out of the ordinary.

In other words, Mozart’s greatness came through an extended period of instruction, practice, and performing. Or, as Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker puts it, “Ambitious parents who are currently playing the ‘Baby Mozart’ video for their toddlers may be disappointed to learn that Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard.”

What about Tiger? Remember, Tiger’s father, Earl, was a golf fanatic who determined at Tiger’s birth to do everything in his power to make his son a great golfer. Tiger was an only child, so he received all his father’s attention and Earl decided to make Tiger the “first priority” of his life. Tiger would be a golfer. At age seven months, Earl gave his son his first golf club, a putter (NOT a plastic one, a real putter).

When he could sit up in a high chair, Earl set him in the garage so that he could watch his father hit balls into a net for hours on end. Before Tiger was two years-old, he was accompanying his father around the golf course (beginning to learn to play and practice). At age four, Tiger began receiving professional instruction. He finally reached a level of play which would be considered elite at age 19 (after intense instruction, practice, and play for over 17 years).

Tiger did not have “natural” talent for golf. He had to learn to play and his play reached the level it reached because of intense practice and expert instruction. In this, he was exactly like Mozart. Both became elite performers through through an insane amount of hard practice and intense dedication to learn their craft.

Obviously, both men had a great deal of God-given ability. But what set them apart was not their “natural-born” gifts but the time and effort they were willing to put in to develop these abilities to an extraordinary level.

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