What it takes to be great
By Geoffrey Colvin, senior editor-at-large
October 19 2006: 3:14 PM EDT (
October 30, 2006 issue)
Research now shows that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The
secret? Painful and demanding practice and hard work
What makes Tiger Woods great? What made Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren
Buffett the world's premier investor? We think we know: Each was a natural who came
into the world with a gift for doing exactly what he ended up doing. As Buffett told
Fortune not long ago, he was "wired at birth to allocate capital." It's a one-in-a-million
thing. You've got it - or you don't.
Well, folks, it's not so simple. For one thing, you do not possess a natural gift for a
certain job, because targeted natural gifts don't exist. (Sorry, Warren.) You are not a born
CEO or investor or chess grandmaster. You will achieve greatness only through an
enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but work
of a particular type that's demanding and painful.
Buffett, for instance, is famed for his discipline and the hours he spends studying
financial statements of potential investment targets. The good news is that your lack of a
natural gift is irrelevant - talent has little or nothing to do with greatness. You can make
yourself into any number of things, and you can even make yourself great.
Scientific experts are producing remarkably consistent findings across a wide array of
fields. Understand that talent doesn't mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits.
It's an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. British-based researchers
Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda conclude in an extensive study,
"The evidence we have surveyed .
.. does not support the [notion that] excelling is a
consequence of possessing innate gifts."
To see how the researchers could reach such a conclusion, consider the problem they
were trying to solve. In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at
first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for
years and even decades, and go on to greatness.
The irresistible question - the "fundamental challenge" for researchers in this field, says
the most prominent of them, professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University - is,
Why? How are certain people able to go on improving? The answers begin with
consistent observations about great performers in many fields.
Scientists worldwide have conducted scores of studies since the 1993 publication of a
landmark paper by Ericsson and two colleagues, many focusing on sports, music and
chess, in which performance is relatively easy to measure and plot over time. But plenty
of additional studies have also examined other fields, including business.