Last week, I read a book called Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin.
About a year ago, I don’t think I would have told you that. It would have implied that I wanted to be a world-class performer, which would have seemed terribly ambitious. And in my family, while people are in fact terribly ambitious, they never, ever talk about it. (I mean, my father is an MD/PhD and my mother is an MD/JD. And their children take after them in various ways.) When I look back at it now, I realize that I was raised according to the oddest standards, the standards of a nineteenth-century aristocratic European family. There were things one simply did not talk about. Money and ambition, for instance, although it was always assumed that one would have money (not that we did), and that one would accomplish at the highest level (well, we did that, I think). I grew up with the distinct impression that if your possessions were too new, you came from new money, and there was something shameful in that. That a woman should never call a man first, or accept money or any gift of significant value (unless they were actually engaged). I know, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I also know how to ride horses and crochet lace. Seriously.
Where was I? So I was reading Talent is Overrated, which is a very interesting book about how anyone can develop world-class talent if he or she puts in the necessary work. The necessary work turns out to be a lot, about ten year’s worth of what the author calls deliberate practice. I’m still thinking through the book, but here is what I’ve gotten out of it so far, at least for myself as it applies to my writing. Here are the steps you need to take, to achieve world-class talent.
1. Know where you want to go.
Where I want to go is a writing career, of course. By which I mean a lot of things that I’ve written about before, so I won’t try to explain them all here. Let’s go through these steps first.
2. Decide what skills you need to get there.
The skills I need are writing skills. I need to be able to write a terrific story, poem, essay, novel. I think I probably also need the skills to market my writing effectively. I need to be able to do readings, create ebooks and podcasts, that sort of thing.
3. Practice those skills deliberately.
There are several ways to accomplish this step. First, you need to practice a lot, but that by itself is not enough. You need to practice in a targeted and effective way, focusing on specific skills that will go into creating the work. You need to find good teachers – who for my purpose can be teachers I interact with or writers who have long been dead, but whose writing I can still learn from. You also need to seek out and receive feedback on your progress, so you know what you’re doing well and what you need to keep working on. And you need to modify your practice to reflect your growth.
This is a lot, and I need to write about it more, separately.
4. Develop a deep knowledge of your field.
The book says that the best performers are also the most knowledgeable about the field in which they excel. A chess master will understand chess in a way that a lesser player does not. The same goes for a world-class musician. I think you see this among writers. I’m reading a book by P.D. James on the history of the detective story, and it’s clear that she understands her field inside and out. Stephen King seems to have a deep knowledge of supernatural horror as a literary genre.
What is my field? Writing – so I need a deep knowledge of the literary tradition and of writing more specifically.
I have to think further about these four injunctions, because they make me think differently about what I do. For example, do I actually engage in deliberate practice? I need to think about that one. But I’m hoping to write about it later in the week. When I’m a little less tired!