Performance is Complicated

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USA gold medal winner Heather O'Reilly by Geoff Livingston, Wikimedia Commons,Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The story of success, writes that accomplishment is all about practice, timing and the doors that are opened for you along the way. In fact, Gladwell firmly believes that inherent talent has little, if anything, to do with success. He provides a number of convincing examples and trends that support his premise: success is about being in the right place at the right time with access to the right people and tools; and that mastery of a skill comes from putting in the time it takes to master it—exactly 10,000 hours, in fact.

Peak Performance: Does Practice Trump Talent? 

In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin expands on this idea of practice as the primary driver of greatness by differentiating between regular practice and deliberate practice. According to Colvin, only deliberate practice makes the difference between competence and mastery. He goes on to say that deliberate practice is “hard and not fun.” Colvin further defines deliberate practice as a solitary pursuit characterized by a laser-like focus on developing specific skills and abilities required to become great in the targeted domain. Just as Gladwell identifies a “10,000 hour rule” for becoming an expert in a particular field or endeavor, Colvin refers to the “10 year rule.”

The contributions of Gladwell and Colvin are only two of the most recent views in a discussion that stretches back hundreds of years and which is rooted in the ever-controversial nurture versus nature debate.  Both Gladwell and Colvin fall on the side of nurture, believing that controllable, external factors determine whether expertise and advanced achievement are possible. The other end of the scale would suggest that innate ability (passion, intelligence, heightened memory, etc.) are the best predictors of achievement and that the amount of practice an individual needs to achieve mastery will vary depending on those innate abilities. Those who lean toward the nature side of the debate believe that practice alone is never enough.

Practice Plus Talent for Best Results 

The reality lies not in the middle of the debate but rather across the entire discussion.

  • Does practice improve competence? Of course it does.
  • Does lots of practice improve performance more than limited practice? Yes, for the most part.
  • Does focused, deliberate practice work better than unfocused, less deliberate practice? Yes again. 
  • Are innate talent and genetic traits irrelevant in the mastery equation? Apparently not.

In response to the popularity of these two books by Gladwell and Colvin, researchers are once again digging into the question of what it takes to achieve greatness. While this more recent research confirms that practice accounts for as much as 30% of the difference in achievement among top performers, it also clearly indicates that practice is not the only contributing factor.[1]

Performance is Complicated - In the World and at Work

It seems that performance is not easily defined; nor can the process to achieve greatness in any knowledge domain be easily duplicated. In HR, we are acutely aware of this when it comes to identifying the people who will out-perform on the job. In most cases, we recommend hiring for character and personality (the traits that can’t be taught), and providing training for needed skills (i.e. focused practice). In other words, select for nature and provide the nurture.

Interestingly enough, some of the inherent talents that can best predict performance (e.g. passion, focus, willingness to do the hard stuff, and perseverance), are now being studied for their positive impact in the mastery debate.


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[1] Hambricka, D.Z., Oswaldb, F.L., Altmanna, E.M., Meinzc, E.J., Gobetd, F., Campitellie G. (2013) Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert?

Working Offsite Boosts Creativity and Focus

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Geographic Project, Barrie Eyre, Wikmedia Commons We recommend that vacation time be a time to unplug, unwind and recharge. Taking work on a vacation does not help with any of those objectives. On the other hand, turning remote work into something enjoyable in a vacation-like environment never hurt anyone. This is not to suggest that “workations” replace regular vacations. On the contrary, this is about doing the work you might normally do in your home office or at a co-working location on a beach, at a cottage, on your patio or even on a mountaintop. Sometimes a change …

Spring Forward at Work

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Anyone who has lived through this past winter (yes, it’s over, even if Mother Nature hasn’t quite conceded the point yet!), knows that weather can affect your mood.  From the physiological and psychological reactions to reduced daylight and perpetual cold, to acute stress caused by hazardous driving conditions and having to winter-dress children every time they leave the house; life in general is just a bit harder when facing a harsh winter. Grasshopper of the ZEBRA Stelzentheater, by Katharina on Flikr On the flip side, sunny days and balmy temperatures have been shown to increase …

Focus, Flow and Productivity in the Open Office

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Cubicle Fresh by Sean Duffell According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (no, I can’t pronounce it either!), psychology professor and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, people are most creative and productive when they are in a state of “flow.” Understanding "Flow" Flow is defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”[1] This TED Talk by Professor …

Employees Want to do Better

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Oliver1983, Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 A quick review of the top work-related resolutions in the U.S. from Glassdoor’s Q4, 2013 Employee Confidence Survey reveals that respondents (who are not planning a job change in 2014!) are keen to improve their leadership skills and take other work-related training to enhance their job performance. Young people around the world are loudly exclaiming “We want to work and make a meaningful contribution to society.” In Canada, the Bank of Montreal released a survey asking Canadian employees to list their work related New Year’s resolutions[1]. Of …

Problem Solving is Not an Event

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Occasionally we find ourselves caught in the “paralysis of analysis” when attempting to solve a problem. To make progress, we have to come to terms with the fact that deciding on a course of action frequently requires us to move forward with incomplete or imperfect information. The reality is that there will always be more information available later. Rather than getting stuck, we have to make the best decision we can with the information on hand, and be prepared to iterate and make adjustments as new information comes in. US Navy via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain* Problem Solving …

Why be a Problem Solver?

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Pain Relief Success in life and in business often comes as a result of effective problem solving. When we identify a need or recognize someone’s pain, and then meet that need or relieve that pain, we are solving problems. In fact, if there were no problems to solve, many of us would be without purpose or, at the very least, out of a job! It's important to remember that what we identify as a problem is simply an opportunity to test our skills in meeting needs and relieving pain; an opportunity to exercise our purpose. Tomasz Stasiuk …

Creating a Culture of Workplace Health and Wellness

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It may be a surprise to many employers, but investing in the health and wellness of your employees is more involved than just providing them with resources for AFTER they develop pain, injury or disease. Even the juiciest, gold-plated, VIP, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs benefits package will not help you if you’re a ball of stress, sitting all day, and eating poorly. Sure, your prescriptions and dental work might be paid for, but you’ll still be at a significant risk for heart disease, obesity, diabetes and even some Cancers. Flickr/Creative Commons/Library of …

Time Management or Attention Management?

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Time can’t be managed—it just is. So time management is really about managing our attention. Flickr/Darron Berginheier Staying focused on the task at hand is more difficult than it ever was, with open work spaces and an infinite number of media sources vying for our wandering attention. Of course, some people are naturally goal- driven and can more easily stay focused in spite of distractions. While others are “interrupt driven”, in other words, their mind gives priority to external distractions, making it very difficult to stay focused in today’s “twitterverse …

Training Versus Performance Support

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The volume and complexity of information being generated is growing at an unprecedented rate. Knowledge intensity has become a standard part of our life and work on a daily basis. And a large part of managing performance has become providing access to the continually evolving tools, technology and information employees need to do their jobs well. In today’s workplace, the line between working and learning is disappearing. What is a Performance Support System? When the tools, technology and information employees need to excel in their jobs are combined into electronic systems specifically designed to support them at that …

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