Talent is Overrated

I am just finishing up a book that had been recommended to me by a couple of people. Talent is Overrated is an in depth look at what exactly fuels great performance in any field and challenges the myth of the “natural talent”. Time and again, when you look at story behind the performance you find that even those who were supposedly blessed with “talent” worked hard to achieve those results.

The take home message from the book is that “lack of talent” is usually not the real issue. Instead, the author of the book looks at the traits shared by great performers and identifies several things that, if applied, can help anyone achieve greater performance in anything.

Here are a few of the things that really stood out for me:

– Deliberate Practice: Great performers all engage in a lot of “deliberate practice”. Deliberate practice is a term coined by the author to distinguish it from the mindless activities that usually define “practice” for most people. For practice to be deliberate you have to identify specific things that you are trying to work on and be mindful of how you are doing.

For example, on the trail just riding your bike is not “deliberate practice”. Going on a ride with a very specific thing you are going to work on, say leaning your bike and not your body in corners, is the start of the process. While on the trail you must be conscious of what you are practicing going into a corner, executing as best you can and then taking stock in how you did and what you can improve next time. That entire process qualifies as deliberate practice.

In the gym you should also be engaging in “deliberate practice”. You should pick specific things about an exercise that you need to improve on and spend each rep going through the “think-execute-analyze” process. This is how you improve functional movement through exercise instead of just laying fitness on top of your current dysfunctions.

– Bad performances are opportunities to grow: Average performers blame outside forces, great performers look at how they can learn and grow. In the gym this takes the form of writing off an exercise just because it is “tough” and feels “awkward”. It is also seen in people who do an exercise wrong, feel some pain and then decide the exercise is bad instead of their execution.

On the bike this is the rider who blames trail conditions or equipment for performance. While these things can play a role, the biggest factor is the rider. Only by looking at a bad ride as a chance to learn more about your strengths and weaknesses and using that info to create “deliberate practice” activities can you really hope to improve every year.

– Being a great performer is fun but the process of getting better isn’t: The fact that deliberate practice and critically analyzing performances isn’t fun came up more than once. Trying to “play” your way to great performances just doesn’t happen very often, if at all. This is the main reason great performers are so rare – most people simply are simply not willing to put off some “play” for the deliberate practice that will make them better. This is good news for those that are willing to put in the work but really puts a damper on the “just ride your bike” philosophy.

If you want to understand more about how great performances on the trail, in the gym or in business is really achieved are you should really read this book. It will help you gain a better understanding of what is truly holding you back from achieving the results you want. Your mom was right – you can do anything you want, if you are willing to put in the work needed to grow.

-James Wilson-

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  1. jeffB says:

    I said the same thing 15 years ago. The “naturally talented” athlete starts off at a theoretical 80% of maximum performance, so they have little competition and have little motivation to work hard. Three years later the athlete who started at 50% has worked very hard to be at a theoretical 90% of their max potential, and their efforts have grown much deeper roots for their skill and drive, pushing them ahead of the “talented” athlete. The “talented” athlete now makes excuses for his lackluster performance and will frequently claim being “bored” with their sport once they aren`t winning. Props to anyone who can be successful, but IMO the rider who has to work hard for success will have a longer run and find more joy in their sport.

    Reply • May 1 at 8:38 pm
  2. Flatlander says:

    Does this have racing connotations AGAIN?!? I suppose that’s what people are motivated to pay for, but I love the idea of trying to get better to improve the ride, the experience. But the “drive,” the “motivation” has serious racer-head orientation. Why are we in a rush to finish the ride? Flow smoothly.

    Is the posium end-all?

    Reply • May 1 at 9:44 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ Flatlander – I don’t race but I want to ride as good and fast as I can. In fact, i did a blog post on how racing and riding may not be the same thing so in no way do I think that you have to race in order to be motivated to be better. Every rider I talk to says they want to get better yet are not willing to do the work – that was more of the point of the post.

      Reply • May 3 at 11:25 am
  3. Greg says:

    I enjoy the competition of racing but I mostly compete with my self to always
    push harder on a climb take a corner smoother/faster and do a tech spot for
    the first time so its not all about speed for me if that makes sense.

    Reply • May 1 at 10:00 pm
  4. jeffB says:

    You know, I recently retired from a sport I was fairly good at because I was sick of “racing”. It burned me right the *H* out. BUT….I still like to go fast. I like to ride at the edge of courage and nerves, and the more experience you rack up the more it takes to get you to that point. I like going out and pushing my bike harder and harder, and feeling it teeter on the edge of traction underneath me. Loping along through the woods is nice and relaxing and all, but ripping through those same woods at 18 or 20mph is a whole different sensation (and nearly impossible on the skinny trails). I look for every way to go faster on almost every ride. A new dip in the trail to pump for speed or driving my bike even steeper into a turn to come out with more speed. Speed is the addiction now, not “winning”, and I bet I work a lot more specifically now than I ever did as a racer 🙂

    Reply • May 1 at 10:10 pm
  5. jeffB says:

    (and FWIW, around here we aren`t privy to the sweet DH style trails through the trees like one sees in the videos where you could do 30mph without an issue. We`re limited to very narrow XC woodsy trails with a very good chance you`ll clip your bars on a tree on either side at any given moment…ask me how that turns out LOL)

    Reply • May 1 at 10:16 pm
  6. Toh says:

    Hi James,

    I just bought your MTB STrength Training Program and thought I wanna share this.

    I’m from SIngapore. All these while, I never believe in any training programs especially on the internet.
    In fact, Skeptical is the word.

    But your program changed all my previous perspective. I bought your program 2 days ago and started on your mobility & strength & power training. Cardio-wise, not yet, will go down my local bike store to get a standing bike trainer tomorrow.

    It was amazing! Just 2 sessions of the preliminary phase training made me realise that I possess certain muscles that I have never ever discovered! Your videos are very detailed, and shows me not only what I should do but also what I shouldn’t do as well. Excellent! I am a new beginner in MTB, just picked it up a month ago. After these 2 sessions, I feel stronger already! I can’t imagine how such training will benefit those that are more experienced than myself in mountain biking.

    All I want to say is “Thanks James” for creating the program targeted at mountain bikers.
    With your program, I’d go participate in a local race soon. A goal I set for myself, though I’m already 36 years old. Hope it’s not too late.

    Cheers Mate.

    Reply • May 2 at 2:51 am
  7. Dear Toh,

    I started Mountain biking at 36 years old and in the last year I have accomplished far more than I ever imagined. The above article talked about ‘Talent’ being overrated and it is very true. What I have done to make up for a late start in the sport is that I grab onto every opportunity to learn and grow. Whether it be studying new training methods like the ones in this blog or going on group rides with different people several times a week or racing all over New England, it has all had a huge effect. One year after starting I’m racing Cat 2 Cross Country and I’m about to start doing downhill (My blog tells the whole story). So to answer your question, No, it’s not too late for anyone. Good luck in your local race.

    Alex H

    Reply • May 3 at 1:26 pm
  8. Flatlander says:

    Open reply on subject racing:

    Thanks for the responses. My apologies for any tone suggesting outrage; after reading my post that may be how I came off.

    In my defense, I rankle at what is a nearly incessant flow of training/racing/training chatter fom my roadie-rich area of the country.

    I agree with the ride strong philosophy, and if that means ride fast, so be it. I just can’t put fast first like the obedient lance-lubbers.


    Reply • May 8 at 9:07 am
  9. I spent five years training for the Olympics in rowing (2nd in the 1996 OT in the 1x), and one of my favorite axiom (thanks to a great shooter) was “Perfect Practice makes Perfect.”

    A big factor separating world-class from everyone else is the ability to ignore your body’s cries to stop, and focus on the smallest details while suffering greatly. At the end of a race when you have tunnel vision and are close to unconsciousness your muscle memory takes over based on the hours of training. If each stroke (in rowing) was perfect in practice it will be perfect at the end of the race. That’s why great athletes look like they are moving effortlessly.

    Reply • May 20 at 7:30 pm

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