Books: How do top achievers do it?

Two authors try to pin down the approach most likely to bring success. Hours of practice and persistence are key. It's an intriguing subject, says Luke Johnson.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Talent is Overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else

Geoff Colvin
Nicholas Brealey £12.99
Outliers: The story of success
Malcolm Gladwell
Allen Lane £16.99

I think my father, Paul Johnson, is an outstanding writer - and I am not alone. He has a particular ability to create vigorous prose, assemble interesting facts and mount a compelling argument on paper. Perhaps some of that ability is inherited. But he is also very hard-working - has written millions of words - and probably got better at it while he was authoring all those books and articles. Is his literary skill a gift, or has it been acquired through graft? I suspect both.

He may well be an example of the core principle underlying Geoff Colvin's new book, Talent is Overrated. Colvin is a columnist on US business fortnightly Fortune. He has written a 200-page book, which essentially says that hard work pays. In it, he rehearses some fairly well-worn arguments about nature versus nurture. This is a debate that has been carried on ever since Darwin proposed his theory of evolution in 1859, and Colvin has tried to apply this knowledge to the business world.

He suggests that human capital is what makes certain companies great, rather than financial capital - which he says is not a scarce resource. To a degree, he is correct about hiring and backing the right people, but since the credit crunch started, the idea that cash is plentiful is simply wrong. Right now, brainpower will only get you so far - you also need some money.

Like many, I'm obsessed about success and how to win it. And that is the heart of Colvin's book - how do top-level achievers do so well?

This is in part a self-improvement manual - but there's nothing wrong with that; we could all do with a bit of constructive advice. Indeed, Colvin gives all of us mortals hope: he postulates that if we put enough effort in, we might just make it. After all, if innate talent was all that determined who climbed to the top, why would ambitious sorts who lack talent bother? Society needs to believe that we can all better ourselves. That is the story of human progress.

According to Talent is Overrated, the vital element common to winners is deliberate practice - ie, plugging away at something until you get it right. Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, makes essentially the same point. He suggests you need to put 10,000 hours of work into your chosen arena to outperform. Circumstances and timing are crucial in deciding how glorious your career is. But both authors emphasise that genes matter much less than environment in mental development - which is both politically correct and almost certainly true.

Colvin uses examples from sport, music, science and business. My experience has been that not many top dogs in business got there through genetic advantage. Few entrepreneurs are academics - for example, both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates dropped out of college. Most rich people of my acquaintance made their wealth through application, startling confidence, and persistence. Sure, they were lucky, and had their share of juicy opportunities, but what made the difference was the hours they put in and their drive to conquer.

Colvin quotes a phrase used about some children who have a compulsion to work in a specific vocation - 'the rage to master'. Is their drive intrinsic? The author thinks even motivation is a habit, not something you are born with.

Others who have studied this territory have noted that exceptional achievers tend to be consumed by their work and frequently selfish. My father (him again) wrote a book showing how many legendary intellectuals were actually monsters in person. But focus and narcissism are perhaps necessary to beat the competition. Often, such achievers make huge personal sacrifices to win medals, make fortunes, invent things or do something else remarkable. Work/life balance doesn't really go with the territory.

Colvin's book is fine, if a little repetitive; I would have preferred a broader, more lyrical study. He has written a text to sell to executives to help them in their jobs. But actually the subject is hugely important, and needs a more enlightened, multi-disciplinary approach.

Gladwell's Outliers is slightly better but meanders and, again, stretches a few key conclusions into hundreds of pages. He is also less impressed than Colvin by self-made men and women, instead believing that family background, ethnicity and cultural legacies make the important differences.

Neither book is entirely satisfactory. I'd like to read a more thorough, definitive study on the whole subject of success: who achieves it, why, how and what it means. It should involve science, economics, sociology and history. One day I might try to put my 10,000 hours in and write it myself.

Luke Johnson is a partner at Risk Capital Partners and chairman of Channel 4

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