I love Geoff’s writing for several reasons: First, it is interesting and captivating. Second, Geoff offers perspectives that are both empowering and different. Third, his ideas have always given me a new focus for both my own growth and for my training programs. For example, in his first book, Talent is Overrated, the notion of deliberate practice resonated with me. And in his most recent book, his description of empathy as the key interpersonal skill of the 21st century is enlightening and spot on.
For me, if I can get one transformative idea from a book, it’s worth the read – and both of these books offer much more.
Paul: Geoff, thank you for your time. Talent is Overrated is one of my favorite books because it offers affirmation that we can all be extraordinary. What is it that really separates world-class performers from everybody else?
Geoff: It is this idea of deliberate practice, and more particularly the willingness to do it day after day for years. That’s what the world’s greatest performers in every discipline have in common. It’s important to note that the key to great performance is not what most people think it is, which is a natural gift – a one-in-a-million special ability that you’ve either got or you don’t. That’s the meaning of “talent” that is overrated. The researchers in this field agree that talent in that sense doesn’t count for much. Some even say it doesn’t exist.
Paul: And what can those of us who want to be really good – but don’t see ourselves as world-class performers – take away from your book?
Geoff: That’s a great question because the truth is that becoming truly world-class great demands an intensity of commitment that leaves almost no room for the other elements of life. Most people don’t want to do that, and you can’t blame them; maybe they can’t afford to devote years to deliberate practice. But that’s okay. The message of the research is that we can all get much, much better than we ever imagined. There’s no required minimum investment in deliberate practice. More is better, but any is good. It isn’t easy, but you’ll be amazed at the payoff.
Paul: Please tell us more about deliberate practice.
Geoff: It’s a very specific activity and not what most people think it is. Here are the elements: 1) It pushes you just beyond your current level of ability – not way beyond, because then you’ll be lost, and not within your current ability, because then you won’t grow. But just beyond. 2) It is designed for you individually at this moment in your development. That means it will change as you get better; one reason many of the world’s best performers employ teachers or coaches is to keep redesigning their practice as needed. 3) It can be repeated at high volume. This actually changes the wiring in your brain. 4) It gives you continual feedback. You can’t get better if you don’t know how you’re doing. This is another reason great performers have teachers – to give them objective outside feedback on their performance.
Paul: The subtitle of your new book is “What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will.” There seem to be a number of books about robots and the future of humanity right now – Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply, John Markoff’s Machines of Loving Grace – what do you think has prompted this?
Geoff: A couple of things. One, machines are now doing tasks that many of us thought machines could never do; driving cars is the most obvious example, but there are plenty of others, such as analyzing documents in legal cases faster, cheaper, and better than human lawyers. People are starting to wonder: What can’t these machines do?
Two, the impact on jobs is becoming more noticeable at a time when wages haven’t been rising much. Until recently, machines mostly took over jobs in factories and back offices, out of sight of many people. But now machines check us out at the supermarket and check us in at the airport. Again, we wonder: Where will it all end? That anxiety is what’s prompting all these books.
Paul: In your new book, Humans Are Underrated, you argue that as technology races ahead, certain human traits and skills will become more valuable – empathy, collaboration, creating relationships.
I think I would personally get a low score when tested for empathy, and my wife, Cindy, would probably agree. How might I get to work on being more empathetic?
Geoff: First realize that you can get better; empathy is not an immutable trait but a skill that you can improve. A great way to begin is by putting down your digital devices every so often and talking to someone in person, paying particular attention to what that person is thinking and feeling. Research shows that this simple activity will sharpen your empathy. Sounds easy to do, but many people find it difficult in our hyper-connected age; they think it’s inefficient compared with texting or emailing. Well, just do it. In addition, read more literary fiction; research shows that this also improves empathy.
You can have some fun gauging your empathy and related skills by taking a quiz I devised at www.RoboEconomyQuiz.com.
Paul: In the current world of political correctness, it seems we’ve lost some of our advantage by considering everything to be the same versus honoring distinct differences. One in particular I find to be both common sense and a wonderful place for awareness—gender differences. In this newest book, you point out that women have an advantage over men in a couple of areas. Please explain.
Geoff: In the skills of personal interaction – empathy, social sensitivity, collaboration – women on average are better than men. Lots of research supports this finding, but do we really need the research? Don’t we all know it from our life experience? That doesn’t mean all women are better than all men at these abilities; they aren’t. And people of both sexes can get better. But it’s a fact of life that on average, women are advantaged in the high-value skills of today’s and tomorrow’s economy.
Paul: In the context of making a difference, what is it that men need to be working on, in your view? And women?
Geoff: Most men need to be working on these fundamental interpersonal skills, starting with empathy, as I’ve already described. Many women need to work on the confidence to use their interpersonal abilities, to offer a perspective that others around them may not be used to hearing. Increasingly, that’s exactly what those others need to be hearing.
Paul: Why do teams matter more than ever and what really makes teams work?
Geoff: Teams matter more than ever because more of the world’s work is being done by teams. As knowledge expands and complexity increases, teams are the only way to accomplish what needs doing. And the key to team effectiveness isn’t what most people think – motivation, cohesion, even leadership. It’s the social sensitivity of the team members, research shows. The best teams get a lot of ideas on the table – no one dominates – and they can read each other well enough to reach a rapid consensus on each idea. That’s much more important than team members’ average IQ, for example.
Paul: With more team interactions taking place on-line, why should team leaders be worried and what do they need to do to have a powerful group?
Geoff: Sometimes teams have to work online, but we know that the most creative, productive interaction takes place in person. That’s when we engage all the deep interpersonal processes, many of which we aren’t even consciously aware of, that cause a team to become more than the sum of its parts. At the very least, teams should make sure they get together in person from time to time; that experience will improve their online interaction.
Paul: Tell us about the power and impact of storytelling.
Geoff: Companies have generally devalued storytelling in favor of charts, graphs, and bullet points. Those things are important, but if you want people to act, they aren’t enough. There’s an old saying that logic leads to conclusions, while emotion leads to action. And there is no better way to engage people’s emotions than by telling them a story. In fact, it’s very difficult to do it any other way. Many companies are beginning to realize the power of story – to understand that we are hardwired to respond to stories – and are deciding that just maybe stories could hold a lot of value for them.
Geoff Colvin is senior editor-at-large at Fortune and is the author of both Talent Is Overrated (2008) and the new book Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will (Portfolio; August 2015).