Deliberate Practice, the Myth of Talent, and Your Success

Geoff Colvin, in Talent is Overrated, talked extensively about the myth of talent and the value of deliberate practice. I think he’s right about both points, and I believe his ideas can make you more a more successful copywriter.

First, let’s talk about the myth of talent. It’s not that talent doesn’t exist. It does. But I don’t believe it’s a magical gift. Without this gift, says the myth, you can’t succeed; with it, you can’t fail.

I respectfully disagree. I’ve seen many people who never showed a particular gift for writing take up their pens and become very successful. I’ve seen others with buckets of talent fail to do the work required to live up to their potential and fail miserably.

What the unsuccessful writers left out, and what the successful writers knew and put to work for them, is that talent is raw, undeveloped potential. Talent is nice. Effort, in the form of deliberate practice, is essential.

In his book, Colvin discusses deliberate practice in some depth. This is not practice for the sake of it, as we may have practiced piano when we were 10 and not very interested in the process or the result.

Deliberate practice requires a goal of improvement. Copying ads by hand can be mundane practice if you’re doing it because the AWAI course suggests it and you’re doing what you were told. Copying ads can be, and should be, deliberate practice when you focus on the words and understand how they work to create winning copy.

Practicing deliberately means writing and studying with the intent of improving at every session. Michelangelo became famous at age 24 for his work Pieta. But the great artist knew what many others didn’t – that at age 24, he’d already been practicing for more than 18 years under the hand of a master teacher. Michelangelo said, “If people knew how hard I work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

This is the practice that turns talent into true skill, and nothing can replace it.

Whether you’re copying ads, reading other writers’ copy, working on course assignments, or building your swipe file, do it deliberately. Make every effort you put into your copywriting career a real effort.

If you haven’t read it yet, take a look at my article “Create a Writing Practice for Success,” in which I discuss this matter of practice a little more.

If you take nothing else away from this email, I hope you get these three basic ideas:

  1. Talent is great, but it’s not skill. Talent won’t pay the bills without practiced ability and technique to back it up.
  2. The key to turning talent into skill is deliberate practice.
  3. You should incorporate deliberate practice into every aspect of your study.

If you have any questions or comments for me, please post them in the comments section here.

I’ll see you tomorrow to talk about building a swipe file.

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Published: July 18, 2012

12 Responses to “Deliberate Practice, the Myth of Talent, and Your Success”

  1. Sean, I really enjoyed reading this article. It is one of those things that, once you read it, it's like a "duh!" moment, if you know what I mean. It's common sense. People too often settle for the numerous lies that have been spread throughout society down through the ages. It is only when we start to spread our wings, be open-minded, and are willing to really EXPERIENCE all that life has to offer that we can break those shackles and start learning the truth. Thank you for enlightening us about this subject. The truth shall indeed set us free!

    Guest (Grateful)July 18, 2012 at 10:23 pm

  2. i enjoyed your stuff but i have always desire to publish but have been lethargic at writing how can i break the lethargy

    Guest (osunsanya kolawole o)July 19, 2012 at 5:41 am

  3. Thank you for contributing this article. I really enjoyed reading about your ideas.

    However, throughout the ages, gifted people have reported being divinely inspired.

    The Eureka moment of Archimedes is just one example.

    A lot of these moments came at a time when disciplined effort was not even entertained as a thought.

    I am not discounting here the value of disciplined effort, but just want to open your mind to a new possibility.

    I myself have experienced such moments when writing poetry seemed effortless and ideas started to line up at my door.

    Archan MehtaJuly 19, 2012 at 12:55 pm

  4. Talent is not a myth at all.

    In fact, history records that some are just more talented than others.

    A lot of players worked hard, but none could match the skills of Michael Jordan.

    This is equally true for any profession.

    That is why some people are called "talented" or even "gifted."

    Disciplined effort by itself is not enough. Not at all.

    You also need to be open to the muse.
    And the muse comes and goes as she pleases. Divine inspiration can strike at the most inconvenient time and place.

    Your article is missing out on these key points.

    Archan MehtaJuly 20, 2012 at 11:11 am

  5. Sometimes, copywriters--in fact, all creative people--need to just sit back and relax.

    Doing nothing is a key skill to master if you are a creative person.

    That's why it is important to cultivate interests and hobbies that compel you to leave your comfort zone.

    When you are a copywriter, you have got to realize that you need to transcend hard work and discipline.

    Tapping into the power of the subconscious mind allows you to make cosmic connections between seemingly disparate ideas.

    That's why meditation is also essential and yoga too.

    Archan MehtaJuly 20, 2012 at 11:14 am

  6. Your success and wealth in this game, after all, also depends on your ability to cultivate your existential alone-ness.

    This is a key point that seems to be missing from your articles.

    Silence and solitude and peace and quiet are the best friends of any creative.

    It is only in such moments that you are able to do your best work.

    It is also important to record the fact that this depends and we need to take into consideration individual differences and eccentricities.

    But a little bit of isolation can help to jump start the little grey cells.

    Archan MehtaJuly 20, 2012 at 12:28 pm

  7. I'm presuming that the real point of the book is that talent isn't enough. I think that's true.

    I spent many years in local TV and saw a lot of people start out hot, only to wind up gone later.

    Why? Because they didn't hone their talent by learning the skills they needed to go on.

    When you learn to play a musical instrument, you discover that the MORE you play, the BETTER you get.

    Amateurs practice until they can do it right. Professionals practice unit they can't possibly do it wrong.

    Guest (Paul Black)July 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm

  8. I agree 100%. My blog, which I have published since last January, endorses these same principles.

    arnie regardieAugust 10, 2012 at 12:27 am


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