IS TALENT OVERRATED?
All of us in business believe that “People, make the difference” and organisations that have good programmes designed to attract and retain the best talent will be more likely to succeed. But what is exceptional talent and is it indeed overrated?
Geoff Colvin is Fortune magazine’s senior editor at large and has written hundreds of articles for the magazine. He has also served as moderator of the Fortune Global Forum, where he has interviewed Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Peter Drucker and other business legends. He wrote an article in Fortune on the topic of talent and it became one of the most popular Fortune articles in years. He has now expanded it, with much more scientific research and real life examples. In a book called Talent is Overrated he offers new evidence that top performers in any field from Mozart to Tiger Woods are not determined by their inborn talents. Greatness does not come from DNA but from practice and perseverance over decades.
A similar theme has been developed in another new book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, the hugely successful author of The Tipping Point.
Geoff Colvin presented his thesis at a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts which I attended and I met him afterwards to discuss his ideas. The stories of Mozart and Tiger Woods are remarkably similar. The young Mozart was encouraged by his father Leopold, who was himself a fine musician and composer, to play music at a very early age. He was launched on the public stage as a child prodigy but had already practised for years. He is reputed to have begun composing at an early age too but no manuscripts in his own hand appear before his teens. Prior to that all the compositions attributed to him are in his father's hand and when he finally does emerge in his late teens with musical compositions now generally regarded as world class he had been dedicated to deliberate practice for over 15 years.
Tiger Woods’ father, Earl, was a good golfer and an instructor in the armed forces. When Tiger was very young his father sat him in his high chair to watch Earl make practice swings with his golf club so that Tiger at an early age would have learned the rhythm of a good golf swing. When he was old enough to hold a club himself he was taught what to do with it and has maintained daunting practice and fitness régimes ever since. At a similar age to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart he emerged on the professional circuit to compete with established professionals and has dominated the sport ever since. If you want to know why you can never be Tiger Woods, the answer is that your father was not Earl Woods.
I have encountered this example of deliberate practice in others. I met Nick Faldo when he had just won the US Masters for the first time. I asked him how much he practised. He told me that now that his swing was in good shape, just a few hours a day, but when he was in the process of changing his swing, all the hours of daylight. I knew then I could never be any good at the game because I would never be prepared to do that.
But if it takes such exceptional practice to excel is the ability to do that not itself a talent? Perhaps the gift is the dedication and the ability to put up with the routine of endlessly performing the same task.
This lesson is no doubt of interest to anyone who wants to understand how the great got that way. But is it useful to the rest of us mere mortals? I think so because the lesson of deliberate practice applies to many things in life and consequently in business. We need to learn routines and keep them up. People of my generation learnt many things at school by rote and still find them easy to recite. Recent generations of students have not had the same teaching and so we find that significant numbers of students entering university to study sciences cannot even perform simple mathematical tests. And as organisations we can learn the lessons too. Good customer service, for example, should be taught and it should not be assumed that because someone has a nice personality they will instinctively know how to give great service.
Copyright David C Pearson 2009 All rights reserved