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The Talent that Really Matters

Don’t let false beliefs about natural talent lock you into mediocrity

It’s very fashionable in a lot of business writing to focus on the importance of hiring only the most talented people you can find and then compensating and motivating them to do their thing. It sounds logical, but it’s built on the false premise of “natural” talent.[1]

Why do so many people believe that greatness is a result of inborn talent? I suspect it is a comforting thought that absolves them of any responsibility for the comparison. After all, if someone is better than me because they were born that way, I can keep my self-esteem intact—and we all know that “self-esteem” is sacred in our society. On the other hand, it’s hard to understand how someone’s self-esteem can be increased by praising them for being smart, because if it truly is a gift, then it is not earned.

The belief in natural talent matters, because it is so self-limiting to so many people. How many times have you heard, “I’m just not good at speaking in front of groups”, or “That’s just the way I am and I’m not going to change”?

The good news is that you can change, you can grow, and you can achieve mastery in your chosen field. The bad news (or good, depending on your point of view), is that it’s not easy.

First point: Your Mindset is Hugely Important

The first point is taken from one of my favorite books, Mindset, medicine by Carol Dweck, who tells us that people generally fit into one of two opposing mindsets when it comes to their beliefs about personal ability. Those with a fixed mindset believe that people are born with a given level of intelligence and ability which will determine their relative capability to succeed in various fields. Those with a growth mindset believe that ability is within our personal control and is determined by effort, learning and hard work.

The distinction is not merely academic. As Dweck’s research shows, “…a simple belief about yourself…guides a large part of your life. In fact, it permeates every part of your life.” In one experiment, kids were given a fairly challenging set of questions from an IQ test. Half were then praised for being smart (let’s call them the FMers), and half were praised for working hard (GMers). In the next step, they were given a much more challenging set of questions. Those who were praised for being smart did not enjoy themselves as much as those praised for working hard. In subsequent tests, the FMers’ performance declined while the GMers’ performance improved. As a final step, they were asked to write about their experience for the next class, and Dweck found that almost 40% of the FMers lied about their performance! It was more important to them to be seen as talented than to put in the work.

Later, ask Dweck shows how a growth mindset can be taught to kids and adults. So, as you can see there are definite advantages to having a growth mindset, and mindset can be learned. But it does not have to be taken on faith. Let’s look at recent research which clearly demonstrates that talent is more of an acquisition than a gift.

Second Point: Your Genes Are Not Your Destiny

What about intelligence? Surely a person’s IQ is an innate ability they are born with, right? Actually, not so much. Richard Nisbett, in his book Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count cites research on adopted siblings in France which found that being placed into an upper class rather than a lower class home can make a difference of 12 to 18 IQ points. Being in better schools, hanging around achievement-oriented kids, etc. can make a huge difference.

Genes are of course important, but not as much as we have been led to believe. The major point of The Genius in All of Us, by David Shenk, is that biology is not destiny. The common perception is that genes are like the cards we’re dealt at birth; some people play their hand better than others, but we all are stuck with the hand we’re dealt. Shenk shares recent research that shows it’s not that simple, especially when it comes to complex ideas like “talent”. Genes powerfully influence the formation of traits, but rarely dictate precisely what those traits will be. We don’t inherit traits, we develop them through the interaction of our genes with our environment. He cites a 1957 study that compared Japanese children raised in California to those raised in Japan—they averaged five inches taller. If environment can make such a dramatic difference in something like height, imagine what a difference it can make in a “talent.” In effect, the equation we should pay attention to is not nature + nurture = 100%, but nature X nurture = N, where N is potentially unlimited.

Even the physical structure of our brains can be altered by our life experiences and learning. In The Mind and the Brain, Sharon Begley tells us about neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to add neurons and to re-wire those we have in response to the demands placed on it. To become a London cabdriver, candidates have to memorize thousands of streets and locations. MRI studies of their brains show enlarged hippocampuses, which is the structure in our brain where long term memories are stored, and the size is correlated to length of service.

Even if IQ were a fixed, eternal number for each of us, it still would not make much difference. As Malcolm Gladwell tells us, the correlation between IQ and occupational success is between .2 and .3, which is a very low number. One of the surprising facts I came across is that several chess grandmasters have IQs below 100. As Robert Sternberg says, intelligence is a set of competencies in development.

Third Point: Hard Work is the Talent that Matters Most[2]

Talent is not “natural”, no one is born knowing how to do something. Even Mozart said, “People make a great mistake who think that my art has come easily to me. Nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I.”

A little closer to our own era, Chuck Yeager said, “There is no such thing as a natural-born pilot. Whatever my aptitude or talents, becoming a proficient pilot was hard work, really a lifetime’s learning experience…the best pilots fly more than others; that’s why they’re the best.”

The talent that really matters is the ability to work hard and long towards a worthwhile goal.

Hard work is important, but just putting in time is not enough. I’ve been driving a car for over 35 years. Can I honestly say I’m a better driver than I was 25 years ago? Of course not. On the other hand, I’ve been training adults in sales and presentations for 20 years now, and I can honestly say that I am much better than I was 20 years ago. In fact, I’m better than I was one year ago, or even six months ago. What’s the difference? In one field, I’ve done the same things for all that time. In the other, I’ve continuously studied and learned (new material and new ways of presenting it), I’ve targeted some skills for improvement and have deliberately practiced those skills even as I was teaching, I’ve watched videos of myself to discover other areas that could be improved.

It’s all about deliberate practice, which is not the same thing as regular practice, where you do the same thing over and over. It is designed to work on those aspects of your performance that must be improved to a certain standard, get immediate feedback on your performance, and try and try again until you get it. Only then do you move on to the next part.[3]

At Last, the “So What” Part: How to Apply It in Your Own Life

This article is not about becoming a genius or the world’s best at what you choose. As we grow into adulthood, we’re not likely going to be able to put in the 10,000 hours we’re told it takes to reach that level, but this does not mean we can’t make very large and meaningful improvements in any skill or field we choose. Becoming an expert in your profession or mastering some component skill, such as writing or public speaking, is within your reach, if you are willing to pay the price.

Find your motivation. This suggestion is the most personal, and no one can really tell you how to do it. It has to be something you want to do or need to do, because the initial bloom of enthusiasm will wear off very quickly as the hard work of deliberate practice kicks in. You have to have a sense of healthy dissatisfaction with your current performance. The minute you think you’re doing good enough, you’ve begun the long slow slide to mediocrity and irrelevance.

Get started early. As the old saying says, “The best time to plant a tree was yesterday. The second best time is today.”

Stick with it. See my previous article on the importance of grit.

Be as deliberate as possible in your practice. It may seem hard to find ways to apply deliberate practice to work tasks, but it is possible. It begins with identifying what needs to be improved and then finding opportunities to work on it. For example, salespeople can do role plays before an upcoming customer call. If you want to be a better presenter, join a local Toastmasters Club, or seek out as many opportunities to speak as you can. You can even do it in actual work situations. For example, you might decide to work on your listening skills. Isolate one listening technique, such as paraphrasing, and then try to use it at least three times that day. Keep doing this until it becomes skilled and natural, and then move on to the next.

Be consistent. Deliberate practice requires a tremendous amount of concentration, so you can’t do too much of it at once. You have to space it out and be consistent. Jascha Heifetz said, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.” You might find it helpful to keep a log.

Seek out feedback. Be your own toughest critic. Resist contentedness. People with a fixed mindset find this particularly hard to do, because negative feedback can be a threat to self-esteem. But performance without feedback is like bowling with a curtain in front of you at knee height. One of the most useful tools implemented by the US Army is the After-Action Review, in which all participants regardless of rank can critique how a exercise or even an actual operation was run.

Surround yourself with other high achievers. Competition is good. When you are around people who share the same motivation and regard for excellence, it is motivational, it is competitive, and they can see things you can’t. Have heroes and mentors. People with a fixed mindset like to be at the top of the heap, because it reinforces their self-esteem, but those with a growth mindset know they need to be challenged. It’s like the pet turtle that only grows as large as its container allows.

Step on your balls. I better explain this one—Tiger Woods has been seen to drop golf balls into a bunker during practice and then step on them so he can practice hitting balls from a difficult lie. Challenge yourself; don’t just practice the easy stuff.  Average performers practice what they can already do, and expert performers practice what they can’t do. They make it difficult for themselves. The benefits of this to skill development are obvious, but just imagine what it does to your mental toughness when you are accustomed to surmounting challenges.

Study more. Many of the principles of deliberate practice are hard to do in daily work life, but this one is not. You should become an avid student of your domain, whether it is your industry, your profession, your company, or the individual skills that add up to success, such as writing and speaking.  Intelligence tests measure two types of intelligence, fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence refers to the ability to use your skills, knowledge and experience; a broader and deeper knowledge base gives you more to draw from. When IBM challenged Garry Kasparov with its Deep Blue supercomputer in 1996, it could analyze 100 million positions per second, to Kasparov’s handful, yet he still won, because he had a vast amount of knowledge of how previous grandmasters had played similar moves. Deep Blue won the following year with a faster computer plus a knowledge base.[4] Jeff Immelt of GE commissioned a study of top performing companies and found that domain expertise was a trait they had in common; they kept people in positions long enough to develop real expertise.[5]

If you’re a parent. Praise your kids for hard work, not for being smart. If you develop their work ethic, their self-esteem will come, and they will respond to life’s inevitable bumps by trying harder rather than giving up.

All of these suggestions are hard work, and that’s precisely why they are so valuable. If it were easy, anyone could do it and then it would not be special. I’m going to leave you with wise words from one more expert, Forrest Griffin of UFC fame: “The juice is worth the squeeze.”


[1] For an eye-opening look at the consequences of talent gone wild, see Malcolm Gladwell’s 2002 New Yorker article about Enronhttp://www.gladwell.com/pdf/talent.pdf.

[2] “Hard work is a talent” is one of my favorite quotes, which I’ve seen attributed to chess great Garry Kasparov and to Ricky Williams.

[3] There are several excellent books which have popularized the 10,000 hour rule and the idea of deliberate practice, based on the work of K. Anders Ericsson. His 1993 paper is available here if you want to go straight to the source, but I also highly recommend Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, which has more  of a business slant, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, and Bounce by Matthew Syed, which has the advantage of being written by an Olympic athlete who presumably knows what it’s like to put these ideas into practice.

[4] It’s beyond the scope of this article, but if you’re interested in how experts can make such fast and accurate judgments, Sources of Power by Gary Klein is a fascinating read, and much more scholarly that Gladwell’s Blink.

[5] Harvard Business Review interview, June 2006.

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3 Comments
  • […] hours of practice. Taking this idea one step further, what you need to consistently get better is deliberate practice, which is about repeatedly identifying specific areas that need improvement, practicing to get to a […]

  • Rachel,

    I absolutely agree. the only thing I would add from my own experience (as my kids are a bit older) is that sometimes it won’t seem like they’re really paying attention, but at some point it really kicks in and it’s wonderful to see.

  • Rachel

    Hi Jack, I read Bounce and Mindset earlier this year and your article is an excellent distillation of the key ideas. We have consciously changed our parenting as a result and believe nurturing growth mindsets will be one of the greatest tools for life we can provide our children. Rachel

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