Talent is overrated

“Look around you.
Look at your friends, your relatives, your coworkers, the people you meet when you shop or go to a party. How do they spend their days? Most of them work. They all do many other things as well, playing sports, performing music, pursuing hobbies, doing public service. Now ask yourself honestly: How well do they do what they do?
The most likely answer is that they do it fine. They do it well enough to keep doing it. At work they don’t get fired and probably get promoted a number of times. They play sports or pursue their other interests well enough to enjoy them. But the odds are that few if any of the people around you are truly great at what they do—awesomely, amazingly, world-class excellent.
Why—exactly why—aren’t they? Why don’t they manage businesses like Jack Welch or Andy Grove, or play golf like Tiger Woods, or play the violin like Itzhak Perlman? After all, most of them are good, conscientious people, and they probably work diligently. Some of them have been at it for a very long time—twenty, thirty, forty years. Why isn’t that enough to make them […]

In fact the reality is more puzzling than that. Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.

Auditors with years of experience were no better at detecting corporate fraud—a fairly important skill for an auditor—than were freshly trained rookies. When it comes to judging personality disorders, which is one of the things we count on clinical psychologists to do, length of clinical experience told nothing about skill—“the correlations,” concluded some of the leading researchers, “are roughly zero.” Surgeons were no better at predicting hospital stays after surgery than residents were. In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.”

What is especially troubling about these findings is the way they deepen, rather than solve, the mystery of great performance.

When asked to explain why a few people are so excellent at what they do, most of us have two answers, and the first one is hard work. People get extremely good at something because they work hard at it.

We tell our kids that if they just work hard, they’ll be fine. It turns out that this is exactly right. They’ll be fine, just like all those other people who work at something for most of their lives and get along perfectly acceptably but never become particularly good at it. The research confirms that merely putting in the years isn’t much help to someone who wants to be a great performer.

So our instinctive first answer to the question of exceptional performance does not hold up.
Our second answer is the opposite of the first, but that doesn’t stop us from believing it fervently.

A God-given gift is a one-in-a-million thing. You have it or you don’t. If you don’t—and of course most of us don’t—then it follows that you should just forget now about ever coming close to greatness.
Thus it’s clear why most of us don’t dwell on the mystery of great performance. We don’t think it’s a mystery. We’ve got a couple of explanations in our head, and if it ever occurs to us that the first one is clearly wrong, well, the second one is what we really believe anyway. And the nicest thing about the second explanation is that it takes the matter of great performance out of our hands. If we were really a natural at anything, we’d know it by now. Since we’re not, we can worry about other things.
The trouble with this explanation—except it isn’t trouble, it’s excellent news—is that it’s wrong. Great performance is in our hands far more than most of us ever suspected.

Excerpt From: Geoff Colvin. “Talent Is Overrated.” iBooks.

 

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