Friday, January 8, 2016

Bad Beliefs: Talent

How many of us have either been told, or complemented someone on, their "talent" for accomplishing things in a certain area? Some have heard it more than others, but the popular notion that a person is "born" or predestined to be exceptionally good at one thing over others is one of the most well-known, intangible social memes. You hear it a lot in discussions of sports figures. I've always had a bit of a problem with this concept because the logical implications for the ostensibly "untalented" are not generally positive.

The Huffington Post had a story yesterday that has links to some of the basic discussion of this phenomenon from a scientific and media perspective. This is a growing area of scientific inquiry, but evidence is already showing that talent, as popularly defined, is nothing more than a myth.

Wait a minute...let's decontruct the word first:
Talent: "inclination, disposition, will, desire"
Ok, that's etymology. What about the definition?
Talent: "a special ability that allows someone to do something well"
Notice the difference in the construction versus accepted meaning. Inclinations and desires can be adjusted; special abilities cannot.

Donald Clark has had a negative view of talent for some time, and I agree with him. Simply put, talent is a negative, limiting belief that negatively affects how we judge the effort and outcomes that others produce. It's simply incompatible with modernity and the reality of organizations that need individuals to do more with the hands already employed.

A decade ago, a group of scientists was already finding evidence of what everyone already knew: that hard work and determination were correlated with success. This is another popular meme, not just from our own individual lives, but from observing the fruits of others' labor in this Age of the Entrepreneur™. The Economist just posted a story about new research by Chia-Jung Tsay of University College London that deconstructs the myth of talent further. Her findings show how ingrained the notion of "talent" is by pitting investors against a group of entrepreneurs divided into "naturals" and "strivers".

In her results, the naturals were almost always seen to be the more enticing bet to receive investment dollars because the belief is that they have to work less hard to achieve great results, regardless of IQ and other factors. The strivers, on the other hand, were given the distant-second nice try award for effort. The strivers always faced an uphill battle that, while they had the grit and determination, they were perceived to take longer and require more effort to achieve. In essence, the money follows a perceived ability to deliver more with less energy.

I see a further problem: A false dichotomy that has us choose between either talented, or untalented. But as the evidence of Duckworth et al in the 2005 study shows, even individuals identified as uniquely talented are further identified as a "prodigy" (another term with no quantifiable definition) very infrequently.

What this means is that socially we have put a lot of intangible weight on things that don't actually exist. It's no longer a question of talent versus non-talent. In my opinion, today's enterprises simply cannot afford to look at their people as one or the other, and reward them as such. And the real-world results bear this out: many companies today are looking for ways to get existing employees to extend their experience beyond their job description. Those efforts have mixed results depending on a company's individual outlook on OrgDev, but those efforts are real.

...socially we have put a lot of intangible weight on things that don't actually exist.

And to interject a bit of my own life experience, as a parent I cannot afford to teach my kids that they are talented only in one area. I want them to experience so many different things, and talent is a vestige of the past that is no longer useful. If it were, how do we explain people like Andre Agassi, who hated tennis yet achieved greatness in that sport? Or Tiger Woods, who hasn't set a golf club down since the age of 4? If sports is a great place to prop up the notion of talent, it's a great place to disassemble that bad belief as well. I want my kids to practice the true meaning of "talent" - the desire and perseverance - not the accepted definition that they are either gifted one thing or another, excusing lack of effort elsewhere.

So which would you rather have in your organization? 1 talented individual, or 10 persevering ones?

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