Are we obsessed with talent? Three reasons to focus on Persistence…
Talent review, Talent program and even WAR for Talent.
There seems to be no way out of it. I am constantly bombarded in the media and University MBA recruiting events with those mysteries 'buzz' words that somehow predict when, how and why people excel at work.
Can someone tell me what talent means?
Until today I NEVER met someone who can give me a simple explanation what talent is. Even worse I am completely left in the dark to understand how to develop 'my talent.' So how shall I manage then something like my talent, or even worse think about 'talent' programs if I do not understand what it means?
Is it some mysterious quality the person is born with?
Perhaps it is hard written in our DNA, and we can soon predict who will be successful? For instance researchers at Duke University School of Medicine claim, they have found the underlying genes that explain success (see this Harvard Business Review article). Does it mean now that in our next talent review cycle we will soon have 'genetic tests'? Perhaps in a few years, with a take home DNA test we could screen our applicants for their 'success' potential?
Hopefully not. Not only because I have moral reservations. More importantly, there is no such thing as talent that is given by birth and then leads to success. Perhaps some scientists found some correlation between success and DNA, BUT we do not know what causes what. Rather the opposite as the newest neuroscience research starts to investigate how my behavior/ situation changes the activation of DNA (see Nature article). So the other way round: My actions influence which type of DNA is activated or not.
In any case - talent seems far overrated.
Of course, we LOVE the stories of the lone genius who created the jet engine with the blink of her eye. The reality is yet much more mundane. Geoff Colvin writes an entire book about debunking the talent myth. His most important conclusion is that talent is hard and persistent work.
However, what happens if we continue to stick to our giftedness view?
Why do I care about it?
Because I believe especially in an organization or university this can have serious negative consequences:
1) We assign people a category of 'talent' based on some subjective classifications (only because three managers identify someone has talent does not mean it is objective). Again could someone please tell me how we define talent? So how would people know how to manage something that we cannot measure reliably?
2) We completely overlook that, if anything, what leads to success in the workplace is hard work and persistence. Yes, it is boring. Nothing 'heaven-given' but pure mundane hard work towards something. In the same book I mentioned before Colvin showed that from Mozart, Tiger Woods to Surgeons HARD work is what with immediate and continuous feedback leads to world-class success.
3) Finally, and most important. If we stick to this old notion of talent, we may actually limit the performance of people that are not classified as 'talent' but also of the people we call talented. For instance, if someone tells me I cannot join this particular leadership program because it is only for 'real talent' what will I think? I will think,
"Hmmm - no reason to try anyways. I cannot change something like my talent as it is fixed.
Like my height; why would I invest if I happen to be in the unlucky basket of the ‘not-so-fortunate’. Don't waste energy on something I cannot change."
Moreover, what happens if I am one of the lucky ones hired because of 'my talent'? Perhaps I will strive as I realize how special I am. The company now invests in me, and now I have the responsibility to perform? Perhaps – but unlikely. Research shows that most likely over time I would get a feeling of entitlement. Think about it. If I got into a program because I was one of the lucky ones, then I do not need to work hard for it. I DESERVE to succeed…
Imagine though I fail? Then something must be wrong with ME. I am defective. I should give up. Who can change his DNA, or natural gifts? Better stop now than to be disappointed. In the end, what is the point? Intelligence and talent are not changeable.
Let us stop this obsession.
I believe this obsession with 'talent' as giftedness is the opposite of meritocracy. Success/ rewards because of MY merit. Worse it creates a culture in which any success or failure is atrributed t a fixed personality. Because I am gifted or talented, I work the way I am. And not because of my contribution (and despite my shortcomings) I achieved this success.
So what shall we do?
Do we change the name of all talent programs? Perhaps it would help that we are mindful of what we mean by talent. Is it really this 'giftedness' notion or something closer to hard work, persistence or grit?
I think one way to end this obsession is to move back to the basics. Let us reward and acknowledge GRIT. The ability to keep moving and always challenging ourselves. Recognizing that if we change our view of success towards manageable and at sometimes annoying activity we succeed in the workplace. Angela Duckworth, a Harvard and Oxford Ph.D. and now a professor at UPen, in her excellent book Grit, calls us to refocus on this basic, measurable skill and to keep moving (see her TED talk here).
“To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”
What do you think? Are we obsessed with talent? Can you explain to me what talent is? What can we measure and manage? Would love your views on this.
Some more Sources:
How Google focuses on Passion and Persistence in their hiring decision (HBR interview with Eric Schmidt (executive chairman) and Jonathan Rosenberg (SVP products)
How to develop your Growth Mindset (Caroll Dweck at Stanford University)