Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Six Terrible Truths About Talent

For decades, employers and other interested parties have been trying to figure out what makes some people successful at their careers while others flounder. Is it training? Is it background? Is it moral character? Is it luck? Is it all of these?

For every theory of career success, there are at least a hundred books available on the subject. Having sampled more than my fair share, I feel that The Gallup Organization’s books First, Break All the Rules, Now, Discover Your Strengths, and StrengthsFinder 2.0 are far and away the most effective roadmap to improving professional lives.

The reason the ideas in these books work and others don’t is that they are based on extensive quantitative research, not scattershot anecdotal storytelling or guessing. In putting these books together, the Gallup organization researched and intervened tens of thousands of people in their quest to answer the question “What makes someone great at their job?” The answers they got led them to create a matrix of distinct talents that are the core of exceptional performance.

I first read these books several years ago, and after re-reading them and thinking about them a lot, I am a confirmed “talent-ist.” Hard work, luck, and connections all play a part in professional achievement, but consistent, lasting success is the result of talent.

In an environment where good jobs are scarce and education resources are become less accessible to many people, it’s more important that ever for workers to figure out what they do well and put themselves in a position to play to their real strengths.

In an effort to spread the word about these wonderful resources, I present 6 “terrible” truths about talent. These truths are a combination of the ideas in the Gallup books that hit me the hardest and my own observations. I call these truths “terrible” because, depending on your point of view, they are a bunch of garbage, or they are so big that they will force you to fundamentally change how you approach your career if you choose to deal with them.

Terrible Truth #1: Talents, skills, and passions are different things. In mass media, the words “talent,” “skill,” and “passion” are often used interchangeably depending on what someone’s trying to sell you. But it’s important to know the real differences between these ideas.

A skill is a series of discrete actions that most people of reasonable intelligence can learn through repetition. Typing, operating a computer program, driving a car, or programming a DVR are examples of skills. There’s not a lot of creativity involved in performing a skill, and once someone has mastered it they can usually teach the skill to someone else of similar intelligence without much effort.

A passion is a deep affection for or interest in a subject. Passions are not transferable from person to person, and are sometimes looked at as irrational, but someone who has a passion for something gets a great deal of emotional satisfaction from it. Unlike a skill, you can be passionate about something while at the same time also be totally unwilling or unable to participate in it.

A talent is an innate ability to deliver repeated, superior performance at a specific activity. It is a unique way of interacting with the world that produces quality results. While talent can be (and should be) developed and refined, it can’t be taught - you are born with it. Your set of talents is as unique to you as your fingerprints.

Talents are so varied and fundamental to our makeup that many people go through life not realizing how talented they are at something, either because they don’t do things that bring out their talents, or because using their talent(s) isn’t special to them, it’s just what they do. Also, people can be talented at something they are not passionate about, and they can have a talent for an activity they are not particularly skilled in.

I believe talent, skill, and passion are all needed for truly exceptional performance. Just discovering and cultivating your unique talents, though, can take you father along the path to career success than all the personal development books and seminars one can buy.

Terrible Truth #2: No, you CAN’T be anything you want if only you tried hard enough. I think this idea might rub some readers the wrong way because it flies right in the face of the American Dream.®

Many Americans, especially those in the Middle Class, are taught from an early age that if you apply yourself and work hard, you can do or be anything you want. The direct correlation between hours worked and success achieved remains a very popular theme in education and the working world.

One best-selling book, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, posits that a certain threshold of practice and activity input (e.g. 10,000 hours) is required for mastery of an activity. Other books advocate specific activities (like spending a certain amount of time forming mental images) to reach your goals and transform yourself into your idea of success. It’s an American tradition that effort, sacrifice, and pain is the way to know you’re “getting somewhere.”

I respectfully disagree with those who say if you just work hard, sacrifice, put in your 10,000 hours, etc. you can eventually be great at anything you choose. Putting a lot of attention and practice into a given subject area may make you highly skilled at it, and it may feed your passion for it, but it will not make you great at it. The difference between Very Good and Great is talent.

Terrible Truth #3: Talent has nothing to do with fairness, justice, or morality. The biggest douche in the office always gets the highest sales numbers and the bonuses that come along with them. Your child struggles to get “Bs” in school, while the neighbor kid who spends most of his nights hanging out smoking weed barely cracks a book, yet aces all his classes and gets a full-ride scholarship to a top-tier college. Your co-worker is a condescending, aloof malcontent who has never said a kind word to anyone, yet when it’s time to deliver key presentations to clients, senior management always picks her to deliver the message and get the face time that comes with it.

Why is it that people who don’t deserve success become successful anyway? Is it because life is unfair, some people have “ins,” or some are just destined to struggle more than others? Yes, yes, and yes. But there is another big reason that is often overlooked by a society that likes to draw a connection between pure hearts and successful lives – a person’s talent can often put them in a position where they don’t have to be the nicest, hardest-working, or most upstanding individual but can still achieve better results than most of their peers.

Many in the working world believe that if they keep their noses to the grindstone and “play the game the right way” fate will smile on them or someone in power will take notice and they’ll eventually get what they feel they deserve. This mindset ignores the idea that moral character has little to do with what one is inherently good at, and how successful that innate potential can make them.

Terrible Truth #4: Everyone is talented at something. Tyler Durden was wrong. Each one of us IS a beautiful and unique snowflake, at least as far as talent is concerned. Many times it’s hard to find out exactly what someone is talented in because any given society places a big emphasis on certain kinds of skills, and in doing so encourages conformity in its citizens toward performing a limited number of “hot jobs” that are supposedly needed to keep the economy going.

It’s entirely possible you can be talented at something and not know or care about it because that talent is not valued in your home, your company, or your community, and as a result your talents are never uncovered or cultivated. I believe that one of the biggest challenges and opportunities available to all adults is, if given the chance, to discover and develop their real talents.

Terrible Truth #5: Talent isn’t enough. As former President Calvin Coolidge once said, "Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent." Along with their talents, everyone must develop certain basic skills and habits to help them manage their lives and their careers.

At no point on his blog do I ever want to give the impression that a person can become successful just by coasting on their talents. To become super-hyper-mega-successful, the kind of successful where reporters are camped out on the lawn of your summer house in France and 60 Minutes is begging to do an exclusive interview with you from your private island, takes talent, work, and luck. I believe that talent and work by themselves, though, will help just about anyone achieve a more human-scale, but no less satisfying, degree of success in the world.

Terrible Truth #6: To achieve sustained, long-term success in life, you must figure out what you’re good at and get better at it. This is one of my favorite revelations from reading the Gallup books, and it’s what separates Gallup’s work from 99.5% of all other self-help material out there.

Americans are a flaw-fixing society. When it comes to careers and personal development, we like to look for individuals’ biggest deficiencies and seek to transform them through work, education, and belief into something that looks like “superior” performance. The overwhelming majority of the time, this process results in wasted resources and frustrated people.

I am convinced that workers, companies and organizations would be much better off if they spent more time finding and improving people’s strengths instead of their flaws. Whether it’s through the Gallup books or some other method, professionals who spend time working on their talents can achieve much more in terms of material gain and inner satisfaction.

One of the reasons I created this blog is to help spread the word about talent and also hopefully generate ideas and discussion that can assist people in their careers.

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