Talent is Overrated, But So Is Luck

Posted: December 1, 2008 in Powerful Ideas

I’ve just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, as well as a book by Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated. Both deal with very similar subjects, although from slightly different perspectives – the idea that success is a result of outside circumstances or effort, rather than simply a mysterious ascription to talent. The books are somewhat complimentary and provide interesting lessons for anyone who wishes to develop skills or change behaviour markedly. Here are some of my observations from my read.

Research in recent years increasingly indicates that there is really no such thing as a natural talent. On the surface, this appears counterintuitive, but in reality it makes sense. How could someone be born with a “talent” for violin playing, or swimming, or rugby, or leadership for that matter?

People do appear to have differences in natural abilities, predispositions, interests and personality traits. However, they are probably quite minor. What seems to happen is that they become amplified through repetition and reinforcement. It’s a lot like compound interest, in that a small difference in natural ability can build over time into a major advantage. It’s just that these small initial advantages must be reinforced through practice and work. Even more important though, is that people are not necessarily consigned to mediocrity as they can make up for initial disadvantages through work and practice, if they are committed to the outcome.

Contingency and randomness seem to play a significant role in the specifics of an individual’s success. Gladwell describes how young hockey players are selected for the age levels (peewee, bantam, etc.) based on a January 1st cut-off date. Kids born in the first months of the year tend to be bigger and stronger, on average, than those born in later months. The result: they tend to be perceived as having better skills and natural “talent.” They are favoured over the slightly younger kids, and are selected for representative teams and therefore get more practice over the launch haul. This effect is born out by birthday statistics, as a majority of major junior and professional hockey players have birthdays in the early part of the year, with four times more born in January than in the fall months! This is also prevalent in Europe with soccer players, although the cut-off date is September, with a consequent effect.

Another effect discussed by Gladwell can be summarized as “born at the right time.” Had Bill Gates been born ten years earlier, he would have come of age before the advent of directly programmable computers (as opposed to punch card operated). Had he been born ten years later, the skill would have become too commonplace for him to make his mark in this particular area. This doesn’t take away from his accomplishments, and we can never really know if he would have done great things in another period, but it does highlight the importance of plain luck.

Further to that, Gates grew up in a relatively privileged household (We should have picked up on that with his name: William H. Gates III. Everybody knows that rich kids are numbered, right?). His parents could afford to send him to a special private school that allowed programming at a local university. However, it would be easy to conclude that it is only privilege which lead to his success. That may very well be the case, but in this instance, circumstances were such that Bill Gates was able to program computers like a nerd from his pre-teen years, and that is actually an illustration of the 10,000-hour rule.

Research shows that it takes about 10 years of hard work to become truly proficient in any field, whether it’s music, sports, painting, computer programming, science, management, or anything else for that matter. It takes about 10,000 hours of hard, deliberate, practice, to master a domain. Highlight the words hard and deliberate. Just going through the motions doesn’t do the trick. It has to be a conscious and intentional effort to improve consistently. Thus, while Tiger Woods or Mozart appear to be forces of nature, the truth is much more mundane. They were immersed in their respective disciplines at very young ages (about 18 months), had fathers who were passionate and extremely knowledgeable in the chosen domains, and practised like crazy for 15 or 20 years before hitting the big time. In other words, they may very well have started out with slight predispositions or natural abilities, but it was the deliberate practice that led to the mastery and “genius,” not any purported natural talent.

I believe that it is sweat equity which ultimately leads to success and mastery of any particular domain, rather than just luck of the draw and contingency. There are just too many examples of people born with a silver spoon in their mouth and that subsequently prove to be deadbeats, as well as people who rise from abject circumstances to create something great, for the contingency explanation to be fully satisfying.

On the other hand, I do believe that contingency largely influences the specific nature of the domain of accomplishment. Mozart may have played the synthesizer had they existed in his time, but he simply could not have been a computer programmer. Had his father been an aristocrat, he may have been a great general in the Napoleonic Wars, or simply a foppish dandy that no one remembers today.

So what does this mean for leadership development? While we commonly believe that management skills can be acquired (Why else would it be an academic discipline?), many people still ascribe a mysterious quality to leadership. On the contrary, I think that leadership can be systematically studied and developed. Moreover, there is no single recipe for success as a leader, other than the intention to study the domain, to master it through repeated and deliberate practice, and to acquire the knowledge and skills through years of application and thoughtful learning and critique. In other words, there is no such thing as a natural leader any more than there are natural born bricklayers, farmers and doctors.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.