Talent Is Overrated
I’m not a talented writer. In fact, in many ways I’m pretty lousy. I’m a miserable typist—capable of little better than hunt and peck—only have a vague idea about where to put punctuation and no matter how much I proofread, I always end up with typos.
Yet I am a reasonably successful writer. My personal blog has gained a large following and I regularly contribute to top publications like Forbes and Harvard Business Review. Despite my lack of talent, hundreds of thousands read me every month.
That’s not to say I don’t admire talented writers, I do. I’ve known many and wish that I had what they have. The point is that my lack of innate prowess hasn’t held me back. The truth is that we need to fundamentally change the way we think about talent, putting less emphasis on predetermined sets of skills and more focus on the ability to acquire new ones.
Sometimes Opportunity Knocks
I never aspired to be a writer. In fact, it was quite the opposite. As the CEO of a large publishing company in Ukraine, I strongly believed in staying in my own lane—running the business—which is what I was good at. I had seen a number of other business-side executives try to indulge latent creative passions and it almost always caused problems.
At one point, we hired a CFO who had the destructive habit of constantly trying to put on his creative hat every time one of our product people entered his office. It was incredibly frustrating for the staff and did nothing to improve our finances. We fired him within six months.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, it was absolute carnage. I stayed on for a year, but eventually decided to leave the company and then Ukraine (for reasons which should now be obvious). Yet after spending 15 years in post-Communist countries in Eastern Europe, I had few contacts outside the region.
To raise my profile, I began posting essays in LinkedIn groups. To my great surprise, people liked them. I guess all those years spent in editorial meetings had rubbed off. I wasn’t exactly good, but better than most people on LinkedIn. Those posts turned into a blog, which led to further opportunities. Before I knew it, I was a moderately successful writer.
What Malcolm Gladwell Didn’t Tell You About The 10,000 Hour Rule
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the world to the 10,000 hour rule. As he described it, world class talents like Bill Gates, The Beatles and chess grandmasters attained their great prowess only after 10,000 hours of practice. The message was that if you are willing to put in the time, you can achieve greatness as well.
Well, not exactly. The 10,000 hour notion is based on the work of Anders Ericsson, who studied not just any kind of practice, but deliberate practice. To achieve a high level of excellence, you must do more than merely show up. In fact, research shows that you can actually get worse with experience.
In an article in Harvard Business Review, Ericsson uses the game of golf as an example. After some practice, you can become proficient enough to enjoy playing the game with friends. Most people stop there, but professional level golfers focus on the weakest parts of their game, seek out feedback from coaches and continually work to improve.
I’ve written over 500,000 words since I started blogging and that’s helped somewhat. Yet more importantly, I’ve changed how I read other writers, looking for ways to get better. I’ve also worked with some great editors who’ve given me strong feedback. I’m still no Malcolm Gladwell, but I’ve come a long way since those first posts on LinkedIn.
Why Foxes Are Better Than Hedgehogs
Top corporations put a lot of effort into developing talent. They recruit at elite universities and offer extensive on the job training. As young executives rise through the ranks, they are encouraged to become experts in their field. There’s enormous value in becoming known as the “go-to-guy” in a particular area.
Yet in Philip Tetlock’s study of pundits, he found that deep expertise can actually hinder performance. Those who focused on one particular area—the hedgehogs— tended to be confident in their judgments, but were also wrong more often. Yet those who had a more diverse knowledge base—the foxes— were not only more cautious but more accurate.
History as well should caution us against excessive focus on one particular area. Great breakthroughs—from Darwin’s natural selection to Einstein’s relativity to Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA—tend to be the product of synthesizing domains. The evidence is incontrovertible. More diverse knowledge produces superior results.
Of course, in the business world we don’t use terms like hedgehogs and foxes. The former are hailed as “leaders in the field,” while the latter are derided as “jacks of all trades, but masters of none.” Somehow, we got it backwards.
The New Era Of Talent
Digital technology has profoundly changed the competitive environment. We can no longer afford to focus on predetermined sets of skills to perform routine tasks. Most of those jobs are now being automated. The value of human input lies in being able to think creatively to tackle problems that aren’t routine. Clearly, we entering in a new era of talent.
It’s not as simple as bringing in “the best and the brightest” anymore. Today’s marketplace is becoming increasingly complex and enterprises need to manage talent on multiple fronts, including not only employees, but also contract workers with specialized skills and partners across industries and in academic institutions.
In order to integrate knowledge from a diverse set of fields, we need to move from a skills culture to a learning culture. Instead of looking to hire those who meet formal job specifications, we need to start developing people who can transcend them. In an age of disruption, the only viable strategy is to adapt.