Monday, December 20, 2010

The "Myth" of Talent?

Someone on facebook mentioned a book that asserts the "myth of talent" ("Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success"), and I replied,
I've argued myself for years that "intelligence" and "aptitude" as measured in tests are largely overrated, and the difference in innate potential between people at birth is very little -- what they become is very much how they choose to develop their minds. Can someone be Mozart by 21 if they start at 16? Maybe not -- Mozart had a big head start: a unique perspective on music from a very early age, fostered to some great degree by excellent and early training, but I think it was much more about his own fascination and love of musical relationships and his recognition that he could create them that spurred his remarkable creativity.

After childhood it becomes harder and more time consuming to "re-wire" your brain, to use a tired cliche, though it has some validity -- a brain must physically change to operate differently,and that provides guidance for the time-scale and effort and perserverance required. But I do think "talent" (let's define terms somewhat more: skills or creative ability or ability to reason, loosely) is something that can be developed with both perserverance (a lot of it -- pianists practice 4 - 8 hours a day, every day, for instance, and why should it be less for anything else?), proper training (which can accelerate the process, because true auto-didacts are exceptionally rare in human history), and something new I'd add to the equation: a committment to their goal that transcends old premises.
That is, plenty of people are willing to work "hard". Very, very few (to be pedantic) are willing to reexamine everything about their choices in life, including ideas, premises and habitual method of mental functioning (ie, psycho-epistemology) that stands in the way of that, and expurge or alter it whenever and whereever necessary.

So now we're at the root of the problem. Is "talent" a myth? Innate talent, mostly. There are outliers of extraordinary innate ability (too often "idiot savants"), but the bell curve of IQ is largely a chimera in my view. Ayn Rand herself argued that anyone of normal aptitude could have chosen to be like her. But almost no one does. (In thousands of years of human history, only a few have.)

At the other end of the scale, there's those people who are practically beyond redemption. Talentless empty souls of petrified mental functioning. They do what they do and are capable of no more, and we know many of them instantly when we meet them.

And in between there's those who are capable of limited elevation in their abilities according to their desires and committment. With the right motivation, they can do a lot more, and in the context of job within a business, they can choose to perform exceptionally for the tasks they were hired to do, and even grow beyond that. Value-aggregation is an enormous incentive. Money. This is one reason entrepreneurs can do so much. Once you acquire value (such as money, though not exclusively), and see how its done, it acts like positive feedback to incredibly sharpen your thinking to acquire more value.

But there are also a lot of people who simply lack this ambition. For whatever reason, by adulthood, all the ambition has been sucked out of them -- if they ever had it. You may recall the old story of the capitalist who tried to raise productivity of some Amazonian indians working for him in a business he just acquired. He reasoned they didn't work harder because the pay was too low, so he quadrupled their pay... then the indians worked 1/4 as long and then left their jobs for the rest of the week. They had all they wanted.  A complete mental state of arrested ambition.

More than metaphorically, that's how a lot of people view their mental development of new skills and abilities and interests, unfortunately. So is "talent a myth"? It depends on what you're doing, how you're motivated, how much historical "baggage" you have in your own mental development, and what you're being asked to do.
In crude IQ terms (I really detest the concept of IQ tests as practiced), I think any average person with the right motivation can raise their IQ in functional terms by at least 30 points. They can become great businessmen, for instance. (Money is the easiest motivator.) The biggest obstacle, however, is the committment and recognition of the need to do "whatever is necessary" (if you recall that line from the movie "Body Heat").

So, from a management perspective, you don't need "superstars" for most jobs. Usually, good leadership of clear vision can bring the best out of "average" people (recognizing that "average" can become exceptional by choice). But you do have to recognize where you might need a superstar -- someone who is already "there" or close to it -- in the talent needed to get the job done before the company goes broke. The Mozart or other brilliant mind who already has a lifetime of effort and passion behind his ability in the here and now. 
That might make him a prima donna and a pain in the ass -- but know when you need him.  If you want to rationalize that you don't need him -- when you do -- then you are setting yourself up for failure and establishing yourself as a mediocrity determined to prove mediocrity is exceptional as a rationalization of your existence.  Exceptional people recognize exceptional ability.
I'm thinking primarily of startup companies, here, which is my own interest. Mature companies need much less of this on a per capita basis, but they do so often eventually sink and die because they fail to recognize when and where they simply must have the exceptional person, and they often develop hiring practices that entrenches and reinforces mediocrity, right up to the top of the company. (How can mediocrities recognize talent?)

So... the short answer is: most people can choose to be exceptional, and that puts them in the range of most jobs. But the greater the distance they must travel to get there, and the more mental baggage they must overcome, and the greater the contradictions that hold them back, and the less the incentives motivating them -- the more untenable it becomes. Then you need "talent": the person who already has a passion for doing something well, and a lifetime of doing it.

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