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How to Manage Talent

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PersistenceWhile there’s some doubt now as to whether or not Calvin Coolidge coined this saying, the advice still holds true:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press on’ has solved and will always solve the problem of the human race.”

So far, history has proven that the last sentence doesn’t hold water. For all its efforts, no one has been able to prevent war or poverty, or a host of other global problems. Even so-called improvements on that score are dubious. The incidence of war, for example, is increasing; not decreasing.

What’s interesting about this quotation, however, is the disdain shown for talent. If it really did originate with Coolidge, then ability didn’t matter much in his experience; and if it was observed in the centuries before that, then it is probably as irrelevant today as it has always been.

Why is there an obsession with talent?

Why are you so attracted to it?

No doubt some of it is due to the fact that those who have more ability seem to accomplish the most, and that has led you to assume that everyone who is similarly talented will also have the highest achievements.

But, is this a valid assumption?

According to the observation made in the quotation, it isn’t. There we find words such as unsuccessful, unrewarded, and derelict. They’re not the words that you’d associate with those who have talent. In fact, we all can probably think of at least one or two people we’ve met for whom this is true.

Challenging our assumptions

Let’s look at this a different way.

If you’ve ever read a crime mystery or watched an episode on television, then you’ll know that acquittal in a courtroom depends on something called reasonable doubt. What is reasonable doubt? It’s simply that another equally plausible explanation exists for how a certain outcome occurred. This usually takes the form of some other perpetrator.

The same approach can be used when we look at why we think that talent is so important. It leads us to ask, “Is there another possible explanation for how this person was able to achieve so much?” And according to the quotation, there is. It’s not talent, genius or education; it’s persistence. It’s effort. In other words, talent at best plays a small role, and it’s likely that it doesn’t even come into the equation.

So it means that simply looking for people on the basis of whether they’re talented or not is, by itself, a flawed means of selecting them. As the quotation points out, there are many who are talented, but who also are unsuccessful.

And so we have to look for the reason why those who seem to have the brain power to achieve the most fail to do so.

Why does persistence win?

Maybe you’re wondering why persistence wins above talent.

Studies have shown, for example, that American students don’t perform as well as those in other parts of the world. In terms of knowledge and education, the US is 14th in the world. It ranks 23rd in science, well behind China which was first and Estonia which was 9th.*

An interesting finding from the research is that persistence is associated with success; not talent.** It’s probably why American students give up more easily than those who live in other countries. They keep at it until they do get the answer.

In America, we call that hard work. It’s something that many people try to avoid if they can.

Why do so many talented people struggle to succeed?

Here’s a curious thing. Talented people find that it’s easy to learn and has been for most of their lives. Many of them enjoy it. A few have an insatiable thirst for knowledge. But there are also quite a number who struggle when they have to work at learning something new. That’s because it’s not easy. This is why they conclude that they’re no good at something. Up until then they had been lulled into thinking that “easy” meant “natural ability” which also meant “success” when in fact it took hard work for the last step to occur.

How often have you heard someone say, “I’m no good at math”? They get into their first or second calculus class and then draw that conclusion. How many people with average IQs get that far? Only the ones who are determined to learn it and are willing to put forth the effort to do so. And it must be said that there are so very poor math teachers, too.

Josh Kaufman, in his book The First 20 Hours, says that you can learn 80% of what you need to be competent in almost anything in just 20 hours. His book takes us step-by-step, in nauseating detail, through four or five experiments that he did with himself – using a programming language and playing the ukulele among them – to prove his point.

On most school exams, 80% is a B – just barely. A smart student wouldn’t have to work very hard to do this well without working.

What’s the point?

What’s the point of all this? It’s that talent is overrated. (There’s even a book in print by that title.)

The truth is that someone with less talent who is willing to work hard will accomplish more in your company than someone who has a lot of talent but is lazy, or at least isn’t willing to “go the extra mile.”

If you can find smart people who are willing to work hard, then that’s a bonus. They are out there.

But if you have to make a choice between someone who is smart and someone who is willing to work hard, then always go for the person who is determined.

That’s how you manage talent. You find the ones that have the right attitude and work with them.

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Jesse Jacoby
The Editor of Emergent Journal and founder of Emergent, Jesse is a recognized expert in business transformation. He and his team partner with Fortune 500 and mid-market companies to deliver successful people and change strategies. Jesse is the creator of the Accelerating Change & Transformation (ACT) model and developer of Change Accelerator and Savvy Transition. Contact Jesse at 303-883-5941 or jesse@emergentconsultants.com.

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