Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rethinking Talent

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the idea of “talent.” What got me started on this subject was Susan P’s recent comment here on this blog. (Welcome back, Susan! Glad to have you contributing again).

As Susan puts it, “talent can be found in extraordinary and ordinary places if we choose to be completely open about what talent actually 'is'.”

So, what does it mean to be “talented” or “gifted” or a “genius”? David Shenk has an interesting take on the issue in his recent book The Genius in All of Us. Although it sounds like a self-help book, it’s actually an incredibly well-researched meditation on the nature of human talent.

According to Shenk, the traditional view of talent as a “gift” that is somehow given to us through our genes is both simplistic and outdated. Genes mean very little, considering that, as Shenk points out:

“genes are constantly activated and deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses and other genes.”

In other words, our genes don’t guarantee anything.

He also goes into great detail about the hard work and focus that some of the most talented people in history – including Mozart and Michael Jordan – put into developing their skills. His finding is that talent has less to do with the “gifts” that nature has endowed us with as it does with environmental and behavioral factors. That is, most of us aren’t destined to be talented or untalented. It’s something that happens over time, due to conscious effort and environmental stimuli.

The inspirational upshot of Shenk’s research is that “few of us know our true limits, that the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call our ‘unactualized potential.’”

This is exciting news, and hopefully it will inspire many of us to work harder at developing our skills. Too often I hear people label themselves as “not gifted at math” or “not artistic” or “not creative.” According to the research cited in Shenk’s book, we can’t let ourselves off that easy.

As someone who leads a creative organization, I know quite well how much environment effects ability. It’s my daily goal to create an environment where everybody people can unlock their creativity.

Throughout my career I’ve seen some of the most “talented” people fail to perform, and I’ve also seen some blockbuster ideas come from people who were labeled “not creative” by themselves and those around them.

Susan is right that, if we broaden our understanding of talent, we’ll start seeing it in unexpected places. The truth is, we’ve all got unbelievable potential, it’s just up to us, our mentors and our leaders to tap into it and put it to good use. A tall order, to be sure, but one that’s definitely worth the work.


Anonymous said...

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is based on a similar theory, one of his propositions is that any skill requires 10,000 hours of practise for one to become a "natural", which sort of reminded me about people calling Jeff Wilson a natural ( given the enormous amount of practise he put into those "natural" skills ).

Anonymous said...

While it is true that we all have unlocked potential and probably underestimate our abilities, there are still x-factor people who will be the outliers. They have more drive, more skill or more ability than the majority and may be our champions. Some people's gifting is in their incredible drive to perfect the skills they are born with while others are content to simply ride on what they can do without too much push. It is too simplistic to suggest anybody could be a superstar unless they have the right wiring.

Susan P. said...

Consider recruitment procedures Kevin. When agencies use recruitment companies for hire - and indeed I would guarantee this applies to 80% of agencies who advertise directly - those recruiters will NOT look at you if you've not had some form of agency background. Having that agency experience is in 95%+ of ads and that means there is almost no room for people to come in from outside.

I have tried for 5 years to get some form of position with an agency and I have been consistently passed over.

If I recall correctly Kevin, you were involved in a interesting and potentially forward thinking project a few years ago that was based at a university but brought together academics, agency executives and so forth. I believe one core aim was to find ways that the two 'domains' could collaborate and so forth.

Yet, on the 'street level', there isn't recognition of academic quals or even the capability to explore them. When I HAVE got a phone interview for an agency position, I invariably hear something quite close to the following:

"I'm concerned that you don't have any research background."

"You've noted my two postgrad research degrees and my indication of having worked in qualitative and ethnographic research?"

"Do you know what focus groups are? I'm concerned you might not know how to test if people like a shampoo."

(That WAS actually said to me re the shampoo by the way).

What I'm presenting is NOT intended to diminish the importance of relevant experience, not at all, however, I'm pointing out a reality you may be unaware of.

How do you get the creatives to 'see' you when you are out of the pool and don't 'make sense' in the culture?

You strongly nurture culture Kevin and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this issue.

Solutions? Always easy to point out issues but no so much to locate resolution.

I think it would be an interesting project to advertise for say a 'creative ideas person' - and set a problem - and see what people could offer. And I mean really open it up and market it ... carpenters .. teachers.. car mechanics .. ladies who look after lovely cottages in the UK. :)

One of your loved Saatchi execs had an idea close to this but in this era of social media, it would be interesting to run a job advertisement and just see whether someone out there .. someone unexpected .. could be unexpected gold.

I love the idea of 'sending the elevator down' and being as interested in advocating for the great street sweeper as I might for seriously good blogger as per our Mr Ed Burghard.

I genius I see in advertising agencies these days..
but I am convinced the circle needs to open itself up, in the same way social media has turned marketing to conversation.

Great topic as always and much to consider. :)

Faye Cossar said...

Hi Kevin and Susan P.
If you think it's difficult getting into advertising with an academic background try being an astrologer!
I hold an MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology and have been a business astrologer for many years. My dissertation was about organisation development models.

I work a lot with talent as I believe everyone has unique and authentic gifts. The problem is that society makes people afraid to hold their nerve and go for what they are good at. Not all bosses encourage creative talent as you do Kevin!
My work is often (on a personal level) encouraging people to define and develop what they really love, no matter how old they are.
At company level - yes I know it sounds mad - companies have a horoscope (ie they have a birth date and a horoscope can be made) and the horoscope as a tool is a great source of ideas so please go with Susan's idea of setting us a problem and add astrologers to the unexpected list. I'd love to give it a go - maybe another surprising source of ideas...

David Pelaez Pangilinan said...

Kevin you were not chosen!!