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Shenk, the traditional view of talent as a “gift” that is somehow given to us through our genes is both simplistic and outdated.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.