The Talent Myth: What ‘Outliers’ and ‘Talent is Overrated’ found about Success

Sehwag already held the record for the highest Test score of 319 by an Indian. Now he also holds the record for the highest ODI score of 219 by an Indian and by any cricketer.

That’s not bad going, especially for someone who started his career with a game in which he scored 1 and conceded 35 runs in 3 overs, and then was not picked for 20 months. Till he was promoted to open the innings seemingly by chance only because Sachin Tendulkar was injured. The success that Sehwag achieved after that is attributed, to a large extent, to his ‘innate hand-eye coordination talent’.

In the case of the legendary Sachin, people always talk of his exceptional talent from a young age which is apparently responsible for his success. Federer’s greatness was due to ‘exceptional talent and grace’.  Tiger Woods was always ‘a prodigy who was a gift to golf.’

We love talking about talent. And look for it in our achievers of the past and the present; as well as search for it in our children for the future. Even in fields other than sport, where people achieve success, it is attributed to talent. Therefore, apparently, Warren Buffett was ‘a born investor with a talent for spotting opportunities’, Bill Gates was ‘a child prodigy born to be a geek’, Mozart was ‘brilliance from the age of 5’. Even in business, Steve Jobs was  ‘a blessed engineer with the heart of an artist.’

I have often felt that while it may make good inspirational story telling, this is far from the truth. At some level, it is also an insult to the efforts put in by these individuals, and turns a blind eye to the role played by chance. If these individuals are asked the reasons for their success, I would be really surprised if even one of them said, “Well, I was born with the talent for this – so all I had to do was to go there and decide to be whatever I became.”

outliersI recently read a couple of books which completely debunk this theory of talent being the reason for success – either of the superlative kind, or even the reasonably common but consistent success. And I am reasonably convinced that, that is true.

The first one titled “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell, through a lot of examples, highlights the “10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to superlative, outlier success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task or set of tasks for a total of around 10,000 hours. And the closer one gets to the 10,000 hours, the closer is one likely to get to what ‘looks like genius.’

TalentIsOverratedThe second one titled “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin gets a bit more specific and refines it further. It says that the best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what is called “deliberate practice.” It means activities that are explicitly intended to improve performance, that reach for objectives just a bit beyond one’s current level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

So the good news is that talent is not the reason for success, so forget the notion of being ‘gifted’ for being successful. The bad news is that it will still require a lot of hard work, and it is highly likely that chance smiles on you in that process of work. As a famous man said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

For most people, work is hard enough even without pushing harder – without coming anywhere close to the ‘10,000 hours’ or to the ‘repetitive deliberate practice’. Those extra steps are so much harder that they almost never get done. And hence, great performance is hard and rare, not due to some innate gift.

But why do some people push themselves? The answer to that ‘why’ is not that simple – it is an existential one, a combination of individual motivation and commitment to whatever their area of work. It is likely to be made up of simple, normal reasons in most cases, at least during the initial phases. But beyond a particular point, it is a bit like what the famous mountaineer George Mallory’s response. When asked why he wants to climb Mount Everest, he said, “Because it is there.”

So try explaining the 319, 219 and may be many more such scores by Sehwag. Or the 100 hundreds of Sachin. Or a great achievement in any sphere of work. Talent is not the reason. At best, it may only be a starting point. The myth of talent being the reason needs to give way to the reality of hard work, the role of chance and the individual’s commitment. As Po learnt in Kung Fu Panda, “There is no secret ingredient. It’s just you.”

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