Talent is overrated.

We throw the word talent around a lot in business, and particularly in the recruitment industry – the continual search for talent, talent shortages, talent wars, and so on.

The problem is that there is a lot of misunderstanding around talent in the workplace and this can be really detrimental to individuals who are looking to really unleash their potential and those who are looking to recruit the top ‘talent’.

The traditional thinking about talent can be summed up by Francis Galton’s conceptualisation of ‘Hereditary Genius’ at the end of the 19th century.

“I propose to show that a man’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance, under exactly the same limitations as are the form and physical features of the whole organic world…I have no patience with the hypothesis…that babies are born pretty much alike and the sole agencies in creating differences….are steady application and moral effort.”

This viewpoint is still dominant in the business world over a century later and it is having a negative impact on how businesses attract, retain and develop people. It causes people to give up too early if they are not making the progress they expect and causes businesses to give up developing people they identify as untalented.

Squashing the talent myth

Recent research has shown that talent doesn’t come from innate gifts but rather hard work and determination.

In 1991, Anders Ericsson, conducted an experiment of talented musicians at a leading music school to assess the factors involved in the students reaching excellence . The research found that the number one differentiating factor (in fact the only one) was the number of hours they practiced.

There were no exceptions to the pattern; no one made it to the top without the practice and no one who put in those hours wasn’t successful.

The idea of 10,000 hours, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, is that anyone can master a skill by putting in 10,000 hours of practice . However, this tells only part of the story. It is about more than training and it is about more than just practice; it is about purposeful practice.

Top athletes don’t get to the top of their game by simply practicing. Purposeful practice means focusing in on the areas that are core to the skill, the areas that challenge and push yourself beyond what feels safe and comfortable.

The problem is that in business we are terrible at purposeful practice. Be honest with yourself and you will concede that like driving a car you spend a lot of time doing most of your routine work without actively engaging your brain. We go through the motions.

This is important because we can only achieve our true potential by pushing ourselves to develop. This will undoubtedly result in some failures along the way and this is something that many people and businesses simply are not comfortable with.

The question becomes when you practice where are you focusing your attention? Are you focusing on the things that you enjoy and can do effortlessly or do you exert considerable, specific and sustained effort on the areas you can’t do well but that are important to your success.

In his bestselling book Bounce, Matthew Syed tells the story of his journey towards becoming a two-time table tennis Olympian.

Matthew had been training long hours but when he convinced Chen Xinhua of China (one of the greatest players in the history of the sport) to train him his training and success moved to a whole new level. It was not that Chen had Syed training longer or put him on a specific diet, but rather Syed’s training became more purposeful.

“Instead of playing against each other with a single ball, he took a bucket of a hundred balls, placed them beside the table, and then proceeded to fire them at me from different angles, at different speeds, with different spins, but always (and this was the ultimate revelation of his genius for coaching) calibrated so as to be constantly nudging the outer limits of my speed, movement, technique, anticipation, timing, and agility.”

Throughout a five year period Syed’s mind and body were transformed as they continued to push through existing limitations.

Unfortunately, while there are many examples in the sporting world the business world is lagging behind what science is telling us. This revised view of talent based on effort has potentially huge implications for how businesses approach their talent management efforts and how the engage with recruitment consultants to identify and develop talent.

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