In last month's Fast Company, K. Anders Ericsson - professor of psychology @ FSU - gave his two cents on talent vs. experience, and it went something like this:
"The traditional assumption is that people come into a professional domain, have similar experiences, and the only thing that's different is their innate abilities. There's little evidence to support this. With the exception of some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level."
Interesting. Only... that initial assumption is ridiculous. Everyone is the product of a completely unique background. From education and culture to professional and social experiences, everyone comes into a professional situation with a very specific package that is unlike anyone else's. I know that the scientific method likes to draw data from a homogenized group of subjects, but creating an artificially homogenized group based on a convenient and unsubstantiated assumption is not a good way to start off this kind of study.
I would have been a little more impressed with Dr. Ericsson's opinion if he had just started out with an admission that scientists haven't quite figured out how to categorically identify and map out the parts of the brain associated with this thing called talent.
And although I can't prove that talent is real anymore than I can prove the existence of gravity, or that Chicora Alley's crabcake sandwich is impossibly delicious, I know that these things are indeed facts.
I know talent when I see it. We all can. Talent is real. The kid across the street who starts fixing cars when he's seven and seems to have more of a knack for being a mechanic than guys who have been fixing cars for thirty years has it. The guitar virtuoso you roomed with in college has it. The painter girlfriend who now works as a graphic designer for one of the country's top media companies has it. The kid who used to sell lemonade in his front yard and who now runs hedge funds has it. The Marine sniper who picked up a rifle one day and made a bullseye with his first shot has it.
Talent is by no means alone an indicator of success, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that it is real. Some people can just pick up a camera or a paintbrush or a calculator and do amazing things that 99.9% of the population couldn't do well even after years of hard work and dedication. Talent makes you naturally good at something. What you do with that talent is up to you, but all in all, it's that simple: You're going to be good at something simply by virtue of the fact that you have a natural ability that most other people don't have.
Whether Dr. Ericsson agrees with this or not, whether science can prove it or not, our brains and bodies are configured in such a way that we are naturally good at some things, and not all that good at others. It has nothing to do with experience or practice. (Sure, experience and practice can make us better, but the ability was already there to begin with.)
My wife and daughter can remember song lyrics after hearing a song just once. My son has a photographic memory that borders on mutant superpowers, and the hand-eye coordination of a cyborg. One of my best friends plays seven musical instruments better than most professional musicians play just one. Another can sing like a rock star and has more charisma than George Clooney and Brad Pitt put together. My sister speaks six languages fluently. She is completely self-taught. My father, who didn't study finance or business is a genius when it comes to making money. Some of my Hincapie Sportswear teammates were born with the ability to train and race harder and faster than most people on the planet. Most of the designers and design engineers I have worked with can turn impossibly complex concepts into working models in just a few days. Talent is out there, and although I can't prove that it exists (not scientifically anyway), I know it is absolutely real.
Lack (or absence) of talent is also VERY real, and it is everywhere: There was a Captain I served under (briefly) in the Fusiliers Marins who systematically made wrong choices during tactical exercises. Seriously. Statistically speaking, the guy should have accidentally made a few good decisions once in a while, but he never did. Uncanny. There was also the VP Finance at a company where I worked who couldn't grasp simple cost accounting concepts and had trouble using a calculator. There's the "professional" photographer who has been in business for thirty years here in Greenville who can't shoot a decent photo to save his life... but thinks he's the shizzle. There's the really
lousy graphic designer who has been producing the same horrible crap for the same company for twelve years, and there's her boss who has been there even longer but still thinks she's awesome. There's the copywriter I know who couldn't sign his name without using spellcheck... and would still get it wrong if he did. There's the emergency room doctor we ran into a month ago who can't tell the difference between someone with a kidney infection and someone passing a kidney stone, when all she had to do was read the results of a urine sample. There's the other doctor who couldn't find an obvious fracture on an X-ray a few years ago when a training ride on a rainy day caused me to reacquaint myself with the hard, unforgiving world of asphalt. (Hint: Those ribs that look like they're broken? Yeah, those. Okay. They look that way because they're BROKEN.) There's the agency principal and industry veteran I met a year ago who couldn't come up with a single creative thought if her life depended on it. The list goes on and on and on.
Without some degree of talent, getting good at something can be pretty tough. In some cases, it may be completely impossible. (I practiced my basketball skills 2-3 hours a day for three years and never got any better. Trust me: Sadly, sometimes, hard work alone doesn't cut it.)
per Dr. Ericsson:
"Just because you've been walking for 55 years doesn't mean you're getting better at it."
Time on the job doesn't necessarily mean much. It also doesn't necessarily have anything to do with "experience" either. Here's why: There is a point where you just aren't going to get better at performing the same surgery, building the same widget, or extrapolating data unless you add a little something to the mix. Unless you branch out. Unless you ask "what if." Unless you experiment a little bit... or a lot. Unless you have the talent to do so.
According to the good doctor, what separates elite performers from other folks with simply "lots of experience" is this:
"Successful people spontaneously do things differently from those individuals who stagnate. They have different practice histories. Elite performers engage in what we call "deliberate practice"- an effortful activity designed to improve individual target performance. There has to be a way they're innovating in the way they do things. (...) In general, elite performers utilize some technique that typically isn't well known or widely practiced."
Based on my own (limited) experience, he is absolutely correct: Elite performers are the folks who can't help but find ways of doing things better. They're the ones who develop new techniques, or perfect existing ones. They are the innovative, adaptive commandos. The agents of change. The trailblazers. The pioneers. They rise to the top of their professions or help pave the way for future generations of professionals because it's what they do. Because it's in their genes.
Trust me on this: Talent is a big part of the equation, regardless of the discipline. People without a natural talent for innovation cannot innovate, no matter how long they've been on the job. Same with musicians, artists, military strategists, engineers, designers, and just about every profession. Even in manufacturing, you can observe assembly line workers and spot the ones who have a natural ability for putting stuff together, and those who don't.
What made Picasso and Dali so damn good?
What made Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan so good?
What made Steve Jobs and Bill Gates so successful? Did these two guys have thirty years of experience under their belts when they launched Apple and Microsoft, or did they have talent for innovation, insight, and business?
Experience helps you avoid costly mistakes, sure. Experience helps you navigate otherwise uncertain waters because you've already been there. Kinduv. Experience can help make you more efficient. It also gives you a certain measure of confidence. One of the great benefits of experience is a thick rolodex and a wealth of knowledge.
Don't get me wrong: I don't want to imply that experience isn't important, but at best, experience
is a facilitator, while talent
is a catalyst. Talent, not experience lays the foundation for innovation. For exceptional work. For everything remarkable to happen. No question.
In a perfect world, you want a healthy mix of talent and experience in your organization or project team... and in individual team members. But given the choice between staffing my organization with "experts" or talented visionaries who just got out of school, guess what? I will pick talent over experience every time.
Think about sports.
Think about design.
Think about art.
Think about business.
I'll give you a smple example: I know these web designers. One company has designed a few dozen websites. They're still pretty young, haven't been in business for 30 years, but their work is second to none. They have more talent than they probably know what to do with, and they rock. The other company approached me several months ago, and their line was this: We've designed thousands of websites.
Wow. Really? Thousands?
Intrigued, I checked some of their stuff out. It all sucked. Their best work was mediocre at best.
Talent vs. experience, in a nutshell.
Sure, it's kind of a simplistic way to look at things, but the question of one versus the other forces us to make some concessions here.
The point is this: I've worked with folks who only brought experience to the table. I've worked with folks who brought only talent to the table. The first didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. They didn't solve any problems. They didn't get anything done that was worth talking about. They were invariably the guardians of the status-quo. The talented ones brought new ideas to the table. They brought new ways of looking at problems and dealing with them. They brought enthusiasm and great instincts.
More than anything, they always asked the right questions. The experienced guys didn't.
Why is this important? Because talent brings with it a much more effective learning curve than hard work with no talent.
1. Experience can be gained. Talent can't.
2. Talent, by its very nature always accelerates experience.
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Feel free to disagree... if you dare. ;)
Have a great weekend, everyone.