Still, the students obviously differed dramatically in their musical accomplishments, and even if extensive interviewing turned up no evi- dence of particular talent, weren't the differing levels of achievement in themselves evidence of talent? What else could it be? As it happens, the study produced an answer to that question. One factor, and only one factor, predicted how musically accomplished the students were, and that was how much they practiced. You would expect, of course, that the students who went on to win places at the music school—and this was a school whose graduates regularly win national competitions and go on to professional music careers—would reach any given grade level more quickly and easily than the students who ended up being less ac- complished.
That's the very meaning of being musically talented. But it didn't happen. On the contrary: The researchers calculated the aver- age hours of practice needed by the most elite group of students to reach each grade level, and they calculated the average hours needed by each of the other groups. There were no statistically significant differences. For students who ended up going to the elite music school as well as for students who just played casually for fun, it took an aver- age of twelve hundred hours of practice to reach grade 5, for example.
The music school students reached grade levels at earlier ages than the other students for the simple reason that they practiced more each day. By age twelve, the researchers found, the students in the most elite group were practicing an average of two hours a day versus about fifteen minutes a day for the students in the lowest group, an per- cent difference. So students could put in their hours a little bit each day or a lot each day, but nothing, it turned out, enabled any group to reach any given grade level without putting in those hours.
As one of the researchers, Professor John A. Sloboda of the University of Keele, put it: "There is absolutely no evidence of a 'fast track' for high achievers. But the study showed that—at least as most of us understand "tal- ent," meaning an ability to achieve more easily—they were not. If it turns out that we're all wrong about talent—and I will offer a lot more evidence that we are—that's a big problem. If we believe that people without a particular natural talent for some activity will never be very good at it, or at least will never be competitive with those who possess that talent, then we'll direct them away from that activity.
We'll tell them they shouldn't even think about it. We'll steer our kids away from particular studies, whether they're art, tennis, economics, or Chi- nese, because we think we've seen signs that they have no talent in those realms. In business we constantly see managers redirect people's careers based on slender evidence of what they've "got.
Talent Is Overrated - by Geoff Colvin
Thus our views about talent, which are extremely deeply held, are extraordinarily important for the future of our lives, our children's lives, our companies, and the people in them. Understanding the reality of talent is worth a great deal. We must be clear about what we mean by the term. People often use it just to mean excellent performance or to describe those who are ter- rific performers. In the TV business, "talent" is the generic term for anyone who appears on camera. None of those meanings is the critical one.
When the term is used in ways that change the courses of people's lives, it has a specific mean- ing. It is a natural ability to do something better than most people can do it.
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It can be spotted early, before the ability is fully expressed. And it is innate; you're born with it, and if you're not born with it, you can't acquire it. By this definition, most of us believe that talent exists in practically every field. Listen carefully to your next conversation about music, sports, and games; it's difficult to talk about participants for more than two sentences without invoking "talent. Russell Baker, the great former New York Times colum- nist, believed he was born with "the word gene," a writer in the making literally from birth.
In business, we commonly say that Bob is a natural salesman, or Jean is a born leader, or Pat has a head for figures. Warren Buffett often tells people, "I was hardwired at birth to allocate capital," which is his way of saying he came into this world with an ability to spot winning investments. We're all sure that talent exists, but that doesn't mean we've really thought about it. Hardly any of us have done that.
The notion is just part of our conception of the world, and it's worth asking why. Much of the answer resides in an unlikely place, the writings of a nineteenth-century English aristocrat and explorer who never finished college. Francis Galton had believed as a young man that people were born with largely the same capabilities, which were developed to vary- ing degrees during life. Despite the ancient view from mythology and religion that all kinds of gifts were god-given, the idea of equal abilities had become popular by Galton's time.
It grew from deep roots in the eighteenth-century notions of equality that fueled the American and French revolutions. Then Thoreau, Emerson, and others told the world that we all possess greater strength and potential than we ever imag- ined. The evidence flowered in nineteenth-century economic expan- sion; as trade and industry thrived from Europe to America to Asia, and people found wealth and opportunity on every shore, it seemed every- one could make of themselves what they would.
Suddenly Galton's opinion reversed, and he promoted his new theory with a convert's zeal. Indeed, some of his influence— which was enormous and remains so in widely held views on this issue—probably stemmed from the bulldozer confidence with which he wrote. Eminence in particular fields ran in particular families.
The ability to achieve such eminence must therefore be inherited, present at birth. Though it is tempting to smirk at someone who studied eminence among wrestlers of the north country, we must not lampoon Galton. By trying to apply Darwin's ideas to nonphysical human traits, he pushed science forward, and he advanced techniques of statistical cor- relation and regression that today are essential in all of science. He un- derstood that he was raising deep questions about where greatness comes from. He coined the phrase "nature versus nurture.
But what if the concept itself turns out to be troubled? Probing the Talent Concept A number of researchers now argue that giftedness or talent means nothing like what we think it means, if indeed it means anything at all. A few contend that the very existence of talent is not, as they carefully put it, supported by evidence.
Their argument is stronger than we might at first imagine. Many studies of accomplished individuals have tried to figure out the key ele- ments of their achievements, in part by interviewing the individuals and their parents, as in the English music study mentioned earlier. In these studies, all the subjects are people of whom we'd say, "They're very talented. Such signs did occur occasionally, but in the large majority of cases they didn't.
We can all think of examples of people who seemed to be highly talented, but when researchers have looked at large numbers of high achievers, at least in certain fields, most of the people who became extremely good in their field did not show early evidence of gifts. Simi- lar findings have turned up in studies of musicians, tennis players, art- ists, swimmers, and mathematicians. Of course such findings do not prove that talent doesn't exist. But they suggest an intriguing possi- bility: that if it does, it may be irrelevant. Once training begins, we would suppose that talent would certainly show itself; after only three piano lessons, little Ashley is playing pieces that other kids need six months to learn.
But again, this does not hap- pen reliably in people who go on to achieve a great deal. In retrospect, we'd say all of them were "talented," but talent is looking like an odd concept if it hasn't made it- self known after six years of hard study. Even those few cases in which parents do report early, spontaneous signs of talent turn out to be problematic.
Various researchers have found cases of children who reportedly spoke or read at extremely early ages, but they then found that the parents were deeply involved in the children's development and stimulation. Given the extraordinarily close relationship between parents and small children, it can be hard to say what originates where. If baby Kevin smooshes paint on a piece of paper in a way that looks to Mom and Dad like a bunny rabbit, they may decide he's an artistic genius and begin nourishing that notion in every way they can find.
We've all seen it happen, and in fact research has found that such interactions do result in differing patterns of abili- ties in children. We'll look into this more deeply in the final chapter. You might suppose that in the age of genomic research, there should no longer be any question about precisely what's innate and what isn't. Since talent is by definition innate, there should be a gene or genes for it. The difficulty is that scientists haven't yet figured out what each of our twenty-thousand-plus genes does.
All we can say for the mo- ment is that no specific genes identifying particular talents have been found. It's possible that they will be; scientists could yet find the piano- playing gene or investing gene or accounting gene. But they haven't so far, and evidence we've already seen suggests that finding talent genes may be a long shot. The extreme increases in top levels of performance in a wide range of fields over the past century have happened far too fast to be connected to genetic changes, which require thousands of years.
For that reason, it would seem impossible to argue that genes are what make people great at what they do. The most one could say is that if genes exert any influence, it would seem to be much less than the whole explanation for achieving the highest levels of performance. They allow that further research could eventually show that individual genetic differences are what make the greatest performers so accomplished. But hundreds of stud- ies conducted over decades have failed to show this.
On the contrary, the preponderance of them have suggested very powerfully that genetic differences of this particular type—that is, differences that determine the highest levels of performance—don't exist. What About Mozart? And yet The antitalent argument may sound sen- sible at each step, but at the end we're still left with the job of explain- ing the transcendent greatness of history's most magical, most enduring performers.
And how can one possibly account for staggering, immor- tal achievement except as a mysterious divine gift?
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In fact, when first presented with the logic of the antitalent thesis, a great many people respond immediately with two simple counterarguments: Mozart and Tiger Woods. Mozart is the ultimate example of the divine-spark theory of great- ness. Composing music at age five, giving public performances as a pia- nist and violinist at age eight, going on to produce hundreds of works, some of which are widely regarded as ethereally great and treasures of Western culture, all in the brief time before his death at age thirty- five—if that isn't talent, and on a mammoth scale, then nothing is.
The facts are worth examining a little more closely. Mozart's father was of course Leopold Mozart, a famous composer and performer in his own right. He was also a domineering parent who started his son on a program of intensive training in composition and performing at age three.
Leopold was well qualified for his role as little Wolfgang's teacher by more than just his own eminence; he was deeply interested in how music was taught to children. His authorita- tive book on violin instruction, published the same year Wolfgang was born, remained influential for decades. So from the earliest age, Wolfgang was receiving heavy instruction from an expert teacher who lived with him. Of course his early compo- sitions still seem remarkable, but they raise some provocative questions. It's interesting to note that the manuscripts are not in the boy's own hand; Leopold always "corrected" them before anyone saw them.
It seems noteworthy also that Leopold stopped composing at just the time he began teaching Wolfgang. In some cases it's clear that the young boy's compositions are not original. Wolfgang's first four piano concertos, composed when he was eleven, actually contain no original music by him. He put them together out of works by other composers. He wrote his next three works of this type, today not classified as piano concertos, at age sixteen; these also contain no original music but instead are arrangements of works by Johann Christian Bach, with whom Wolfgang had studied in London.
Mozart's earliest symphonies, brief works written when he was just eight, hew closely to the style of Johann Christian Bach, with whom he was studying when they were written. None of these works is regarded today as great music or even close. They are rarely performed or recorded except as novelties, of inter- est only because of Mozart's later fame. They seem instead to be the works of someone being trained as a composer by the usual methods— copying, arranging, and imitating the works of others—with the result- ing products brought to the world's attention and just maybe polished a bit by a father who spent much of his life promoting his son.
Mozart's first work regarded today as a masterpiece, with its status confirmed by the number of recordings available, is his Piano Concerto No. That's certainly an early age, but we must remember that by then Wolfgang had been through eighteen years of extremely hard, expert training. Any divine spark that Mozart may have possessed did not enable him to produce world-class work quickly or easily, which is something we often suppose a divine spark will do.
Mozart's method of composing was not quite the wonder it was long thought to be. For nearly two hundred years many people have believed that he had a miraculous ability to compose entire major pieces in his head, after which writing them down was mere clerical work. That view was based on a famous letter in which he says as much: "the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind. The trouble is, this letter is a forgery, as many scholars later established.
Mozart did not conceive whole works in his mind, perfect and com- plete. Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was constantly revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years. Though it makes the results no less magnificent, he wrote music the way ordinary hu- mans do.
Recent scholarship has put his abilities as a prodigy performer in a new perspective as well. Researchers constructed a "precocity index" for pianists; they figured out the number of years of study needed by a pia- nist under modern training programs before publicly performing vari- ous works, and then compared that with the number of years actually needed by several prodigies throughout history.
If the average music student needs six years of preparation before publicly playing a piece, and a given prodigy did it after three years, that student would have an index of zoo percent. Mozart's index is around 13o percent, clearly ahead of average students. But twentieth-century prodigies score 30o percent to percent. This is another example of rising standards. The effects of today's improved training methods apparently swamp the effects of Mozart's genius as a performer. But they drain a lot of the magic and romance out of how it was created, and some people don't like that.
In a paper titled "Mozart as a Working Stiff," Mozart scholar Neal Zaslaw describes what happened when he suggested at a Mozart conference in Vienna that the adult composer was focused on turning out product because he needed the money and rarely if ever wrote a work for which he wasn't being paid. That incident raises a significant issue that recurs in judging the greatness of anyone whose field is creative and artistic. We can measure quite precisely the achievements of athletes, chess players, and others whose work can be evaluated objectively.
In the world of finance, fund managers and other investors are judged by criteria that can be carried to several decimal places. Even scientists can be judged fairly objec- tively, if not too precisely, by the influence of their work in the years after it was done. But composers, painters, poets, and other creators are judged by standards that inevitably shift, so we must at least be careful in drawing conclusions based on their greatness.
Some artists have been celebrated in their lifetimes and then forgotten by posterity; oth- ers were ignored in life and "discovered" only later. Bach's St. Mat- thew Passion, now widely regarded as one of the greatest musical works ever written, was apparently performed only twice in his lifetime; though the fact strikes us today as incredible, Bach's music in general was not especially esteemed after his death until Felix Mendelssohn championed it decades later. Mendelssohn's own music would be widely scorned after his death, though it's highly popular today.
As for Mozart, the angry moderator of Zaslaw's panel insisted that Mozart's music could not even be compared with that of his contemporaries because it "belonged only to the highest spheres of creativity.
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Dur- ing his lifetime, it was right down on the ground along with that of the other composers. Researchers on great performance sometimes call Tiger Woods the Mo- zart of golf, and the parallels do seem striking. Woods's father, Earl, was a teacher, specifically a teacher of young men, and he had a lifelong passion for sports. He spent the first half of his career in the army, where, he says, his assignments included teaching military history, tac- tics, and war games to cadets at the City College of New York.
In high school and college Kansas State he had been a star baseball player, and in the time between college and the army he would coach Little League teams "and take them to the state tournament," he wrote in a little-noticed book, Training a Tiger, published shortly before Tiger turned pro. Earl had plenty of time to teach his son and was intensely focused on doing so. His wife Kultida and their son, Tiger, were Earl's second family.
He had married young and had three children with his first wife, but that marriage ended in divorce. He was also fanatical about golf. He had been introduced to the game only a couple of years earlier but had worked extremely hard at it and had achieved a handicap in the low single digits, placing him in the top 10 percent of players.
When Tiger was born, Earl wrote, "I had been properly trained and was ready to go. I took over new ground in starting Tiger at an unthinkably early age. Earl's wife does not work outside the home, and they have no other children; they have de- cided that "Tiger would be the first priority in our relationship," Earl wrote. Earl gives Tiger his first metal club, a putter, at the age of seven months. He sets up Tiger's high chair in the garage, where Earl is hit- ting balls into a net, and Tiger watches for hours on end.
Earl develops new techniques for teaching the grip and the putting stroke to a student who cannot yet talk. Before Tiger is two, they are at the golf course playing and practicing regularly. Tiger's prodigious achievements have become well known; he was a local celebrity by the time he reached elementary school and became nationally famous in college.
Amid all that has been written about his legend, a couple of facts are especially worth noting. First is the age at which he initially achieved outstanding performance at a level of play involving regular international competition. Let's call it age nineteen, when he was a member of the U. At that point he had been practicing golf with tremendous intensity, first under his father and after age four under professional teachers, for seventeen years.
Second, neither Tiger nor his father suggested that Tiger came into this world with a gift for golf. Earl did not believe that Tiger was an or- dinary kid but, then, parents hardly ever believe that. Tiger has repeatedly credited his father for his success. Trying to understand his early inter- est in the game, he has not invoked an inborn fascination. Rather, he has written, "golf for me was an apparent attempt to emulate the per- son I looked up to more than anyone: my father.
One of Tiger's boyhood coaches later recalled that, on first seeing him, "I felt he was like Mozart. In Search of Business Talent If the concept of specific talents turns out to be troublesome in music and sports, it's even more so in business. We all tend to assume that business giants must possess some special gift for what they do, but evidence turns out to be extremely elusive. In fact, the overwhelming impression that comes from examining the early lives of business greats is just the opposite—that they didn't seem to hold any identifiable gift or give any early indication of what they would become.
To consider a few of the most prominent examples: Jack Welch, named by Fortune magazine as the twentieth century's manager of the century, showed no particular inclination toward business, even into his midtwenties. He grew up as a high-achieving kid in Salem, Massa- chusetts, getting good grades, though "no one would have accused me of being brilliant," he later wrote, and becoming captain of his high school's hockey and golf teams.
It was a good enough record to get him into an Ivy League college, but his family couldn't afford it, and he ended up going to the University of Massachusetts. He majored not in business or economics but in chemical engineering. He then went to the University of Illinois and got a master's and a Ph.
He finally decided to accept an offer to work in a chemical development operation at General Electric. If anything in Welch's history to that point suggests that he would become the most influential business manager of his time, it's tough— in fact, impossible—to spot it. Bill Gates, the world's richest human and symbol of a fundamental economic revolution, is a more promising prospect for those who want to explain success through talent.
He became fascinated by computers as a kid and says he wrote his first piece of software at age thirteen; it was a program that played tic-tac-toe. Gates and his friend Paul Allen, with whom he later founded Microsoft, were constantly contriving ways to get more computer time on the big clunky machines of the day. They started a business, Traf-O-Data, to build computers that would analyze the data from traffic monitors on city streets; Gates says the device worked, but nobody bought it.
After going off to Harvard, he remained immersed in the exciting and fast-changing world of computers. It's clear that Gates's early interests led directly to Microsoft. The problem is that nothing in his story suggests extraordinary abilities. As he is the first to note, legions of kids were interested in the possibilities of computers in those days. Harvard at that time was bursting with computer geeks who well understood that a technology revolution was happening.
What suggested that Gates would become the king of them all? The answer is, nothing in particular. On close examination, it was probably not his software expertise that was most critical to his success. The more relevant abilities were the ability to launch a business and then the quite different abilities required to manage a large corpora- tion. And Traf-O-Data notwithstanding, one looks in vain for signs of those abilities in world-class proportions, or at all, in the young Gates. In surveying the world's business titans we find Welch-like stories more often than Gates-like stories, lacking even a hint of inclination toward the fields or traits that would one day lead to fame and riches.
One of Gates's predecessors as the world's richest man, John D. He grew up as a poor, pious boy, hardwork- ing, notable mainly for his seriousness and maturity. But as his most distinguished biographer, Ron Chernow, observes, "In many respects John was forgettable and indistinguishable from many other boys. When he later dazzled the world, many former neighbors and class- mates struggled to summon up even a fuzzy image of him. But then, Chernow notes, "There was nothing unusual about Rockefeller's boyhood dreams, for the times were feeding avari- cious fantasies in millions of susceptible schoolboys.
I do remember he worked hard at everything; not talking much, and studying with great industry. David Ogilvy, regarded by many as the greatest advertising executive of the twentieth century, was expelled from Oxford, slaved in a hotel kitchen in Paris, sold stoves in Scotland, and farmed in Pennsylvania, among many other apparently random occupations that consumed the first seventeen years of his career. Predicting that he would make his mark as an advertising legend would have been difficult, considering that he presented precious little evidence that he would make any mark at all. But what about Warren Buffett, yet another of the world's richest men, quoted earlier as saying he was born to allocate capital?
He showed not only early signs of interest in his eventual field of emi- nence, like Gates, but also precocity. As a boy, Buffett was intensely in- terested in learning about business and investing, and he wanted to make money.
He ran several newspaper routes, and at age eleven he bought his first stock, Cities Service preferred. At fifteen, he and a friend bought a used pinball machine and installed it in a barbershop; within a few months they'd added two more machines. He was also known as a kid who could add large numbers in his head, and he graduated from high school at sixteen. Buffett's achievements as an investor are world famous, and his story makes it easy to understand why he and many others would say he was born to do what he did. But that explanation—an inborn ability to al- locate capital—is not the only way or even the easiest way to account for his success.
Buffett's early obsessive interest in money seems un- surprising in someone growing up in the Midwest in the Depression. Similarly, his fascination with stocks and investing is not especially in- triguing when one considers that his father was a stockbroker and in- vestor whom young Warren adored. Warren went to work in his father's office at age eleven and thus began learning about investing at a very early age.
Yet there's little if any evidence that, even into his early twen- ties, he was especially good at it. For a while in his teens he was an en- thusiastic "chartist," trying to predict the movements of stock prices by studying charts of past movements; research has shown this technique to be worthless as a way to beat the market though, like many ineffec- tive techniques, it still has believers.
Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from EverybodyElse
Later he tried to be a market timer, choosing the perfect moments to get into and out of stocks; this strat- egy also is a guaranteed loser over time, and Buffett couldn't make it work. When Buffett graduated from Columbia Business School, he was such a devotee of his professor, Graham, that he volunteered to work for Graham's investment company for free. But, as Buffett tells the story, "Ben made his customary calculation of value to price and said no.
He had worked extremely hard at learning all about the field that obsessed him. But he had not yet achieved anything even approaching extraor- dinary real-world performance. By the time Buffett began accumulating a world-class record of performance, he was well into his thirties—and had been working diligently in his chosen field for more than twenty years. Still—there were lots of stockbrokers' sons in the Depression, and only one of them ber me Warren Buffett. That's a large and deep question that we'll examine further; the key point for the moment is that the concept of innate business talent is not looking like a very promising answer to the question of how Buffett or any of the business greats became who they were.
More generally, it seems we need to recalibrate our views on the role of specific, innate talents. We need not be absolutists about the matter. Heated arguments over whether such talents exist at all are best left to the scholarly researchers. For most of us, the critically important point is that, at the very least, these talents are much less important than we usually think. They seem not to play the crucial role that we generally assign to them, and it's far from clear what role they do play. In chap- ters 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10, I will share much more evidence on this matter.
But even if we have to admit that the case for the central role of specific talent is weak, we may still believe that great achievement re- quires exceptional, and inborn, general abilities. You don't reach the high elevations of any field without an IQ that's off the charts or an XXL memory. Or so we tend to assume. But this belief also, deep-seated though it may be, is worth closer examination. The true role of intelligence and memory in high achievement On July 11, , in a psychology lab at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, an undergraduate who would become known in the scien- tific literature as SF sat trying to remember a list of random numbers.
He was a subject in an experiment being conducted by Professor Wil- liam Chase, a famous researcher in psychology, and a postdoctoral fel- low named Anders Ericsson. They were testing SF and other subjects on a standard memory test known as the digit span task: A researcher reads a list of random digits at the rate of one per second; after a pause of twenty seconds, the subject then repeats as many digits, in order, as he or she can remember. Psychologists had been running this test on subjects for many years. What was so interesting about SF was the ex- traordinary number of digits he could recall.
If you're like most people, you'll max out at around seven numbers on the digit span task. You may get to nine, but going further is rare. It's harder than remembering a phone number; try it. Another of Chase and Ericsson's subjects had been tested an hour a day for nine days and had never gone beyond nine digits; he had dropped out of the study, insisting no further improvement was possible.
In a much earlier study, two subjects had managed to increase their digit span to fourteen after many hours of testing. But on this day, SF was being asked to re- call twenty-two digits, a new record. The toll it was taking on him was large. All right. He was breathing heavily. Only one digit left. But it isn't there. Oh, nine-forty-six-point. Finally, hoarse and strangled: "TWO! As Ericsson and Chase checked the results, there came a knock on the door. It was the campus police. They'd had a report of someone screaming in the lab area. His record of twenty-two digits didn't stand for long.
He kept setting new records soon without screaming , until eventually, after about 25o hours of training over a period of two years, he could recall eighty-two digits. To appreciate what that means, imagine someone reading you the follow- ing list of numbers, one per second: Keeping that list in your head, in order, after hearing it once would seem simply impossible.
Yet SF's memory, when tested, had been aver- age before he began training. His grades were very good, but his intel- ligence, when measured by standardized tests, was average. Nothing about him suggested that he would ever achieve amazing feats of memory. In fact, a friend of his who later became a research subject of Chase and Ericsson reached digits, with no indication that he had reached his limit.
Chase and Ericsson concluded, "There is apparently no limit to improve- ments in memory skill with practice. How he did it turned out to be critically important, as we shall see. The second significance was that the experiment planted a seed in the mind of Anders Ericsson, who would go on to become the preemi- nent researcher in the field of great performance.
For him, SF exempli- fied what he calls "the remarkable potential of 'ordinary' adults and their amazing capacity for change with practice. It has taken him far beyond the study of memory, but it's appropriate that that's where it began, because memory, along with general intelligence, is widely regarded as a key skill of great performers. What Does "Smart" Mean? That's especially true in business. For example, former GE chief Jack Welch was famous for seeming to remember everything about one of the world's largest and most complicated companies, the kind of guy who could spot an inconsistency on the twenty-sixth line of a financial statement during an operating review that was glazing everyone else's eyes.
Such stories are quite common among preeminent executives. Besides prodigious memories, high-performing businesspeople often seem to have tremendous intellects. He claims not to own a calculator, and given his reputation for honesty, there's no reason to doubt him. He suppos- edly said, "I hate calculators. They're the equalizer. The same is true of Barry Diller, who built exceptional careers in television, movies, and the Internet. Even if we're prepared to question the notion that certain people come into this world with specific gifts for business, most of us still as- sume that the greats possess tremendous general abilities, especially intelligence and memory.
We see individuals—Welch, Buffett, and many others—who seem to prove the point, and plenty of other exam- ples as well. Goldman Sachs, the most highly regarded firm on Wall Street, has long been known for hiring only the smartest graduates of the most elite schools. Microsoft and Google are famous for grilling job applicants with questions that would leave most people begging for mercy. Everywhere we see hypersuccessful companies seemingly filled with people who got perfect scores on their SATs. So it's definitely surprising, at least at first, to find that research doesn't support the view that extraordinary natural general abilities— as distinct from developed abilities like SF's memory—are necessary for high achievement.
In fact, in a wide range of fields, including busi- ness, the connection between general intelligence and specific abilities is weak and in some cases apparently nonexistent. As for memory, the whole concept of a powerful memory is problematic because it turns out that memory ability is very clearly created rather than innate. But what is it? The idea that it's an inborn gift for cost accounting or writing software or trading cocoa futures doesn't seem to hold up.
Harder to believe is that it isn't even more general cognitive abilities. That's what the research is telling us, but it's so counterintuitive that it requires some explanation. We begin by delving briefly into the heavily fraught and extremely deep concept of intelligence. What do we mean when we say someone is smart? It's one of those concepts that we understand intuitively, but then we dwell on it and realize how complicated it is.
Some people seem smart with numbers, others with words, others with abstract concepts, still others with concrete knowledge, and how do all those kinds of smart fit together? It seems likely that if we sat down and thought about it, most of us would come up with a basic definition of smart that parallels closely the much maligned concept of IQ.
Tests of IQ, as they have been developed over the past century, actu- ally consist of ten subtests that try to capture various aspects of in- telligence the subtests focus on information, arithmetic, vocabulary, comprehension, picture completion, block design, object assembly, cod- ing, picture arrangement, and similarities. After giving these tests to millions of people, researchers have found that performance on the subtests is correlated, that is, people who perform well on one of the subtests tend to perform well on all of them.
The researchers hypothesized that there must be some general factor that influences performance on all the subtests, and they called this factor general in- telligence, or g. That's what IQ measures. An assortment of academics and nonspecialists have been beating up on IQ for years, largely because of what it doesn't measure and doesn't explain, and many of these attacks are justified. For example, critical thinking is obviously important in the real world, and IQ doesn't measure it.
In response, writers and researchers over the years have proposed new concepts of what they call other types of intel- ligence. Daniel Goleman has written best-selling books on what he calls emotional intelligence, or EQ—the many factors self-control, zeal, persistence, and others that seem to contribute to success in real-world relationships from marriage to the workplace. These concepts can be highly useful, itlthough calling them types of intelligence may not be, because it fuzzes up the concept of intelligence.
One of the most famous intelligence researchers, Arthur Jensen, has said it's like calling chess an athletic skill. We certainly want to study chess, but classifying it in that way may only slow down our understanding of where athletic skill comes from. So for the moment we stick with the concept of general intelligence as g, measured by IQ.
It has a pretty good record. It predicts fairly well though far from perfectly how people will perform in school. Profes- sor James R. Flynn, an eminent intelligence researcher, reports that people in professional, managerial, and technical jobs have an above- average IQ as a group. Among workers overall, average IQ increases with the complexity of the work, which seems totally unsurprising. It supports what most of us would suppose: Smarter people do better. Research says they do more demanding work and achieve higher socio- economic status. When we think of intelligence in the general, old- fashioned, academic sense, then particle physicists are smarter than dentists, who are smarter than assembly-line workers, on average.
So a mass of evidence seems to undergird the view that even if the world's great performers don't possess a specific, targeted gift, they still have some more general natural advantage, most likely superior intelligence. The trouble starts when we dig beneath the averages. Consider your own acquaintances. We typically explain this by saying they're good with people, or they work extremely hard, or they really put their heart into it. Such factors may relate to Gardner's multiple "intelligences" or Goleman's EQ, but the critical point is that whatever these people have, it definitely is not general intelligence—our first hint that IQ may not explain great performance as well as we usually suspect it might.
The evidence is actually far more substantial than our own random experiences. A wide range of research shows that the correlations between IQ and achievement aren't nearly as strong as the data on broad averages would suggest, and in many cases there's no correlation at all. Consider, for example, a study of salespeople. This was a so-called meta-analysis, the largest of its type ever conducted, gathering data from several dozen previous studies looking at almost forty-six thou- sand individuals. Studying businesspeople in the real world is tough because you generally can't control the conditions, and the results are often unclear; whether a decision was good or bad may not be known for years.
Salespeople make attractive subjects for researchers because at least they produce something clear to measure: sales. There may still be endless sources of noise in the results, as salespeople explain elo- quently to their bosses, but over time and over large numbers of sub- jects, most of that should wash out.
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In this analysis of analyses, the researchers found that if you ask salespeople's bosses to rate them, the ratings track intelligence moder- ately well; bosses tend to think that smarter salespeople are better. But when the researchers compared intelligence with actual sales results, they found nothing. Intelligence was virtually useless in predicting how well a salesperson would perform. Whatever it is that makes a sales ace, it seems to be something other than brainpower. You'd think they would have every incentive to know the objective performance of their subordinates and rate them on that basis, but apparently they do not.
That finding has been supported in at least one other large meta-analysis. It seems our view that intelligence necessarily produces better performance is so deep that it may occasionally even blind us to reality. A more detailed investigation of real-world performance focused on an activity that has a lot in common with business: betting on horses. You study the facts, you estimate odds, and you decide where to put your money; it isn't so different from management. The researchers went to a track and recruited a group of subjects. Based on their ability to forecast post-time odds, these subjects were deemed experts or non- experts.
The experts were by definition a lot better at that task, but ex- cept for that difference, the two subsets on average turned out to show no significant differences in several ways that you might expect to mat- ter: years of experience at the track, years of formal education, occupa- tional prestige scores, and IQ. The IQ averages and variabilities of both groups, in addition to being the same, were almost exactly the same as for the overall population. The expert forecasters were no smarter than the nonexperts or than people in general. Looking at the data more closely, the researchers found that know- ing a particular subject's IQ was of no use in predicting whether he was a handicapping expert.
For example, one of the experts was a construc- tion worker with an IQ of 85 what one of the early IQ test developers classified as "dull normal" who had been going to the track regularly for sixteen years; he picked the top horse in ten out of ten races the re- searchers presented and picked the top three horses in correct order five times out of ten. By contrast, one of the nonexperts was a lawyer with an IQ of "bright normal," almost "superior" who had been going to the track regularly for fifteen years; he picked the top horse in only three of ten races and the top three in only one of ten.
More than a dozen factors have to be considered, and they relate to one another in complicated ways. In fact, the researchers found that the expert handicappers used models that were far more complex than what the nonexperts used, so-called multiplicative models in which the values of some factors such as track condition altered the importance of others such as last-race speed.
In other words, what the experts were accomplishing was extremely de- manding. And to repeat, IQ just didn't seem to matter. Not only did handicapping expertise fail to correlate with IQ, it didn't even correlate with performance on the arithmetic subtest of the IQ test. The researchers' conclusion: Their results suggest "that whatever it is that an IQ test measures, it is not the ability to engage in cognitively complex forms of multivariate reasoning.
You just don't have to be especially "smart," as traditionally defined, to do it. Similar results turn up in a wide range of fields. For example, in chess— another realm that businesspeople feel is a lot like their own—IQ does not reliably predict performance. This seems hard to believe, since we generally think of chess as an exercise in pure brainpower.
Yet research- ers have found that some chess grand masters have IQs that are below normal. It's a similar story with Go, the Japanese game that is at least as complex as chess. Also surprising, some top Scrabble players score below average on tests of verbal ability. Even when performance does match up with IQ in a way we would expect, the effect tends to be short-lived. For example, a study of children who took up chess found that the strength of IQ as a predic- tor dropped drastically as the children worked and got better, and IQ was of no value in predicting how quickly they would improve.
Many studies of adults in the workplace have shown the same pattern. IQ is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at a job for a few years, IQ predicts little or nothing about performance. None of this suggests there's anything the least bit wrong with being smart if you want to succeed in business or anything else.
Many of the most successful people do seem to be highly intelligent. But what the research suggests very strongly is that the link between intelligence and high achievement isn't nearly as powerful as we commonly suppose. Most important, the research tells us that intelligence as we usually think of it—a high IQ—is not a prerequisite to extraordinary achievement. How's Your Memory? The evidence is similar when it comes to that other general ability we often associate with hypersuccessful people, an amazing memory. Fran- cis Galton was certain that this was one of those "natural gifts" that characterize "illustrious men" and that you either inherit it or you don't.
For example: "[Richard] Porson, the Greek scholar, was remarkable for this gift, and, I may add, the Porson memory' was hereditary in that family. Recall SF, who developed truly remarkable memory ability though he started with only average memory and average IQ. He did it by working out his own mnemonic system based on his experience as a competitive runner.
For example, recall his struggle to remember the final digits of his twenty-two-digit span. He kept saying, "Nine-forty-six- point.. Similarly, 4 1 3 1 became This is what researchers call a retrieval structure, which has particular significance that we'll hear more about later. Many other studies since SF have confirmed that apparently average people can achieve extraordinary memory ability by developing their own retrieval structures or being given them by researchers. A different type of research reinforces the finding that memory is developed, not innate. World-class chess players, in addition to being considered awesomely smart, are generally assumed to have superhu- man memories, and with good reason.
Champions routinely put on exhibitions in which they play lesser opponents while blindfolded; they hold the entire chessboard in their heads. Some of these exhibitions strike the rest of us as simply beyond belief. The Czech master Richard Reti once played twenty-nine blindfolded games simultaneously. Af- terward he left his briefcase at the exhibition site and commented on what a poor memory he had. Miguel Najdorf, a Polish-Argentinean grand master, played forty-five blindfolded games simultaneously in Sao Paulo in ; he won thirty-nine, drew four, and lost two.
It's hard to believe that any normal person could do such things. But consider a study in which highly skilled chess players as well as non- players were shown chessboards with twenty to twenty-five pieces set up as they were in actual games; the research subjects were shown the boards only briefly—five to ten seconds—and then asked to recall the positions of the pieces. The results were what you'd expect: The chess masters could typically recall the position of every piece, while the non- players could place only four or five pieces.
Then the researchers re- peated the procedure, this time with pieces positioned not as in actual games but randomly. But the masters, who had been studying chessboards for most of their lives, did scarcely better, placing only six or seven pieces. The chess masters did not have incredible memories. What they had was an incredible ability to remember real chess positions. This research has been repeated with players of Go, Gomoku a game played with the same board and pieces as Go, but with a different ob- jective , and bridge, and the results are the same.
Expert players have vastly superior abilities to remember real game positions, or in bridge, hands arranged in the usual order. But when the boards or hands are mixed up, the experts' memories are just ordinary. Similarly, SF's in- credible memory did not extend beyond the specific task he had prac- ticed. When he was read lists of random consonants instead of random digits, his memory was no better than yours or mine. In short, the widespread view that highly accomplished people have tremendous memories is in one sense justified—they often astound us with what they can remember.
But the view that their amazing ability is a rare natural gift is not justified. Remarkable memory ability is ap- parently available to anyone. It may seem surprising that off-the-charts general abilities, especially intelligence and memory, are not necessary for extraordinary achieve- ment, but it becomes less surprising when we consider the qualities that highly successful companies and business leaders look for in employees, or rather what they don't look for.
It's certainly true that McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Google, and other top companies are looking explicitly for brainiacs above all. But it's striking to notice the companies that don't put extreme cognitive abilities at the top of the list, or sometimes even on the list. Exhibit A would be the company that corporate headhunters con- sistently rank number i as their hunting ground for business lead- ers, General Electric.
Those are behaviors, not traits, and an IQ of is not required in order to exhibit them. Immelt's predecessor, Welch, used a different set of criteria that also was not cognitively focused. He was looking for four E's: energy, ability to energize, edge which means decisiveness, but he needed a word that started with e , and ability to execute. Again, those are behaviors, and they don't require special intelligence, memory, or more specific traits.
It must be said that many GE leaders do seem aw- fully smart, but, then, those chess masters seem to have astonishing memories, when what they really have is a little different. So without testing, it's hard to know exactly what we're seeing. More generally, many top-performing companies have worked hard to develop hiring criteria and have come up with lists that clearly work but do not include standout general abilities. Southwest Airlines, the only airline in America to have made a profit every year for the past thirty-six years, is famous for seeking a blend of attitudes and person- ality traits—sense of humor, sense of mission, energy, confidence.
The message from these companies raises an important question: Even if superior intelligence and memory aren't the critical factors for success, are the traits these companies seek—team orientation, humor, confidence, and so on—reliably related to success across companies, and if so, are they innate traits that you either have or you don't?
Re- search suggests that some personality dimensions do match up with success at certain types of work; yes, salespeople tend to be more ex- troverted, for example. Logical next question: Are you stuck with the personality traits you have? Research going back decades suggests that personality dimen- sions don't vary much over the course of a person's life. In addition, even within a given field, we know that some of the most successful people in business changed their personalities in significant ways. Former Trea- sury Secretary Robert Rubin, who spent most of his career at Goldman Sachs and became the firm's cochief, reports that in his early years at Goldman he was, essentially, a jerk.
He admits that he was "short with people," "impersonal," "abrupt and peremptory," and frequently not nice to colleagues. None of this hindered his career as a successful arbitra- geur; no one much cared how traders behaved as long as they delivered results. But then one day an older partner told Rubin he could possibly play a larger role in the firm if he changed his ways and actually started to care about the people he worked with. As Rubin recalls in his mem- oir, "I've often asked myself why this advice affected me so much. He started listening to people better, understanding their problems, and valuing their views.
He changed an important element of his personal- ity. If he hadn't, it's unlikely he would have become one of the most re- spected and admired figures at Goldman and on Wall Street. Psychologists might argue that people who do what Rubin did aren't changing their personalities, they're changing their behavior in order to override some part of their personalities.
Fine; there's no need to quibble. What matters is that they were not constrained by particular traits. At this point you can't help but wonder if there's anything at all a that makes a significant difference to whether you achieve extraordinary performance, and b that you can't do anything about. The answer is yes, of course there is. Most obvious are congenital physical and mental health problems, plus other diseases and disorders that may visit any of us at any time for reasons we still don't fully understand.
Those con- straints aside, and considering only people in general good health, the clearly innate limitations seem to be physical. Overall body size is also partly innate, so champion sumo wrestlers can probably never make themselves into elite marathoners. While you can develop your voice in all kinds of ways, the dimensions of your vocal cords impose limits; a tenor cannot make himself into a basso profundo. That is all widely agreed upon. Feedback is continuously available. Deliberate practice is mentally taxing, to the point where practicing more than hours per day is nearly impossible.
Deliberate practice requires sacrifice and hard work, but if we choose to make the sacrifice, we can be among the top performers in our field, as most people prefer not to sacrifice and claim that bad luck, or bad genes, are the reason why they are stuck in life. Colvin provides a road map for deliberate practice for those who are looking to up their performance in any field.
It begins on knowing what field you are willing to devote your time and effort to. Then comes the practice. Colvin suggests three different models of practice to follow: music, chess, and sports. The music model is an analytical approach. If, for example, you were preparing a presentation, this model suggests focusing on the purpose of each part and practicing multiple times to develop the best method of presentation.
The chess model of practice involves looking at past games of masters, comparing moves you would make to the moves they made. In business, we can use the chess model by reading case studies and articles, making note of potential solutions to real-world business problems. The sports model involves conditioning, going back to the basics of your field to sharpen your saw, and developing specific skills with simulation or practice.
You must also find a way to practice in the work, through choosing which tasks to focus on, developing new methods to more effectively complete those tasks, and reviewing the progress you have made at the end of the day. Perfect practice makes perfect. What deliberate practice skills have you applied to your life? What type of impact did this make?
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