Is Talent Overrated?

It is mid-1978, and we are inside the giant Procter & Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati, looking into a cubicle shared by a pair of 22-year-old men, fresh out of college. Their assignment is to sell Duncan Hines brownie mix, but they spend a lot of their time just rewriting memos. Neither has any kind of career plan. Every afternoon they play waste-bin basketball with wadded-up memos. One of them later recalls, "We were voted the two guys probably least likely to succeed." These two young men are of interest to us now for only one reason: They are Jeffrey Immelt and Steven Ballmer, who before age 50 would become CEOs of two of the world's most valuable corporations, General Electric and Microsoft.

Contrary to what any reasonable person would have expected when they were new recruits, they reached the apex of corporate achievement. The obvious question is how. Was it talent? If so, it was a strange kind of talent that hadn't revealed itself in the first 22 years of their lives. Brains?

The two were sharp but had shown no evidence of being sharper than thousands of classmates or colleagues. Was it mountains of hard work? Certainly not up to that point. And yet something carried them to the heights of the business world. Which leads to perhaps the most puzzling question, one that applies not just to Immelt and Ballmer but also to everyone: If that certain special something turns out not to be any of the things we usually think of, then what is it? If we believe that people without a particular natural talent for some activity will never be competitive with those who possess that talent - meaning an inborn ability to do that specific thing easily and well - then we'll direct them away from that activity.

We'll steer our kids away from art, tennis, economics, or Chinese because we think we've seen that they have no talent in those realms. In our own lives we'll try something new and, finding that it doesn't come naturally to us, conclude that we have no talent for it, and so we never pursue it.

A number of researchers now argue that 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. In studies of accomplished individuals, researchers have found few signs of precocious achievement before the individuals started intensive training.

Similar findings have turned up in studies of musicians, tennis players, artists, swimmers, mathematicians, and others. Such findings do not prove that talent doesn't exist. But they do suggest an intriguing possibility: that if it does, it may be irrelevant.

Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated