Debunking the Talent Myth

Everyone’s talking about ways to find opportunity amid economic chaos. Yet there’s something right under our noses that’s being overlooked: Times of crisis present unprecedented opportunities to stretch and develop real leadership capabilities.

What’s needed, specifically?

Hire more executive coaches, step up sessions, and implement more training and development programs.

In tough times, you cannot rely on talent and luck. Even when you have a talented team at the top, people need help in stretching their capabilities to meet the economy’s overwhelming demands.

Your leaders can’t go it alone. You can’t, either.


The upside of a financial crisis and recession is that they offer all of us the opportunity to stretch our skills in our current jobs—and I mean everyone.

Unfortunately, when we try something new and it doesn’t come naturally, we conclude we have no talent for it. We abandon pursuit, never giving ourselves the chance to practice and make progress. Scientific evidence, however, is beginning to show that our definition of talent is wrong. In fact, “talent” may not mean anything at all.

The concept of talent is especially troublesome in business. We label people and then assign expectations, some unrealistic. When people are fast-tracked or deemed executive material, we assume they have special gifts. Worse, we fail to adequately emphasize the importance of continuous training and coaching.

Some business giants actually gave little early indication that they would become great. Jack Welch, named by Fortune as the 20th century’s manager of the century, showed no particular passion for business, even into his mid-20s. Steve Ballmer and Jeffrey Immelt were average employees at Procter & Gamble in the 1970s, with little evidence they would go on to become CEOs of Microsoft and GE before age 50.


Many high-performing executives will tell you they don’t rely on their innate talents as much as their hard-earned skills.

CEOs like A.G. Lafley of P&G and GE’s Immelt have said that being forced to manage through crises early in their careers enhanced their abilities in ways that were critical to becoming CEOs.

Certain practices can make our experiences especially productive:

• Coaching helps.

• Receiving feedback allows us to fi ne-tune our skills.

• Working in a safe learning environment is essential.

Workplaces encourage practice and development, and mistakes should be viewed as learning opportunities. You also need to clearly define and develop a plan for achieving the abilities you wish to hone, including a measurable time frame.

10,000 HOURS OR 10 YEARS

Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for 10,000 hours of practice to attain expertise in his book Outliers (Little, Brown & Co., 2008). Almost all child prodigies in music, sports, chess and the arts seem to put in 10,000 hours before they attain expertise and produce significant results.

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, edited by Anders Ericsson, Charness and Feltovich, et al, compiles scientific studies to prove the point in a wide variety of fields. The trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Expert performers “whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming” are nearly always made, not born.

Many of us have already put in more than a decade of doing what we do. The question is whether we’re practicing the right things, in the right way.


Anders Ericsson and his scientific colleagues emphasize the importance of deliberate practice, characterized by several elements:

• It is an activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with the help of a teacher, coach or expert.

• It can be repeated frequently.

• Feedback on results is continuously available.

• It’s highly demanding mentally.

• It isn’t much fun and entails hard work.

If you think you’ve outgrown the need for a teacher or coach, it’s time to challenge this assumption. Without a clear, unbiased view of your performance, you cannot choose the best practice activities.

Hire a coach who can properly stretch you beyond your current abilities and help you move out of your comfort zones. Otherwise, human nature dictates that you’re likely to spend your time practicing what you already know how to do.

According to Noel Tichy, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior and human resources management at the University of Michigan School of Business, our progress depends on leaving our comfort zone to enter the learning zone, where skills and abilities are just out of reach.


Recognizing unsatisfactory elements of performance is difficult and uncomfortable. When you try your hardest to perform better, you place enormous strain on your mental abilities.

Obviously, if the activities that require practice were easy and fun, everyone would do them. But in reality, most people won’t practice or persist long enough to improve. This is good news if you’re willing to do what most people won’t. It’s the reason you’re more likely to keep your job and thrive in this recession.


Those who care the most will rise to the top. Exceptional performance depends on what we decide to do with our lives and the passion that drives us. One of the most purchased articles from the Harvard Business Review is a 1968 piece on motivation that explains our three main drives:

1. Achievement

2. Power

3. A sense of community and desire to help others

No matter your driving force, you have to care deeply enough to work hard to become exceptional. Nothing can make you endure the pain and sacrifice of deliberate practice for decades unless you’re carried by an intrinsic compulsion to do so.

Even if you hold onto the notion that you’ll always survive because of your innate talent, you must still prepare, practice and persist. The scientific research is in, and it’s conclusive. Hard work—not talent— contributes to high performance.