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Gladwell on Talent Selection

I just got back from the American Society for Training & Development’s International Conference and Exhibition in San Diego where I was a speaker. This was a great conference – one of the best I’ve ever been to and I’ve been to a lot of them both as an attendee and as a speaker – 8,000 professional development pros from all over the world. I learned a tremendous amount and met some wonderful new and interesting people and sold and signed a lot of my books.

Malcolm Gladwell was one of the keynoters. Gladwell, the author of mega-bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blinkwill be releasing his new book, Outliers, in November. One aspect of Outliers is Gladwell’s take on how we evaluate and develop talent. As this was a speech to ASTD, he naturally focused on this aspect and told us about some of the eye-opening stuff he had found as he was researching and writing this book.

Gladwell feels that we as a society and particularly our business community have swung in favor of favoring and developing talent that he terms “precocious.” These are the people who do eye-popping, paradigm-busting things very early in their careers, in their 20s or even younger. By virtue of bursting onto the scene early, these people are noticed by higher ups and quickly move up the ladders of success. They receive more attention, more support for their ideas and much, much more encouragement in the hope that they will continue turning out groundbreaking work.

The other type of talent Gladwell says exists is talent that takes time to develop. These people don’t necessarily do amazing things early. Instead, they are cautious, they work steadily and slowly, carefully, painstakingly honing their skills until finally they achieve mastery. (“Mastery” is one way Gladwell describes this second type of talent.) Because their talent requires more effort and time to uncover, these talented people are not favored in today’s fast-moving business culture, and instead of being developed, nurtured and promoted, they are routinely ignored.

Gladwell then goes on to make the case that we ignore the mastery type of talent at our peril and uses Picasso and Cezanne as examples of precocity and mastery, respectively. As a cautionary tale, he shows that Picasso’s paintings done when he was in his 20s sell for about 4 times the price that paintings done in his later years sell for. But here’s where mastery trumps precocity: Cezanne’s paintings done when he was in his 50s and 60s sell for 15 times the price of those done when he was in his 20s.

Other examples he outlines are instructive. In using intelligence tests to choose quarterbacks, the NFL has regularly missed out on identifying the best and in fact, some of the greatest quarterbacks scored low on these tests. The University of Michigan Law School looked at lawyers who had been admitted under its affirmative action program and found that 10 years out, those attorneys were much more involved in serving their communities than the law students who had been admitted because of top LSAT scores and grades. We think we know how to identify talent, but we really don’t. Or we go about it in all the wrong ways.

The model in hiring and professional development that selects for precocity as opposed to mastery does not serve business well, or its workers. It misses a lot of people who have great value to add and whose painstaking efforts, like Cezanne’s, to perfect and master their work produce results that return much more value in the long run. Something to think about.

And Gladwell was a great speaker, too.

Copyright 2008 Ruth Sherman.  All Rights Reserved.

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