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Selecting the Best: Early v. Late Bloomers

The theme of Malcolm Gladwell’s talk was that we have grown to favor certain types of intellectual skills over others and that by indulging this bias, we are missing out on a treasure trove of talent and creativity.
Gladwell borrows liberally from the work of David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago who undertook research to back up this thesis. By analyzing the price trajectories of certain famous artists’ works, Galenson found some created their most valuable works early in their careers, while others created their most valuable works late. Using Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne as examples of early and late genius, respectively, Galenson showed that Picasso’s early paintings created when he was in his 20s, sell for 4 times more than his later works. On the other hand, Cézanne’s later works, created when he was in his 50s and 60s sell for 15 times more than those done earlier in his career.

Gladwell labels these differing types of talent “precocious” talent and “mastery.” Like Picasso, the precociously talented do eye-popping, groundbreaking things very early in their careers. They quickly attract notice and are fast-tracked to success. They receive more attention, more support for their ideas and much, much more encouragement.

On the other hand, as with Cezanne, mastery takes time to develop. People with this type of talent don’t do their best work early. They are cautious, working steadily and slowly, carefully and painstakingly honing their skills until finally they achieve a very high level of knowledge and expertise resulting in masterworks. Because their talent requires more effort and time to uncover, in today’s fast-paced, impatient world, they are not favored and instead of being developed, nurtured and promoted, they are ignored.

Gladwell provided examples well beyond the art world. By using intelligence tests to vet quarterbacks, the NFL has regularly failed to identify 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 25 years out, those attorneys were much more involved in their communities, making far greater contributions than the law students who had been admitted with top grades and LSAT scores. In fact, they found that test scores are inversely related to community involvement. The upshot? What it means to be a good lawyer is something that emerges over time.

Gladwell’s conclusion is that we think we know how to identify talent, but we really don’t.

We Go About Identifying Talent In All The Wrong Ways

One of the biggest issues facing businesses today is employees’ lack of creativity in problem solving. Much of that deficit, I think, can be attributed to our educational system, where standardized testing has taken firm root and pushed aside the very subjects that build creativity, the arts. According to Elliott W. Eisner, emeritus professor of education at Stanford,

“The problems of life are much more like the problems encountered in the arts. They are problems that seldom have a single correct solution; they are problems that are often subtle, occasionally ambiguous, and sometimes dilemma-like. One would think that schools that wanted to prepare students for life would employ tasks and problems similar to those found outside of schools. This is hardly the case. Life outside of school is seldom like school assignments–and hardly ever like a multiple-choice test.”*

As a result, most people have tacitly accepted that if it’s not tested, it’s not taught. In the business world, the saying goes, “if it can’t be measured it can’t be managed.”

And we cannot honestly discuss precocious talent and mastery without thinking about the elephant in the room: age. In a recent New York Times article, the reporter quotes an executive recruiter who says that companies are “reluctant to hire older workers. At the top of the corporate ladder, executive recruiters are routinely told not to seek anyone over 50.” Such an attitude limits a wide range of important skills that late-bloomers bring to the table. Skills like persistence despite failure and the learning opportunities that presents, the ability to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds, or to maintain passion through it all. Perhaps there is even something about the struggle itself that sustains and nourishes mastery.

In my own work, I have found – both as a consultant/coach and as a speaker – that only hours and hours of practice, revision and relentless tweaking result in outstanding performance. Even the naturally gifted must put in the time and I have never seen someone in his or her twenties attain mastery as a communicator or speaker.

While this is by no means a complete picture, the current trend in hiring and professional development that selects for precocious talent as opposed to mastery may not serve business as well as we may think. Certainly that is the case if, in fact, it misses a lot of people whose painstaking efforts to perfect and create outstanding work produce results that return much more value in the long run. Gladwell pointed out that in the music business today (and maybe this is why it’s in such trouble), if a band doesn’t have a hit with its first single, it’s gone!

The Beatles wouldn’t have made it.

Something to chew on.

*Eisner, Elliot W. “Three Rs Are Essential, but Don’t Forget the A — the Arts” Los Angeles Times, January 3, 2005 Commentary

Copyright 2008 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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