(Mere) Talent Takes a Beating

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! 2008 confe...

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! 2008 Conference - Image via Wikipedia

Malcolm Gladwell had Sandy Nininger. I have March Madness. The results are the same.

Mere talent is taking a beating.

Gladwell’s writings – built in part on the work of people like Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth – have shown that raw talent – smarts as we like to say in the business world – is overrated.

Gladwell demonstrated in The Talent Myth that hiring by collegiate pedigree – shorthand for smart – gave us the Enron fiasco (with McKinsey & Co’s significant backing).

I’d add – as Calvin Trillin also noted in the New York Times – that smarts got us the mortgage backed securities mess as well and with it the biggest economic meltdown (aka Great Recession) since the Great Depression in the 1930’s.

But here’s an easier and quicker test. Just look what has happened to date in this year’s men’s collegiate basketball tournament, that orgy of the sports TV viewing invented by James Naismith, known as March Madness.

First a step back in case you missed it; the entrants to the men’s (and women’s) tournaments are teams that either won their way in by winning their respective league entry, and/or they were picked by a group of people known as the Selection Committee. They look at mounds of data; team records, who they beat and when, who they lost to and when, injury reports, trend lines, etc.

In other words they pick the best teams and then seed them from high to low with a goal that the best teams will meet in the final championship games. They are picking talent; low seeds to the most talented teams, higher seeds (1-16) to the less talented teams.

After the first full weekend – where you would expect generally better ranked teams to prevail – mere talent has taken a shelling.

Turns out you can pick talent; you can’t pick heart. And as the research shows, performance is not just mere talent, but the heart and grit that goes with it.

In bracketing where you might expect the higher seed to always be the favorite, you can make a case (at least I can) for a 90% run rate. Guess what? For games in which the seeding has been 2 places or better (i.e. #8 vs. #9 seed would not count in the data, a #10 vs. #7 would) here are the results through this first full weekend of the NCAA men’s collegiate tournament:

  • Higher (worse) seeds – 32%
  • Lower (better) seeds – 68%
  • 4 games favorites won were decided by 5 points or less; if all four had been won by underdogs, their success rate would have been 40%.

Cut to the chase?

While talent (smarts, raw physical ability, etc.) is great, it’s just not enough. Performance research demonstrates that it’s perseverance and grit – something I call “heart” – that combined with a modicum of talent is the general recipe for success. While great talent plus heart is a no-brainer for success,  it’s also a rare combination.

And that’s why I disdain personality and “talent” tests in my work coaching executives and teams because they don’t measure predictive success factors –  and why I love March Madness.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, new role, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.