You are talented enough

As a manager, I used to place people into 9-box grids with axes labeled “potential” and “performance.” It was ludicrous, of course, as we had few if any objective measures of either. But the process required it, and we went about our farcical task with all the seriousness of self-important men. We approached our search for “talent” within our organizations as if we were looking for ripe strawberries. Worse still, we chose to develop only those few we picked.

I wish I had been smart enough and brave enough back then to ask, “Potential for what?” “Performance of what?”

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, makes the point that it’s not innate talent that matters so much as “passion and perseverance.” She quotes William James, the eminent psychologist in the early 1900s:

“The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimism.”
‘Of course there are limits,’ James acknowledged. ‘The trees don’t grow into the sky.’ But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us. ‘The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.’”

Nietzsche viewed our fixation with “talent” as an excuse: “If we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness…They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman.”

When I worked in big companies, our ill-conceived search for a talented few led us to largely ignore the potential of the great majority of employees. Now, I know it isn’t some rare, innate trait that’s required to do great work and live a meaningful life. It’s passion and persistence. It’s curiosity and a willingness to experiment. It’s years of small steps, deliberate practice, and resilience in the face of setbacks. 

You are talented enough. Now what? Will you wait to be picked, or will you start the long, serious work to pick yourself? 

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Olivia & her Rubik's CubeWork, even life, is a kind of Rubik’s cube. Allow me to explain. I’ve never solved a Rubik’s cube. I’ve tried, of course. I turned it this way and that till one side was the same color. Then, frustrated and having no idea what to do next, I tossed it aside. I didn’t know anyone who had solved it either.

So it was with pride and awe that I recently watched my 9 year old daughter, Olivia, teach herself to solve the cube. In a few weeks, she went from not knowing anything about it to solving any cube handed to her. Now she just competes with herself on time. Her personal best is 1 minute 33 seconds.

The way she learned to do that - methods that can apply to learning almost anything - are worth billions to large companies.

Where to start

When Olivia wants to learn something, she expects that someone else has already shared something related to it. Her first stop is usually YouTube and it’s there she found the Simplest Tutorial for 3x3 Rubik's Cube (Learn in 15 minutes) by TheSergsB.

She watched it and tried to follow along, making slow progress. Like any video tutorial, she’d pause it when she couldn’t keep up and would watch the tough parts over and over.

Neither Olivia nor SergsB think of what they’re doing as working out loud, but that’s what it is. SergsB is making his work visible, framing it as a contribution, and in doing so is developing a network (now 14,000+ subscribers and 3+ million views) that gives him access to other possibilities. Olivia started by just consuming that content, but then she took it a step further.

Getting better

Even before she could complete the puzzle, Olivia started sharing her progress with family and a few friends at school. We offered encouragement which further motivated her to keep going. Since she wasn’t competing with other people, she wasn’t reluctant to share what she was learning. The goal was simply to get better.

As she started talking with people about it, she learned about a faster model of the cube and met more people at her school who were interested in Rubik's cubes. One of them was Amiri Bell, a fifth-grader who had won a local contest for solving 4 cubes in 7 minutes. Amiri also taught himself to solve the cube by watching a YouTube video.

Sharing practices

At school, Olivia’s teacher told her about the Rubik’s Cube club in fifth grade. Amiri was part of that club but so were people who were learning to solve the cube for the first time. It is, in effect, a community of practice. As the definition states, “It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.”

I knew Olivia wanted to keep improving her time, so I asked her what she would do when she got stuck. “Probably watch more videos,” she said. She also wants to learn to solve bigger cubes. The original cube is 3x3x3 and the biggest is a mind-boggling 11x11x11. That will be something she can get help with in the fifth-grade club.

Life is a Rubik’s cube

Olivia learns other things this way too. Whether it’s playing golf or playing cello, she benefits from studying the visible work of others, she shares what she learns herself, and she connects with others who are learning so they can all get better.

Now think of how people in your company learn to do anything. Is knowledge from experts freely available online or is education outsourced to a Learning & Development department? Is the opportunity to learn reserved only for those labelled top performers?Do people compete with each other based on what they know, thus suppressing sharing and learning?

If any of that is true, it’s a colossal waste of human and commercial potential.

We could learn a lot from 9 year olds. We could all work out loud, focus more on getting better than getting ahead, and connect what we all know so we can build on it.

If we did that, think of how much better things would be for both the individuals and their firms.

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Olivia & her Rubik's Cube

Olivia & her Rubik's Cube

Work, even life, is a kind of Rubik’s cube. Allow me to explain. I’ve never solved a Rubik’s cube. I’ve tried, of course. I turned it this way and that till one side was the same color. Then, frustrated and having no idea what to do next, I tossed it aside. I didn’t know anyone who had solved it either.

So it was with pride and awe that I recently watched my 9 year old daughter, Olivia, teach herself to solve the cube. In a few weeks, she went from not knowing anything about it to solving any cube handed to her. Now she just competes with herself on time. Her personal best is 1 minute 33 seconds.

The way she learned to do that - methods that can apply to learning almost anything - are worth billions to large companies.

Where to start

When Olivia wants to learn something, she expects that someone else has already shared something related to it. Her first stop is usually YouTube and it’s there she found the Simplest Tutorial for 3x3 Rubik's Cube (Learn in 15 minutes) by TheSergsB.

She watched it and tried to follow along, making slow progress. Like any video tutorial, she’d pause it when she couldn’t keep up and would watch the tough parts over and over.

Neither Olivia nor SergsB think of what they’re doing as working out loud, but that’s what it is. SergsB is making his work visible, framing it as a contribution, and in doing so is developing a network (now 14,000+ subscribers and 3+ million views) that gives him access to other possibilities. Olivia started by just consuming that content, but then she took it a step further.

Getting better

Even before she could complete the puzzle, Olivia started sharing her progress with family and a few friends at school. We offered encouragement which further motivated her to keep going. Since she wasn’t competing with other people, she wasn’t reluctant to share what she was learning. The goal was simply to get better.

As she started talking with people about it, she learned about a faster model of the cube and met more people at her school who were interested in Rubik's cubes. One of them was Amiri Bell, a fifth-grader who had won a local contest for solving 4 cubes in 7 minutes. Amiri also taught himself to solve the cube by watching a YouTube video.

Sharing practices

At school, Olivia’s teacher told her about the Rubik’s Cube club in fifth grade. Amiri was part of that club but so were people who were learning to solve the cube for the first time. It is, in effect, a community of practice. As the definition states, “It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.”

I knew Olivia wanted to keep improving her time, so I asked her what she would do when she got stuck. “Probably watch more videos,” she said. She also wants to learn to solve bigger cubes. The original cube is 3x3x3 and the biggest is a mind-boggling 11x11x11. That will be something she can get help with in the fifth-grade club.

Life is a Rubik’s cube

Olivia learns other things this way too. Whether it’s playing golf or playing cello, she benefits from studying the visible work of others, she shares what she learns herself, and she connects with others who are learning so they can all get better.

Now think of how people in your company learn to do anything. Is knowledge from experts freely available online or is education outsourced to a Learning & Development department? Is the opportunity to learn reserved only for those labelled top performers?Do people compete with each other based on what they know, thus suppressing sharing and learning?

If any of that is true, it’s a colossal waste of human and commercial potential.

We could learn a lot from 9 year olds. We could all work out loud, focus more on getting better than getting ahead, and connect what we all know so we can build on it.

If we did that, think of how much better things would be for both the individuals and their firms.

A better way to identify and develop talented people

Identifying talent One of the biggest tragedies of modern management is our approach to finding and developing talented people.

For recruiting, we use top schools and other brokers to identify the talent for us. For people already inside the firm, we construct elaborate talent management systems and leadership development programs. These methods, which focus on the few and neglect the many, are extraordinarily ineffective and, worse, they're actively harming firms and their people.

There’s a better way.

What do you expect?

We tend to treat talent as something innate, something a rare few possess. We create all sorts of filters to spot those with high potential and then do special things to retain and develop those people. Identifying potential in others seems one of the basic responsibilities of management.

Everybody does it - schools, the military, corporations. But studies have shown “potential” isn’t as innate as we think. And, in “Give and Take” , Adam Grant summarizes some surprising research.

The classic study, in 1966, was done in schools. Teachers were given names of students who “had shown the potential for intellectual blooming”. Unbeknownst to the teachers, the experimenters had chosen the students randomly. And, yet, the “bloomers” did indeed score better over time on IQ tests in the following years - by an average of 15 points in the first year and 10 points in the second grade.

Why?

“Teachers’ beliefs created self-fulfilling prophecies. When teachers believed their student were bloomers, they...engaged in more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development. Teachers communicated more warmly to the bloomers, gave them more challenging assignments, called on them more often, and provided them with more feedback.”

In the 1980s, researchers discovered similar effects in the Israeli Defense Forces when trainees were randomly selected as “high-potential”. In 2000, in a meta-review of 17 studies in industries from banking to retail sales to manufacturing, researchers again found the same effects:

“Overall, when managers were randomly assigned to see employees as bloomers, employees bloomed.”

A better way to find talented people

In a previous post, I told the story of Jordi Munoz who, who grew up in Tijuana and, despite lacking a college degree or other traditional credentials, went on to become CEO of a robotics company at age 24. The person who hired Jordi was Chris Anderson, the founder and former editor of Wired magazine. He found Jordi through an online robotics community where Jordi was an active member. There, Chris could see his work, see public feedback from others, and could even collaborate with him all before ever speaking with him.

In Chris’ book “Makers”, he pointed out how he never would have found such talent if he looked in the traditional places.

“Why wouldn’t you start a company with people with whom you were already working well, who had already proven their mettle? It seems so much riskier to take a flier on someone you don’t know, just because that person has a degree from a good school.

This is the Long Tail of talent. The web allows people to to show what they can do, regardless of their education and credentials. It allows groups to form and work together easily...”

The reason Chris didn’t need to limit himself and rely on MIT or Berkeley to find talent for him is that Jordi (and all of us) now have platforms where we can make our work visible and discoverable and, importantly, where other experts can provide feedback on it. Through his contributions in the online community, Jordi was able to let his work speak for itself without the need for a broker.

A better way to develop talent 

Inside firms, we can do the same thing: creating environments where people can make their work visible and discoverable.

The idea of a group of managers sitting in a room and deciding who has potential or who’s talented is grossly flawed. It’s based on relationships and similarities more than merit. And, as the studies above show, there’s no evidence that any positive results (if they’re even tracked) are anything but self-fulfilling prophecies.

Think of the kids in that 1966 study. Picture the lucky random few who, when deemed “high-potential”, excelled. And picture the remaining 80% who, through no fault of their own, never got the “more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development”.

That’s what we’re doing at work. It’s bad for individuals and it’s bad for business.

And it's time for smart managers to stop doing stupid things. Stop labeling a few people as having potential, developing them, and telling the rest not to bother. Instead, start viewing 100% of the people as having potential. (The randomness in the studies proves that’s largely true.) And start viewing your job as creating environments where anyone can contribute and learn, where anyone can become talented, and where anyone realize their potential.

A better way to identify and develop talented people

Identifying talent One of the biggest tragedies of modern management is our approach to finding and developing talented people.

For recruiting, we use top schools and other brokers to identify the talent for us. For people already inside the firm, we construct elaborate talent management systems and leadership development programs. These methods, which focus on the few and neglect the many, are extraordinarily ineffective and, worse, they're actively harming firms and their people.

There’s a better way.

What do you expect?

We tend to treat talent as something innate, something a rare few possess. We create all sorts of filters to spot those with high potential and then do special things to retain and develop those people. Identifying potential in others seems one of the basic responsibilities of management.

Everybody does it - schools, the military, corporations. But studies have shown “potential” isn’t as innate as we think. And, in “Give and Take” , Adam Grant summarizes some surprising research.

The classic study, in 1966, was done in schools. Teachers were given names of students who “had shown the potential for intellectual blooming”. Unbeknownst to the teachers, the experimenters had chosen the students randomly. And, yet, the “bloomers” did indeed score better over time on IQ tests in the following years - by an average of 15 points in the first year and 10 points in the second grade.

Why?

“Teachers’ beliefs created self-fulfilling prophecies. When teachers believed their student were bloomers, they...engaged in more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development. Teachers communicated more warmly to the bloomers, gave them more challenging assignments, called on them more often, and provided them with more feedback.”

In the 1980s, researchers discovered similar effects in the Israeli Defense Forces when trainees were randomly selected as “high-potential”. In 2000, in a meta-review of 17 studies in industries from banking to retail sales to manufacturing, researchers again found the same effects:

“Overall, when managers were randomly assigned to see employees as bloomers, employees bloomed.”

A better way to find talented people

In a previous post, I told the story of Jordi Munoz who, who grew up in Tijuana and, despite lacking a college degree or other traditional credentials, went on to become CEO of a robotics company at age 24. The person who hired Jordi was Chris Anderson, the founder and former editor of Wired magazine. He found Jordi through an online robotics community where Jordi was an active member. There, Chris could see his work, see public feedback from others, and could even collaborate with him all before ever speaking with him.

In Chris’ book “Makers”, he pointed out how he never would have found such talent if he looked in the traditional places.

“Why wouldn’t you start a company with people with whom you were already working well, who had already proven their mettle? It seems so much riskier to take a flier on someone you don’t know, just because that person has a degree from a good school.

This is the Long Tail of talent. The web allows people to to show what they can do, regardless of their education and credentials. It allows groups to form and work together easily...”

The reason Chris didn’t need to limit himself and rely on MIT or Berkeley to find talent for him is that Jordi (and all of us) now have platforms where we can make our work visible and discoverable and, importantly, where other experts can provide feedback on it. Through his contributions in the online community, Jordi was able to let his work speak for itself without the need for a broker.

A better way to develop talent 

Inside firms, we can do the same thing: creating environments where people can make their work visible and discoverable.

The idea of a group of managers sitting in a room and deciding who has potential or who’s talented is grossly flawed. It’s based on relationships and similarities more than merit. And, as the studies above show, there’s no evidence that any positive results (if they’re even tracked) are anything but self-fulfilling prophecies.

Think of the kids in that 1966 study. Picture the lucky random few who, when deemed “high-potential”, excelled. And picture the remaining 80% who, through no fault of their own, never got the “more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development”.

That’s what we’re doing at work. It’s bad for individuals and it’s bad for business.

And it's time for smart managers to stop doing stupid things. Stop labeling a few people as having potential, developing them, and telling the rest not to bother. Instead, start viewing 100% of the people as having potential. (The randomness in the studies proves that’s largely true.) And start viewing your job as creating environments where anyone can contribute and learn, where anyone can become talented, and where anyone realize their potential.