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2. Talent Can Be Distracting. Deal With It.


Dr Angela Duckworth begins her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by warning us not to be distracted by talent. The essence of her concern comes down to this:

“In my view, the biggest reason a preoccupation with talent can be harmful is simple: by shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the shadows. We inadvertently send the message that these other factors - including grit - don’t matter as much as they really do.”


The initial evidence she provides in support of her views consists of:

  • Her experience as a McKinsey consultant;

  • Her time spent following the progress of successful mathematics students in her first job as a teacher in New York; and,

  • The work ethic of students she observed as a teacher at another school in San Francisco.

Dr Duckworth tells us that these experiences were sufficient to make her question whether “talent is destiny” and led her to view effort as a more potent force than she had originally thought. This is why, she says, she quit teaching to become a psychologist.


Recounting her time at graduate school, Duckworth focuses on what she learned from three 19th Century intellectual giants: Charles Darwin, Francis Galton and William James, all of whom emphasised the value - even the supremacy - of effort over talent.


She next considers the research of Dr Chia Jung Tsay. Dr Tsay discovered that although people say they value hard work more highly than innate ability, in practice they act otherwise, revealing a measurable “naturalness bias”.


Duckworth then cites anecdotal evidence of this bias at McKinsey with its obsession with the “best and brightest” and at Enron as recounted in the documentary Smartest Guys in the Room. She finishes up with examples where hard work trumps talent, in the lives of Dr Tsay and her colleague Barry Kaufman - about whom we will learn more later - as well as in Dr Duckworth’s own life.


Team Analysis


Dr Duckworth wants us to agree with her that talent is not as important as we probably think it is for achieving career success. Ultimately she wants us to believe that effort is twice as important as talent. This is literally the core equation in her theory on grit.


Yet she doesn’t start with scientific sources to support her contention. Instead, she relies on several anecdotes - including some from her own personal experience - and cites three leading thinkers from the mid-1800’s, to whom she will later add Friedrich Nietzsche, in what is beginning to feel like an appeal not to our critical faculties but to our common sense.


Ironically, common sense is also how cognitive scientists have more recently described very different conclusions.


Regarding the importance of effort in the form of deliberate practice – which Duckworth is foreshadowing – over the last 25 years a large number of leading scientists have, “roundly criticized on conceptual and methodological grounds”[1] research that has emphasised effort over talent, with some concluding that the concept of deliberate practice involves “critical inconsistencies” and “requires blindness to ordinary experience.”[2]


This “blindness to ordinary experience” is strong criticism from a scientific perspective, because as philosophers Quine and Ullian, authors of The Web of Belief, have argued - and we paraphrase here - explanatory principles should cohere with our well-founded beliefs, and we need good reason to abandon our common-sense understandings in a particular case.


We go more deeply into these issues in our other books in this series. But this is a reminder to not always take at face value the claims Dr Duckworth makes as she begins to build her case. She has some good science to share later, but in our opinion this is a disappointing start.


That said, we can’t ignore the perspectives of the intellectual giants on whose shoulders Duckworth is seeking to stand, as the distinguished lineage of her views suggests that we should give them a fair hearing.


James is one such example. He claims that:

“... 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 optimum.”


But that, to us, falls far short of saying that by acknowledging - and rewarding - the reality of natural and innate ability, which includes fluid intelligence as well as profession-specific traits, we’re necessarily distracting ourselves from Duckworth’s presumed much greater importance of effort in achieving great things.


And without hard science to counter the substantial research on the other side of this equation, we can’t accept that our seemingly natural and historical emphasis on talent, which can be traced back as far as Biblical times and perhaps farther, is as misguided as Dr Duckworth is suggesting it is.


Practitioner Perspective


I’m guessing that all of us have seen and worked at some point in our careers with truly amazing professionals. For me as a competition law specialist, it was the speed with which a colleague would become intimately familiar with the competitive dynamics of a new industry, or how they’d almost instantly discern the likely boundaries of a relevant product market. These things could sometimes feel like a form of other-worldly brilliance.


The same was true for those experts who could consistently predict how a regulator would respond to a particular line of economic analysis or a technical legal defense. Or on the other side of the table, there always seemed to be at least one government official who could immediately detect weaknesses in a case without seemingly paying much attention to the details.


Obviously there can be a clear experience element behind these abilities. Older attorneys can have a quicker sense of what’s happening simply based on having seen so many similar situations in the past. But that isn’t always how it works. I’ve worked with senior associates who have run rings around more experienced partners in ways that were surprising, precisely because their abilities were unexpected based just on their age and years of experience.


Perhaps they were outliers. Maybe the quality of their experience - and the effort that they'd clandestinely put into their work - was much greater than any of us knew.


But I don’t want to fall into the trap of relying on too many anecdotes as I fear Dr Duckworth may be doing. Then again, I’m not here to present a positive case as she is attempting to do. Rather I’m here to critically assess her propositions based on my own personal and professional perspective.


Because of the breadth of skills and knowledge that each of us must master in order to practice in our particular profession - which for me included industrial and behavioural economics, and a solid understanding of politics, regulatory policy, black letter law, procedural guidelines and all the rest - there are arguably many areas where an individual’s innate talents can shine through. At the same time, even prodigious effort might yield very little improvement.


In my experience, unless a professional starts with a generous amount of natural ability and talent in many if not most of the required areas, they will struggle to develop fast enough to keep up with their peers.


In my own case, I’ve always been very comfortable with economic concepts, which is a big reason why I gravitated to competition law. It’s a language that quickly became second nature to me. Is it because of a family history of business and entrepreneurial activity? I'm not sure. It could also just be how my mind naturally works.


I do agree that we shouldn’t become fixated on talent and ignore the importance of effort for developing technical expertise, as well as all the other capabilities that are necessary for growing and maintaining a successful professional career. But a fixation with talent is very different from being merely “distracted” by it, which I think is not something we need to fear quite as much.


In reality, distracting talent is pretty much inevitable in law where so many naturally gifted people are attracted to the intellectual challenge of mastering not only the law but also to competing against equally capable professionals. We simply have to get used to being around super smart and capable people, that’s essentially just part of the job and you can’t help but be amazed at times at what people can do.


In my view, Dr Duckworth has served her purpose by alerting us to her personal perspectives and by warning us against downplaying effort by too quickly believing that “talent is destiny.” But I have to say, I have my own experiences where innate talent, albeit honed through hard work, does appear to have been a definite and perhaps even the determining factor in my own career success and in the achievements of a good number of other lawyers.


To me, achievement depends on many things, including luck and knowing the right people. Effort and grit are undoubtedly important. But I would never want to discount the importance of these other factors nor the necessity for natural talent.


SELF-REFLECTION


Factual Question

1. Which of the following statements did Dr Duckworth say she began to question following her experiences as a McKinsey consultant and as a teacher?

A. Talent is the key to success

B. Talent is destiny

C. Talent is all you need

D. Effort is more important than talent


Short Answers

2. How much of your success as a professional do you ascribe to your natural talent?

10%

20%

30%

40%

50%

60%

70%

80%

90%

100%


3. In which aspects of your work do you think you have a natural talent advantage?

4. To what degree do you feel you have been distracted by talent and have overlooked the value of effort in your career?

A. Not at all

B. To some degree

C. To a moderate degree

D. To a large degree

E. Almost totally

Going Deeper

PART A – Dr Duckworth says that talent can be a “distraction” diverting attention away from the importance of effort in the development of skills and in achieving career goals. Is there a risk that this characterisation creates a bias against talent, making it seem incidental and even inessential?

PART B – Why do you think Dr Duckworth relies so much on anecdotes from her own life experience, including her work as a McKinsey consultant and as a teacher, and the way she highlights the stories of her colleagues Dr Tsay and Barry Kaufman, as well as her own story?

PART C – The Meisterline Team explains how an over-emphasis on effort - particularly in the form of Deliberate Practice - has been widely criticised within the scientific community. Do you think Dr Duckworth is being balanced in her assessment of effort versus talent?


TAKE THE NEXT STEP



To get on the list for our next small-group Grit Seminar in Melbourne or another city, email me at pjm@pmaca.com.au.


And, of course, feel free to pick up a copy of our omnibus Grit-Series Seminar Book, though you will get one for free when you attend one of our seminars.


Our next post will be, But Be Careful Not To Mythologize Talent.


Until then, feel free to email me your queries and comments.


Stay Gritty!



About the Author


Dr Peter Macmillan began his legal career in 1992 and ultimately became Head of Competition Law at an international law firm in Hong Kong. Today, Peter is the CEO of Meisterline Analytics, an international pioneer in the science of professional expertise and a leading provider of professional expertise metrics for law firms and their clients. He is also the author of 8 books, including the seminal reference book, Unlocking the Secrets of Legal Genius: Measuring Specialist Legal Expertise Through Think-Aloud Verbal Protocol Analysis, The KUJI Handbook and The 21 Secrets Of Gritty Professionals. Peter has a Master’s Degree in Competition Law and a PhD in Cognitive Science.


In 2022, Peter founded his own unique law firm in Melbourne, which specializes in signature witnessing, document certification and the formal authentication of documents for every legal and official use within Australia and internationally. For more information about the unimaginatively named Peter Macmillan & Associates, please visit pmaca.com.au/about.


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