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3. But Be Careful Not To Mythologize Talent



Dr Duckworth, in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, next argues that skill and achievement are two distinct, though related, outcomes. This is because she ultimately wants us to see that skill is the combination of effort and talent, while achievement is the combination of effort and skill.


The appearance of effort in both these equations is how Duckworth will later conclude that effort is twice as important as talent in determining how much we can achieve.


Dr Duckworth starts the process of separating skill from achievement by focusing on the demystification of talent.


She relies mostly here on empirical research involving elite swimmers. The leading researcher whom she quotes is a sociologist who concluded:

“Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.”


After dismissing truly exceptional athletes like multi-Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps as outliers, Duckworth turns to the words of Frederick Nietzsche who identified the psychological dangers of seeing talent as a mystery.


Nietzsche believed that when we are unable to observe the process by which skill is attained, we resort to mythologizing it as a form of magic. This seems to be a consequence of our natural preference for “mystery over mundanity.”


Then comes the danger. As Nietzsche puts it:

“Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius … For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking … To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘Here there is no need to compete.’”


Duckworth says “mythologizing natural talent lets us all off the hook,” which is actually what she claims happened to her when she “mistakenly equated talent and achievement” as a young teacher, congratulating students who did good work by telling them that they were very talented, and neglecting to commend them for their hard work.

Instead, Nietzsche advised:

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talent! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ … They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of the dazzling whole.”


That last sentence from Nietzsche neatly sums up the points that Duckworth is making. That is, we should be conscious of the parts, elements and procedural steps of great work rather than view them as an unobservable whole and thereby become mesmerized - and disempowered - by them.


Team Analysis


Dr Duckworth wants us to see only an indirect connection between talent and achievement. This is important for her theory of how effort counts twice in the achievement of success. First talent and effort create skill, and then skill and effort lead to achievement.


If talent plus effort led directly to achievement, then effort would only count once.


Having proposed - but not proven - this distinction, she then warns about how we can mistakenly mythologize talent because we are blind to the mundane activities that make up the development of skills.


This allows her to finish up with the exhortation from Nietzsche that we should all think more like craftspeople rather than as magical and non-magical beings.


We won’t dwell on the lack of scientific evidence to support her claims on these points. She returns to these topics later in her book, and we will catch up with them again later in this book and in our other books on her research.


To us, the mythologizing of talent is a much bigger and pernicious problem than merely being distracted by it, which as we noted in the previous post we don’t see as a big issue. That might seem like a subtle distinction. It’s certainly not presented as clearly as it could be by Duckworth. But it is, ultimately, what starts to win us over to her side.


We believe there is clear wisdom in accepting concerns on this point, even if the scientific evidence is lacking. This is because the psychological consequences are potentially damaging enough that the problem of mythologizing talent should be taken seriously at face value.


Indeed, one of Nietzsche’s main concerns is that our admiration for talent could betray us, as idealizing others’ abilities poses the serious risk of devaluing our own potentials, since we can make invidious comparisons between a honed talent and our own faltering unformed achievements. This can end up with our own potentials becoming the casualty of our admiration.


Nietzsche talks of the cult of genius. Regardless of whether or not genius exists, it is the cult aspect of it that is the bigger problem by far, as cults are inevitably based on the notion of an ‘exceptional’ leader or figure, with their ordinary, yet hopeful followers. Such a radical, but often specious, divide between people does not foster the development of anyone’s potential.


How many organisations and careers have been sacrificed to this cult, particularly when personified in an individual whose actions and decisions are rarely questioned even when they are plainly wrong? The idolizing of exceptional individuals and the building of businesses or professional practices around them, is - and probably always will be - a very serious issue.


This is why we think that Dr Duckworth’s attempts to demystify talent and skill are worthwhile. Not for the sake of her theories, of which we are yet to be fully convinced. But because we need to prevent organisations from doing regrettable things and also help individuals see themselves as both capable and able to attain much higher levels of proficiency and genuine career success.


Practitioner Perspective


When we think about our own abilities as professionals, we often need to resist becoming awe struck by the skills and abilities of others. I realise that isn’t always easy to do because, as I mentioned in the last post, there are some simply brilliant people around. This is all the more reason why we need to work on how we think about these things as much as on the development of our legal skills.


Dr Duckworth is alluding to the growth mindset message presented by Dr Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, on which Duckworth relies heavily throughout her book.


We should all believe, or at least hope, that by working at our craft as practitioners we can become better and more successful. That we aren’t “fixed” where we are, but are able to improve given the right inputs and properly focused effort. Equally, we need to keep in mind that we can also regress if we don’t keep moving forward.


For me, working at premier law firms was certainly an eye-opening experience in terms of the levels of excellence in the work being done within their competition law teams. We’ve all come across them: Lawyers with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the law and, in my case as a competition lawyer, others who literally had PhD’s in competition economics or who could easily have been awarded one based solely on the deep economic analysis they routinely undertook for their clients. Many of them were true heavyweights in their field.


I’ll readily admit to being in awe of certain of these individuals. But also to seeing their examples as an opportunity to learn and grow.


It’s essential to have confidence that we can improve, and that we can - at least potentially - achieve their levels of success. Whether or not we get there, which might be a matter of choice as much as anything else, is not as important as seeing their achievements as within our grasp.


I will say, however, that there was often a special magic built into the environment for me. I had the privilege of serving blue chip clients with M&A activity that regularly made the front pages of the popular media. Other clients found themselves investigated for their involvement in international cartel activity, which while not a good thing in itself, provided first class experience for those of us working on their cases. These things don’t happen everywhere. That's part of the magic I’m talking about.


The other place I experienced both amazing work and incredibly capable co-workers was in the Mergers Division - the M&A headquarters - of the competition authority where I worked for several years. Every merger requiring review literally came across my desk. That's one of the surest ways to get "magical" results in terms of gaining expertise quickly and building a successful career. But of course, you also need to be able to rise to the challenge intellectually and put in the work.


When you do draw back the curtains on apparent geniuses, you can break down their success not just in terms of a craftsperson approach to their work, but also in terms of the quality of the experiences and supervision they enjoyed during their careers.


Having responsibility for the carriage of a major case or investigation is a great way to become a better lawyer, assuming of course you've had the preparation and get the support you need to handle that level of responsibility.


In my 30-plus years’ experience, I can say that talent very much exists and it isn’t evenly distributed. It may even be that you don’t possess sufficient talent to achieve your highest ambitions.


But I agree we shouldn't mythologize talent. That can too easily lead to a cult of genius which is self-evidently dangerous for any organisation. It can also encourage self-limiting beliefs, which can lead to excuses not to try harder, and which inevitably lead to the tragedy of unfulfilled potential and achievements well below what we’re capable of achieving.


SELF-REFLECTION


Factual Question

1. The research on elite swimmers that Dr Duckworth used to help demystify talent, was conducted by:

a. A cognitive scientist

b. A sociologist

c. A sport’s scientist

d. A research psychologist

e. A philosopher


Short Answers

2. Do you think there is a problem in your workplace of idolizing individuals who appear to be naturally talented?

a. Absolutely

b. It may be an issue

c. It is not really an issue

d. It is not an issue at all

3. What do you think is the reason for your workplace treating naturally talented people like this?

4. Do you think Dr Duckworth is overstating the risk that people will draw back from putting in more effort, because they don’t feel they are as talented as other people?

A. Yes, she is really overstating the risk. People know that effort is a major contributor to their success and know that they can still compete or keep up with their more naturally talented colleagues.

B. Yes, she is overstating the risk. But there is some truth in what she is saying. People do reduce their effort when they feel they are not as talented as their colleagues.

C. No, she is not really overstating the risk. People definitely feel more like failures around naturally talented people, which makes them put in less effort to develop their own skills.

D. No, she is not overstating the risk at all. In fact, this is a huge risk and one that needs to be addressed in our profession. There is definitely a cult of genius that operates here.


Going Deeper

PART A – How do you distinguish in your own career between uncritical adulation of a role model on the one hand, and on the other, inspiring, constructive admiration towards them?

PART B – What would alert you to the possibility that you were mythologizing talent, and especially that of your very successful role models?

PART C – What safeguards exist in your organisation to prevent a personality cult from emerging, where someone considered highly talented is treated as being beyond questioning?


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, How Important is Effort to Your Success?


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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