The Talent Curve Does NOT Predetermine the Performance Curve

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written by Dr. Paul Elliott

A False Assumption

When we encounter true talent – the musical prodigy, the athletic wunderkind, the business genius – we are awed.  How do they do it?  We think to ourselves – “If only I had been born with those gifts, I would be a star too.”

We all labor under the assumption that there is a defined, limited supply of talent and innate ability and that only a few have what it takes to become true stars in their professions. While this assumption may hold some validity for certain superstar entertainers or perhaps Olympic gold medal athletes, the flaws of applying such a generalized “star power” assumption to the workplace are easy to determine.

Most of us still buy into the assumption that our success (the organization’s and our own) is wholly dependent on how many high performing “stars” we are able to hire and retain. We search frantically for these extraordinary individuals (i.e. the so called “war for talent”) and rely on the “star” performers to carry along all the average performers.

What is truly amazing about our dogged allegiance to our assumptions about hiring star performers is that we refuse to change despite knowing full well that something is definitely wrong. After all, if our assumption were true then there simply would not be enough of these rare individuals with their extraordinary talents to go around and all the thousands of companies not fortunate enough to hire enough superstar performers would fail.

A Different Assumption

So, let’s assume you have made the leap in logic and agreed to stand back from your assumptions long enough to test out a new assumption? What if we tested a new assumption; one that assumes an organization’s or individual’s ‘talent curve’ does not predetermine their ‘performance curve’? In other words, what if it is possible to “clone” the results of your star performers without “cloning” or replicating the star performer’s innate talent and ability profile?

Perhaps you’re saying, “Timeout!  Are you telling me that I can succeed with people who are not talented?”  No, that’s not what I am saying at all!  What I am saying is this: the exceptional results produced by your star performers day in and out are not dependent on ‘talent’ alone! Talent may explain some of the results turned in by these high performing individuals, but it is not the whole story.

Geoff Colvin, in his book entitled Talent is Overrated, makes the following points based on his synthesis of years of research:

Talent [innate ability] does NOT account for the variance in performance seen in music, athletics, or business

  • Intelligence and memory do NOT account for it either
  • The single largest contributor to exemplary performance is deliberate practice.

“Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining.” Colvin wrote, “It is actively designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it is highly demanding mentally. . .” [page 66].

I’ll be writing more about shifting the performance curve – producing more results with your existing talent – over the next weeks.  Stay tuned!


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