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Talent Is Overrated

2014 April 20
by Greg Satell

I’m not a talented writer.  In fact, in many ways I’m pretty lousy.  I’m a miserable typist—capable of  little better than hunt and peck—only have a vague idea about where to put punctuation and no matter how much I proofread, I always end up with typos.

Yet I am a reasonably successful writer.  My personal blog has gained a large following and I regularly contribute to top publications like Forbes and Harvard Business Review.  Despite my lack of talent, hundreds of thousands read me every month.

That’s not to say I don’t admire talented writers, I do.  I’ve known many and wish that I had what they have.  The point is that my lack of innate prowess hasn’t held me back.  The truth is that we need to fundamentally change the way we think about talent, putting less emphasis on predetermined sets of skills and more focus on the ability to acquire new ones.

Sometimes Opportunity Knocks

I never aspired to be a writer.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  As the CEO of a large publishing company in Ukraine, I strongly believed in staying in my own lane—running the business—which is what I was good at.  I had seen a number of other business-side executives try to indulge latent creative passions and it almost always caused problems.

At one point, we hired a CFO who had the destructive habit of constantly trying to put on his creative hat every time one of our product people entered his office.  It was incredibly frustrating for the staff and did nothing to improve our finances.  We fired him within six months.

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, it was absolute carnage.  I stayed on for a year, but eventually decided to leave the company and then Ukraine (for reasons which should now be obvious).  Yet after spending 15 years in post-Communist countries in Eastern Europe, I had few contacts outside the region.

To raise my profile, I began posting essays in LinkedIn groups.  To my great surprise, people liked them.  I guess all those years spent in editorial meetings had rubbed off.  I wasn’t exactly good, but better than most people on LinkedIn.  Those posts turned into a blog, which led to further opportunities.  Before I knew it, I was a moderately successful writer.

What Malcolm Gladwell Didn’t Tell You About The 10,000 Hour Rule

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the world to the 10,000 hour rule.  As he described it, world class talents like Bill Gates, The Beatles and chess grandmasters attained their great prowess only after 10,000 hours of practice.  The message was that if you are willing to put in the time, you can achieve greatness as well.

Well, not exactly.  The 10,000 hour notion is based on the work of Anders Ericsson, who studied not just any kind of practice, but deliberate practice.  To achieve a high level of excellence, you must do more than merely show up.  In fact, research shows that you can actually get worse with experience.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, Ericsson uses the game of golf as an example. After some practice, you can become proficient enough to enjoy playing the game with friends.  Most people stop there, but professional level golfers focus on the weakest parts of their game, seek out feedback from coaches and continually work to improve.

I’ve written over 500,000 words since I started blogging and that’s helped somewhat.  Yet more importantly, I’ve changed how I read other writers, looking for ways to get better.  I’ve also worked with some great editors who’ve given me strong feedback.  I’m still no Malcolm Gladwell, but I’ve come a long way since those first posts on LinkedIn.

Why Foxes Are Better Than Hedgehogs

Top corporations put a lot of effort into developing talent.  They recruit at elite universities and offer extensive on the job training.  As young executives rise through the ranks, they are encouraged to become experts in their field.  There’s enormous value in becoming known as the “go-to-guy” in a particular area.

Yet in Philip Tetlock’s study of pundits, he found that deep expertise can actually hinder performance.  Those who focused on one particular area—the hedgehogs— tended to be confident in their judgments, but were also wrong more often.  Yet those who had a more diverse knowledge base—the foxes— were not only more cautious but more accurate.

History as well should caution us against excessive focus on one particular area.  Great breakthroughs—from Darwin’s natural selection to Einstein’s relativity to Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA—tend to be the product of synthesizing domains.  The evidence is incontrovertible.  More diverse knowledge produces superior results.

Of course, in the business world we don’t use terms like hedgehogs and foxes.  The former are hailed as “leaders in the field,” while the latter are derided as “jacks of all trades, but masters of none.”  Somehow, we got it backwards.

The New Era Of Talent

Digital technology has profoundly changed the competitive environment.  We can no longer afford to focus on predetermined sets of skills to perform routine tasks.  Most of those jobs are now being automated.  The value of human input lies in being able to think creatively to tackle problems that aren’t routine.  Clearly, we entering in a new era of talent.

It’s not as simple as bringing in “the best and the brightest” anymore.  Today’s marketplace is becoming increasingly complex and enterprises need to manage talent on multiple fronts, including not only employees, but also contract workers with specialized skills and partners across industries and in academic institutions.

In order to integrate knowledge from a diverse set of fields, we need to move from a skills culture to a learning culture.  Instead of looking to hire those who meet formal job specifications, we need to start developing people who can transcend them.  In an age of disruption, the only viable strategy is to adapt.

– Greg

17 Responses leave one →
  1. April 20, 2014


    TOTALLY disagree!! You are, in fact, a highly talented writer. Not only a great synthesizer of diverse thought, but an articulate essayist and prognosticator.

    As I tell many of my clients, “typing is not writing,” and the fact that you’re a “hunt and pecker” has nothing to do with your ability in the realm of putting thoughts on paper (well, OK, these days into electrons).

    A poor writer, or even a mediocre one, would never have developed the following you have, either in terms of sheer numbers or the quality of the people following you (at least as far as one can determine by the comments that are left from your posts).

    And, frankly, I never considered Malcolm to be that great of a writer–popular certainly, but that doesn’t make him great. What he *does* do well in his writing is make his readers feel smart, which is why I think he is so popular.

    And, finally, I think what we need are good mixes of foxes and hedgehogs. So many fields are so complex these days that you need to be able to specialize in one of them in order to provide value (to yourself, your company, the world, whatever), and that specialization is only strengthened when you can bring in ideas/concepts/strategies from other fields and apply them in new ways to your own. As a writer I am constantly “stealing” ideas (or, more politely, being inspired by ideas) from many, many different fields–yet my main focus remains developing strategies, marketing, and written materials for technology companies.

    So, don’t sell yourself short. You do a great job of communicating complex ideas in concise written form, and it’s a very difficult task that takes time, effort, thought, and–yes–talent.

  2. April 20, 2014

    Thanks for the vote of confidence Adam, but my point wasn’t that I don’t have any talent, but that I don’t have any special talent or background for writing. Certainly, if I applied for a writing job no one would hire me.

    We tend to put people into different buckets and encourage them to stay there rather than pushing them to branch out and try new things. I don’t consider myself a great writer, but I have gotten much better. Good enough that my shortcomings rarely get noticed and what comes through are my other talents and experiences.

    It seems to me that by having people repeat the same experiences and perform the same tasks, often for an entire career, skills suffer.

    – Greg

  3. April 21, 2014

    Hello, maybe it s your definition of talent that is rusted e.g. too academic, normative, outdated you name it.
    If you redefined it you would be it ?

  4. April 21, 2014

    Maybe, but I think the main problem is confusion between talent and skills. I certainly have gained some skills over the years and that helps. Talent, however is considered to be somewhat innate, or at least developed so far in the past that it might as well be.

    What I think is unproductive is that companies tend to say “let’s go out and acquire great talent.” Yet they don’t say, “let’s creatge a culture of stretching and learning so that our people can tackle new challenges.”

    The two main qualities I always look for in employees are curiosity and temperament. If someone wants to learn and can work well with others, there really are no limits.

    – Greg

  5. April 22, 2014

    I think you’re a good writer, an excellent communicator but what you really excel in is having interesting, provocative and novel ideas that you convey beautifully and simple.

    I read 20-100 pieces a day, and 99.9% is tired, rehashed, cliched, boring, ill conceived.

    You’re pieces are all the 0.01% which is fresh, new, powerful, inspiring and interesting.

    But it’s the thinking that’s genius, not the writing.

    Anyway, this all misses the point, my question is in a world that needs more diverse thinking but that requires deep experts, what can be done to better market the benefits of the jack of all trades?

  6. April 22, 2014

    Thanks for the vote of confidence Tom. I wasn’t attempting false modesty, I think I’ve become a pretty decent writer. The point I was trying to make is that I have no special talents or qualifications to be a writer. Nevertheless, I’ve worked to gain the skills to write passably and all people notice are the other things I have to offer.

    Unfortunately, in most business environments, I would be discouraged from writing. In much the same way, we are constantly limiting people’s potential because they we value “hedgehogs” over “foxes” and don’t push people to stretch their skills.

    In any case, thank you for your kind words.

    – Greg

  7. April 22, 2014

    Great post. Something should be said of cause and effect of thinking, learning, creativity. You make the point that those with deep, narrow expertise sometimes are hampered by this level and form of knowledge. I find that the synthesizers, those that are struck by patterns, by seemingly disparate things that nonetheless show similarity or coherence, end up without a narrow focus on a subject. You, as an example, seem to pull information from many sources. I’m a tech CEO and spend a lot of time studying networks, machine learning, startup failures/successes, sources of innovation (obviously a fan of your blog).

    In summary, I think deep narrow knowledge doesn’t hamper synthesis and creativity, maybe it’s just an indication of an individuals thinking and learning preferences. To your point though, we should train employees outside of their primary domain of expertise. Many of our current business leaders could certainly use that advice.

  8. April 23, 2014

    We were brought up to think in fixed items and absolutes. School was all about getting answers right. We thought when we finished University that we had finished learning.
    And we created finished products, with immutable brochures, sales pitches etc.

    The world the internet has introduced us to is very different. Here things are fluid. We never stop learning – there is no such thing as having nothing left to learn. The pool and diversity is so large there is no such thing as being the best – you may be best in one little piece for a short period of time. Our Encyclopedias change every day, we learn from websites which change and we are constantly revising everything we produce.

    We have moved from final product to Lean Startup in everything we do. We create a minimum viable product, then revise it from the feedback we receive. We refine constantly, but no longer just from our own or a few inputs – from instant feedback from lots of people. We move the way they guide us, in our thinking and in what we decide is expert.

    This takes a big shift in mindset. It means not deciding you have all the answers but starting a conversation in hope that others may have bits you don’t know about yet, building a bigger, better multi-faceted picture. Moving from journalism to leading a crowdsource movement towards a better visualisation of an idea. It means not being the boss, but facilitating a team of people to spark ideas off eachother.

    It is exciting, not holding knowledge in discrete closed boxes. Being ready to change every day and with every person you meet, physically or online. It leads to fast – really fast – refining of ideas and a never ending number of threads to follow up and paths to go down. It means getting better every day. And, most important of all, it means recognising that the crowd has better answers than any one individual.

  9. April 23, 2014

    Yes, I think that’s right. There’s nothing wrong with deep knowledge, in fact creativity studies show that it is essential. Yet many people confine themselves to one narrow domain and that is a problem. Research clearly shows it hampers judgment, even within that domain.

    – Greg

  10. April 23, 2014

    Good points, Peter. Thanks for sharing!

    – Greg

  11. April 23, 2014

    Another thing that draws people to your blog is that you actively engage your readers rather than just posting and ignoring. I’m sure you’ve made the point somewhere in your posts that networks depend on engagement rather than broadcasting. You do a great job with that. Thanks for your time and insights.

    Also, Fast Company must be reading your blog. Their first of “5 Bold Predictions For The Future Of Higher Education” ( is:

  12. April 23, 2014

    Cool! Thanks Frank.

    btw. Engagement is two-way. I think I get more from my readers than they get from me.

    – Greg

  13. April 28, 2014

    Hello Greg,

    * 80% of employees self-report that they are not engaged.

* 80% of managers are not well suited to the job of managing employees.

    The two 80% are related.

    Executives do not now how to identify future success managers; they cannot identify “A players.”

    Only 20% of job finalists are well suited to managing employees therefore there is only a 20% chance of hiring a successful manager unless the hiring manager knows how to identify future successful managers.

    Managers hire from two groups of applicants, 

    1 – future successful employees and

    2 – future unsuccessful employees. 

    The odds are 4 to 1 that managers hire unsuccessful employees including managers.

 Therefore, weak managers don’t know how to hire A-Level Talent as well as their employers.

    Employers that know how to hire A level Talent don’t hire weak managers.

    Why don’t c-suite occupiers know how to hire A-Level Talent? Answer, they were never taught how to do it. When they do ask they ask HR and HR doesn’t know how to do it either. If they did know, then they would be doing it.

  14. April 29, 2014

    Some good points Bob. However, I would say that we need to stop looking for talent and start developing it. Firms like GE and P&G have been so successful over the years not because they attract the best talent, but because they develop the best talent.

    – Greg

  15. May 4, 2014

    Thanks Jay. Much appreciated.

    – Greg

  16. June 17, 2014

    Hi Greg,

    The following is from the book “First Break All the Rules, what the world’s greatest managers do differently” by Buckingham and Coffman. The authors’ define a “talent “, (page 71) as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied…The emphasis here is on the word ‘recurring.’ Great managers say ‘Your talents are the behaviors you find yourself doing often.’ “

  17. June 17, 2014

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    – Greg

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