Recreating talent.


Thanks for your thoughts on talent…I am not going to skewer you and I do not think that you need to put your helmet on.  I am also perfectly fine if we do not come up with something that is directly measurable…I am just interested in a framework for understanding talent that is logically sound and easily understood.

You define talent as:  the potential to develop a remarkable ability.

Nothing particularly offensive about that to me, but it does bring some questions to mind.

  1. Why don’t we just use the word potential for what you are talking about?
  2. What do we call the person who has developed their ability?  In my mind, when I think of the times I have naturally used the word talent it has been in situations where I have been impressed by someone’s performance and in response have said that  he or she “is talented.” But it seems to me that you are talking about something different than actual performance or even development of abilities with “the potential to develop a remarkable ability.”  In my understanding of your definition the person that had developed that remarkable ability would not be talented any longer, they would have to categorized differently.
  3. Should it have some organizational context?  For example, my talent may come in the form of the potential to develop a remarkable ability to write poetry.  For most organizations that particular kind of talent would have little or no value, so if we were to use your definition we would have come up with something more specific for the kind of talent organizations are wanting and needing to pursue, or it would have no real value to the organization because it essentially applies to everyone.

I guess the larger issue for me is that I really want to throw a grenade on this idea of talent.  I think that we can probably play with a variety of definitions that make some amount of sense, but I think that they are all fundamentally flawed.  I think that they are all fundamentally flawed because of this default belief that talent resides entirely inside of a person…conversations about talent generally are about the effort or abilities possessed by an individual.

I do not think that makes sense to me.

I do not think that talent exists in a vacuum.  I do not think that you can divorce the idea of talent from external components (social capital, history, communication) or from the situational/contextual dimension (organizational culture, coworkers, supervisor).  Maybe I am going off the deep end here, but I think that if this idea of talent is going to have some real, actionable, relevant meaning it has to have some of that stuff baked into it.

We all know people (or have been people) that have failed miserably at something somewhere but have flourished doing something else or the same thing in a different situation.  Are those people talented or not?  I guess, I am looking for a framework for understanding talent that involves some appreciation for the fact that the environment or the context plays a huge role in whether it is realized or not.

Does that make sense?

I know that I am talented.  That does not mean that you can drop me into any situation and I will thrive or even succeed.  There are some work situations where I cannot even make myself keep showing up (and you can vouche for this).  That isn’t just about what is inside me and it is not just about the environment…it is about what happens where those two weather patterns come into contact with each other.  I do not think that talent exists in a vacuum.

Looking forward to your thoughts on this.


1 comment

  1. Joe – once again, you have given voice to the thoughts in my head. I’m a recruiter and your idea of talent being situational and environmental and social is at the heart of my craft.

    If I am charged with filling a position for a Java Programmer, it is very easy for me to run ads and tap my pipeline to find people who have experience with Java programming at the level required by the job. Do the people on my new list have talent? I’m with you. I don’t think they have talent yet, they have skills.

    My talent scouting job is to take my list and use my recruiting Mojo to figure out which of those Java programmers can express those skills in the specific company and the specific team and even with the specific leader for this specific opening. All kinds of external variables impact the ability of the programmer to express their Java programming skills for this specific situation. Far too many leaders completely disregard this fact and simply look at the programmer and say “They have no talent”. The reality is that the sum total of things that add up to talent were not sufficient to get this specific job done. One of those things is programming skill. I would argue that leadership and organizational culture and social capital are huge components of the talent equation and had more to do with the outcome.



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