In the December 6th edition of the Financial Times, I came upon an article by columnist Lucy Kellaway entitled, “Genius explained, with help from Mozart”. Here is a link to it: Click here (PDF version here)
In the past few years, I have often enjoyed Kellaway’s commentary. In my humble opinion, she is a fine writer, often amusing and ironic, sometimes even insightful. However, on this occasion, her underlying reasoning seems to miss the mark. Or, at least I would simply observe that she and I come to very different conclusions from similar information.
Kellaway’s column expresses her opinion about the book Mastery, by Robert Green, which was released a few weeks ago. While I have not yet read this particular book, I have been fascinated lately with deliberate practice, and with the question of the role talent plays in great achievement, versus the role practice and focus play. As such, I have read, or reread, works by Goeff Colvin (Talent is overrated), Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), Mathew Syed (Bounce), George Leonard (Mastery), and Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code).
According to Kellaway’s description, Green’s book tells tales of how great achievement and mastery happen in a variety of fields, using examples from the lives of Mozart, Goethe, Wagner, Rembrandt, Marcel Proust, and numerous others. Similarly to the books I cite above, Green writes that geniuses are made and not born. In fact, all my recent reading in this area has led to one overarching conclusion: giftedness and talent play only minor roles on the road to mastery, if indeed they play any role at all.
Lucy Kellaway’s article begins, mostly in jest I presume, with this statement: “We’re all geniuses now. At least, we all could be geniuses if only we buckled down and spent an awfully long time working at it.” Though she goes on to praise some of the elements of Green’s tome, she concludes that “the greatest weakness of Mastery is that it peddles a fiction. In true life, we can’t all be geniuses.”
Of course we cannot all become geniuses, nor should we strive to. In our lives, there are many paths we can choose, and obsessive dedication to one activity–with the focus of a Tiger Woods, a Mozart, or a Proust–is simply not for the multitudes. As Kellaway states: “Most of us will never get anywhere near mastery at anything because we are either too stupid, too lazy, too unimaginative, too happy, too poorly educated, too encumbered by children and elderly parents or too unlucky.”
Again, she is certainly correct in this observation. At the same time, I cannot help but feel that she misses the most interesting point, at least from my perspective.
For me, the truly positive aspect of the recent research on mastery and greatness lies in the novel ideas it presents about the role of talent versus the role of practice and determination, in any endeavor. It is my hope that books such as those I have been reading lately will help change the dominant mindset in our society.
In my travels, as well as in my coaching and seminars, I encounter again and again the myth that outstanding achievement has its roots in some inexplicable divine natural ability. Similarly, when people do not achieve success at something, they often point their lack of innate talent. They state, for example, “I am just not a good natural speaker”, or “I simply don’t have the ability to learn a foreign language”.
Today, researchers and best-selling writers are telling us clearly that we should not let our genetic “limitations” hold us back, that success in any field is far more about focus and determination than about talent. Outstanding achievement is the result of a process, not a gift. The good news is that we can all use the principles of that process to improve our performance in anything we do.