Is Talent Overrated?

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Lucy Dunn
11 February 2021


One day at dinner, I found myself recalling a conversation with a vegan friend pre-covid, and was told that protein is overrated, that our bodies do not require meat to function properly, and that eating plants only is, not only beneficial for the already-fragile ecosystems, but also allows the future generations to enjoy a livable planet. I agree with him to a certain extent.  Somehow, the word “overrated” resonates with me.  I already eat a mostly plant-based diet with meat only acts as an accent, but as much for how I feel on this diet as it being good for the planet. So perhaps both Protein and saving the planet for future generations are “overrated”.

I just finished reading a book called “Hello habits” and there is a passage in that book where the author suggested that nobody was born with talent.  Talent is the ability to do a certain kind of work (in the larger sense of the word).  Talent is acquired by applying hard-work, persistence, self-reflection and a desire of constant improvement to whatever existing inherent capabilities we each have. Does that mean talent is overrated?  And maybe this has an implication for the rules or norms for hiring??

Most hiring managers have been guided to hire for the ability to (a) do certain tasks or (b) have certain knowledge and (c) certain networks, but what does this approach miss?

Your ultimate ability (being able to be talented in new areas) is based on:

  1. On your genetic make-up and there is little one can change about it
  2. On your opportunities or upbringing, commonly called Nature in the Nature and Nurture equation
  3. On developing habits that aid learning, encourage focus, enhance learning

The first item is based on chance, the second item is a kind of “external resource” you had access to, and the last item I think of as a “internal resource” that you can develop in spite of not having much of the first two items.

Grooming of one’s own internal resources can enhance things like; how one observes, thinks, makes sense of things in logics, and subsequently chooses to act/interact with others.  Over time, you can change the weighting you put on these different areas to acquire “talent” in new areas, and to adapt to new situations. When you practice these new skills, they become new habits or tools you automatically engage to enhance your performance and experience of the world.

According to my vegan friend, we are what we eat. And in the case of talent, I will argue that we are what habits we decide to develop. Personality tests are designed to shine a light on existing talents, but do they miss the strengths in developing new habit and new talents as the situation requires and opportunities present themselves?  Successful hiring managers understanding the importance of hiring for both skills (talent) and abilities (like interpersonal skills and the ability to acquire new hard skills=Talent).

Suppose you call a candidate for interview, instead of spending your precious time in confirming all the bullet-points which are already written in the CV, may I, as a contrarian, encourage you to look out for other equally important qualities and behaviors (which are formed by long-term habits):

  • Common sense. Besides scenario questions, think of something surprising to ask, see how the candidate reacts when things go off-track. Alternatively, talk about something outside of world of work
  • What are his/her professional and moral principles? Are shortcuts a repeating theme his his/her response?
  • Is he/she first or second degree thinker? Perhaps look for inspiring acts when you are looking for a leader, compassionate act and thoughtfulness when filling a people’s role, or joyfulness about being with people for sales positions or a mix depending on the actual role
  • Watch out for speaking and presentation style, which can tell you a lot, including both verbal and non-verbal cues which are cultivated by practice into habits
  • Does the person have professional and intellectual courage? How does he/she calculate risks? Courage can lead to action or inaction, so it matters a great deal in almost all positions
  • Curiosity opens doors to new opportunities, and with change happening so quickly, it is a highly desirable factor these days
  • Ability to connect the dots, especially in areas outside of the candidate’s expertise. The ability to analyze, interpret, and project can be the early warning system make or break a market/business

All these behaviors required a long time to develop into habits.  For an interviewer, this is helpful because it is a challenge to fake these characteristics by memorizing some standard answers. Getting the candidate to generalize their experiences vs only looking at KPI achievement can provide unique insights.

Few things are certain in life, just as interviews are not bullet-proof. I think the ultimate goal here is to make sure you seek out valuable points of reflection (which reveal who the interviewee really is) amidst “noises” during interviews. By spending more time exploring these characteristics you can ascertain the fit of a candidate for the longer term, not just the instant fix or “immediate relief”. It is very possible that with this subtle shift in your perspective, and experimenting with new ways of assessment, you are nurturing a new habit.