‘There is no evidence of a ‘fast track’ for high achievers’
Vivek Kaul
Monday, January 19, 2009 3:53 IST

“He has talent that comes from up above,” is a phrase that we often here about people who are successful. In fact this has been repeated so often till now that we all believe it to be true. But does talent really come from up above?

Geoff Colvin, longtime editor and columnist for the Fortune magazine disagrees. “Over and over we find stories…that tell us nothing of what’s to come,” writes Colvin in his new book, Talent is Overrated — What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.

So if talent is overrated, how does one explain the success of someone like Warren Buffett? “As a boy, Buffett was intensely interested in learning about business and investing, and he wanted to make money … And at the age of eleven he bought his first stock. Later, in graduate school at Columbia, he studied under the famous investing authority Benjamin Graham and received the only A+ that Graham ever rewarded.”

So do we ascribe Buffett’s success as an investor to innate talent? “But that explanation — an inborn ability to allocate capital — is the only way or even the easiest way to account for his success … His fascination with stocks and investing is not especially intriguing when one considers that his father was a stockbroker and investor whom young Warren adored. Warren went to work in his father’s office at age eleven and thus began learning about investing at a very early age. Yet there’s very little any evidence that, even into his early twenties, he was especially good at it. For a while in his teens he was an enthusiastic “chartist,” trying to predict the movements of stock prices by studying charts of past movements … Later he tried to be a market timer…and couldn’t make it work,” writes Colvin.

One of the points you make in your book is that there is absolutely no evidence of a ‘fast track’ for high achievers. Can you give us an example of this?

Consider the cases of Jeff Immelt and Steve Ballmer. At the age of 22, fresh out of college, they sat next to each other in a cubicle at the Procter & Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati. They did not distinguish themselves, and in fact one of them later said they “were voted the two guys probably least likely to succeed.” Yet, by the age 50 they had become CEOs of two of the most famous and valuable corporations on earth, General Electric and Microsoft. Looking at them today, we’d say they must be highly talented, yet even by age 22 they had shown no evidence of special talents or extraordinary intelligence. They reached the top by applying themselves with tremendous dedication and in a particular way. That’s just one anecdote, but broader research supports the point: There’s no easy way to the top.

If talent is not innate can it be build over a period of time?
Every story of a high achiever is a story of abilities built over time. An excellent example is that of the Polgar sisters of Hungary. Laszlo Polgar believed in the 1960s that any child could be turned into a world-class performer, and he set out to prove it by turning his three daughters into chess champions. He schooled them entirely at home and spent most of the time on chess. There was no reason to believe that any of the girls possessed special chess talents; Laszlo was only a mediocre player, and his wife had shown no chess ability at all. Yet over time, all three girls became brilliantly successful players, and the youngest, Judit, became the youngest person ever to achieve grandmaster status; she did it at age 15, one year earlier than Bobby Fischer. She went on to become the No. 1 ranked woman player in the world, a position she held for many years.

Here is the full article.

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