Will We Ever Find Our True Talent? Not Likely Says Malcolm Gladwell


This past June, I wrote a post titled How Many of Us Find Our True Talent? It was a look at whether people tend to land in professions that fit their “highest and best” talents:

My own theory is that each of have talents that are uniquely strong in us. For some, these talents would put them on the world stage. For most of us, they’d probably vault us to the top of a particular field. And yet I suspect that most of us never hit on those unique talents.

Malcolm Gladwell currently has a book out titled Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, he examines the underlying factors that propel certain individuals to the very top of their fields. I have not read the book, so I’m picking up its contents from various sites I’m reading and a couple interviews with him that I’ve heard.

From what I’ve seen, Gladwell’s thesis can be boiled down to three factors:

  1. Intrinsic talent for something
  2. Luck of the draw for your circumstances
  3. Heavy practice in a field (min. of 10,000 hours)

Microsoft founder Bill Gates comes up in discussions of this book. We all know that he conquered the PC world with Microsoft, becoming fabulously influential and wealthy. But there’s the Paul Harvey-esque “now you know…the rest of the story”. Here’s how Harvard’s Thomas Sander relates it:

He credits Bill Gates’ success to early and sustained access to high-end computers. Gladwell concedes that Gates is obviously brilliant, but still notes that many other brilliant youth never had the chance to become computer stars of Gates’ magnitude because they didn’t haveaccess to these sophisticated computers.

I heard Gladwell on NPR talking about this. It turns out he attended one of the few schools in the country, high school or college, with access to a mainframe computer where students could program. Now Gates had a passions and aptitude for programming. So there was this great mix of talent and circumstances that allowed it to flourish.

In the post I wrote in June, I ascribed people’s not landing in fields that leverage their true talents to three factors:

  • Too quick to focus on something at a young age, never trying out other areas
  • No opportunities to surface and develop the hidden talent
  • Practical realities – kids, mortgage, caring for someone who is ill – prevent a move into a different field

From what I’ve seen about Gladwell’s book, these factors ring true. As he says himself on the website devoted to his book:

Doesn’t that make it sound like success is something outside of an individual’s control? I don’t mean to go that far. But I do think that we vastly underestimate the extent to which success happens because of things the individual has nothing to do with.

I don’t want to leave this post on a down note. Many, many of us will find vocations that we are good at, and which make us quite happy. We have family and friends which enrich or lives. Personally, having gone from one profession I really enjoyed (banking) to another (enterprise 2.0), I know there are a wide range of fields that each of us can do well at and be happy.

And with a lot of luck, a very few of us find the mother lode.


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