Talent Doesn't Blossom Overnight



When I was in the 3rd grade I was pulled out of my class and taken into a small room with two strangers waiting to ask me a bunch of questions. I didn't know why I was there. No one explained anything to me. They put me through a barrage of weird tests and then sent me home.

A few weeks to a month later upon her arrival from work, my Mom sat me down and told me what that process had been all about. "You're gifted, son - special. You are reading on a 10th grade level in the 3rd grade. You have made it into the gifted children's program and will be attending a special school for other gifted kids once a week."

Sure enough, the very next week, on a Wednesday, I was carted off from my elementary school to a middle school on the other side of town. We played chess and solved logic problems and read cool books and gave oral reports. I remember having two distinct emotions at this juncture of my life 1) increasing confidence in my mental capabilities versus other so-called gifted kids as I was holding my own in most areas and 2) a feeling of otherness back at my regular school with my friends and classmates. The more I progressed in the gifted program, the more I simultaneously didn't want any of my friends to perceive how much I was changing and growing. And I wondered why they weren't being given the same opportunity.

It didn't seem fair.

At the age of twenty-five, I started my first full-time corporate job after graduating with my MBA, and was given a very different assessment by my manager at the time. I was supposed to read a book called Now Discover Your Strengths and take a 45 minute questionnaire that was supposed to spit out my top 5 talents. As someone who had been intensely groomed around my talents since the age of 9, I didn't know what I would get out of this exercise. But as I read the book, the old feeling that I remembered having in the 3rd grade returned.

The author spoke about how our educational and corporate development system was broken. By focusing on developing weaknesses and espousing the theory that anyone can be anything they want if they work hard enough at it, society was doing a great disservice to children in their prime developmental years and demotivating young adults emerging into the workforce.

Only by discovering and honing one's dominant talents could a person maximize their true potential - to be as productive as possible and happier every day.

So I took the assessment and learned about my top five talent themes and dug into understanding these themes better and found them to be true patterns of behavior and thinking for me. And I dedicated myself to improving myself in these talent areas and being the best version of myself I could be. But more than that, I committed to sharing this philosophy with everyone I knew.

I had always believed that everyone was unique, special, and talented. And if given the opportunity, anyone could achieve their maximum potential.

So I passed it on to friends and family members and as my career grew I passed it on to the teams I managed. All the while, I continued investing in myself and my development - reading books, taking courses, and capturing experiences that pushed and stretched me out of my comfort zone continuously.

Now, some thirty years after learning I was "gifted", I recently completed reading two books that led to my reflection on this topic. The first was Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke and the next was Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution by Jonathan Abrams. Radical Focus is about the results oriented process being employed by companies like Google and Oracle to drive breakout performance. Boys Among Men chronicles the story of a generation of young American basketball players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Lebron James who decided to jump from high school into the professional leagues and forgo college.

On the surface, it would appear that these two very different books have nothing to do with each other. But actually, I found that they have EVERYTHING to do with each other. Companies and sports teams alike want to hire top talent and then leverage that top talent to breakout results. But not every company and sports team wants to commit to the sometimes arduous process of cultivating potential. Unfortunately despite significant evidence to the contrary, leaders don't seem to understand that talent doesn't blossom overnight.

And it's not just the leader's fault. We as individuals rarely work as hard as we need to in the areas we have to in order to maximize our own potential.

Take me for instance. Even with the significant focus on my "specialness" imbued in me from a young age and the investment of time and money put into me from extra classes to unique development experiences - I arrived at my first corporate job largely unshaped, unmotivated, and disengaged by my early roles. It wasn't until I almost lost my job that I began to take my career more seriously and start investing in myself (with the help of the Strengthsfinder philosophy to guide me). It wasn't until I was put to the ultimate test that I knew whether I had the work-ethic and mindset to match my talents.

Superstar athletes like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant had the talent, will, and most importantly work-ethic from an extremely young age and were bound to succeed regardless of the circumstances they were put in. Other super-talented high schoolers detailed in the book lacked some of these important attributes beyond talent alone that contribute to success AND found themselves in inhospitable environments when they arrived in the NBA. They, like me, were told how special they were from a very early age, cultivated, and groomed for the big leagues but wilted under the pressure for a variety of reasons.

This is where the philosophy of Radical Focus comes into play.

Nothing special can be achieved without discipline.

You've got to put in the work, hour after hour, day after day, until the desired results are achieved. The book talks about breaking down large goals into a series of OKRs or Objectives with linked Key Results. Each quarter an individual or team should set a very few master objectives and then detail the key results or indicators that the objectives are met. These key results are then broken down further into the required actions necessary to achieve them, prioritized, and tracked on a week to week basis until the quarter close; after which a full review of all the actions, KR's, and Objectives accomplished is conducted. This process never ends.

Just as talent requires knowledge, skills, and application to develop into strength; objectives require planning, prioritization, and purposeful action to be fully realized. As leaders it is our simultaneous job to cultivate talent into strength and leverage this collective strength to achieve our organizational ambitions. We must not underestimate the amount of time and investment it will take to develop our people or the amount of focus and discipline required to achieve our objectives. It starts with asking and answering these questions: How invested are you in your own development and how disciplined are you in achieving your own objectives?

If the answers are not what you expect then how can you possibly hope to convince others to commit to their development and objective achievement?

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