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Business Journal
Exactly What Is Talent, Anyway?
Business Journal

Exactly What Is Talent, Anyway?

by Kathie Sorensen and Steve Crabtree

It's a fair question. "Talent" is a term you hear bandied about in a variety of contexts. It's used constantly in reference to celebrities: in show business, performers are often referred to as "the talent"; sports analysts will talk about an outstanding athlete's "raw talent." Grade-school kids impress audiences full of parents at talent shows, while the existence of talent agencies and talent brokers implies that talent is a rarefied commodity, something to be bought and sold.

But though the word is common, the concept remains elusive -- it lacks substance, specificity. Perhaps that's part of the reason so many people have trouble applying it to themselves personally. Carefully examining and refining the concept of talent may make it easier for you to recognize it in yourself and others, in order to make the most of it in your daily life. What is it, for example, that distinguishes talent from related -- but very different -- concepts, such as competency or style?

Let's start with Webster's definition of talent as "any natural ability or power." Such a broad description may not seem like much to go on, but it includes a word that is central to Gallup's perspective on talent: natural.

Talent reflects how you're hard-wired. That's what sets the concept apart from that of knowledge or skills. Talent dictates your moment-by-moment reactions to your environment -- there's an instinctiveness, an immediacy implied. Talent results in consistently recurring patterns of thought or behavior. To deviate from those patterns requires conscious effort, and such deviations are difficult to sustain.

Knowledge and skills, on the other hand, imply learned behavior, actions that require more active cognitive processing. What you know reveals more about your experiences and education than about who you are at the core. Behavior derived from knowledge and skills can be changed far more easily than talent-based behavior, as new information subordinates old in an individual's consciousness.

Talent can't be subordinated. It's constant and enduring. That's what makes it talent. Understanding the difference between the two sources of behavior changes everything.

An example will help clarify the distinction. Public speaking is an apt illustration in an election year. Few would deny that retired General Colin Powell is a world-class speaker; his speech on the opening night of the Republican National Convention in August, for example, received positive reviews for its boldness and integrity. Powell captivates audiences not simply -- or even primarily -- through the content of his message, but through the power of his delivery, the sheer chemistry that enables him to reach you across a crowded auditorium and make you believe that what he's saying is important to you.

You may be able to replicate the individual mechanics of what makes a speaker like Powell great -- his cadence, his diction, the fact that he maintains eye contact with the audience -- but there's a holistic quality which can't be taught. If you listen hard to a truly talented speaker, you'll come to realize that no single aspect of those mechanics ever noticeably emerges, because they're all acting seamlessly in concert. You can transfer a conscious understanding of the pieces and parts, but only on an unconscious level can those elements mesh perfectly without seeming contrived.

In the case of General Powell, message and delivery become difficult to distinguish, because both accurately reflect who he is as a man and as a leader. You don't follow what he's saying because of his style, his presence, or even because of his message itself. All of those pieces fall away before a sum total that is much greater: a speech that is entirely compelling because it is a genuine reflection of Powell's character and commitment.

That's talent. All the seminars and self-help books in the world can't put most people in the same league with General Powell when it comes to capturing an audience. Nevertheless, many people expend considerable time and resources trying to achieve a minimum level of competency in this area.

That's not misguided per se -- self-improvement can be an admirable goal even when talent isn't a factor. But to focus on activities for which your potential is limited, to the exclusion of those for which you have no bounds, is a regrettable -- possibly even tragic -- waste. It prevents you from exploring the essential you, to determine what you could be.

All this may seem like common sense, but you'd be amazed at how often the promise of talent is cast aside in the name of "well roundedness." Many people think that the more they can diversify their base of knowledge and skills, the more secure their future will become. Gallup's research has confirmed that the opposite is more likely to be the case: The more time and effort spent in areas of non-talent, the less opportunity one has to utilize and refine one's talents -- and therefore the more likely one is to become mired in mediocrity.

It's human nature to covet what we don't have. In the case of material things, that yearning can be entirely healthy, because it's often possible to go out and get those things. But when it comes to talent, trying to attain what isn't there to begin with is a lost cause. General Powell and others throughout history who have achieved greatness have done so by carefully examining what it is that they do have -- those characteristics that distinguish them from others, those abilities that are most natural to them. Their success typically stems from their appreciation of those talents in themselves, and their understanding of how to use them as often and as effectively as possible.

Next week's column will continue to hone in on Gallup's concept of talent by outlining a language of strengths which you can use to think about the talents you possess, and how to make the most of them.

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