The Illusion of Ability

Talent, or ability, by itself, is overrated. So is pure intelligence. Over the years, I have seen so many people with great talents, and others with incredible intellectual brilliance, fail, sometimes catastrophically, in a range of fields and occupations. I’ve seen executives who not only knew their market, their customers, and their products, but who could explain and sell, stall in dead-end positions. I’ve seen brilliant attorneys crash and burn, and literally destroy their lives and themselves. I’ve known talented writers who flamed out, never to be heard of again. I’ve met singers with incredible voices, good looks, and great stage presence who never even made the lowest rungs of an operatic career.

A failing I’ve seen far too often over the years is the tendency of people with great natural ability or intelligence to reach for “short-cuts” of various sorts. From what I’ve seen, the tendency to want to shortcut the path to success is, for some reason, highly linked to people with great natural abilities, almost as if they have the feeling that, because of their talents, they really don’t have to learn what other people do. That’s exactly why most of those who try the short-cut route fail… because the shortcutters don’t learn enough to handle the situations in which they find themselves as a result of their initial – and often short-lived – success in obtaining what they sought.

Yes, every once in a great while a short-cut succeeds, or someone reaches great heights in their field on pure ability, and little else – and manages to hold on, but the odds are a hundred to one against either.

Talent, ability, intellectual capability… these are absolutely necessary components of success, but in today’s highly competitive society, where almost half the work force in the United States possesses a college degree, and close to fifteen percent has a graduate degree, and in a world economy, those are far from enough to assure success in any field, let alone outstanding achievement.

As I’ve mentioned before, dependability is a vital necessity, as is a modicum of congeniality, or at least moderate sociability… and, of course, the understanding that, no matter what the field, there is always a certain amount of just plain hard work involved, often nit-picking drudgery. I started out as a low-level economist, long before computers provided neat and nifty analyses of numbers and statistical patterns. I had to calculate the statistics from raw data, and I learned a great deal about statistics and numbers. From what I’ve seen over the years, as computers can do more and more, most “analysts” seem to know less and less what the numbers and computer-generated statistics actually mean… and what they represent.

I’ve watched with amusement as politicians, executives, writers, and business people delegate more and more of that “drudgery” to computers, subordinates, or consultants, and then discover that somehow their position, success, power, are slowly slipping away.

While some delegation is necessary, especially the higher one gets in an organization, every delegation results in a greater removal from the world, and that reduces one’s understanding of that world.

There are no good short-cuts, only short-run expedient short-cuts with longer-term and higher costs.

8 thoughts on “The Illusion of Ability”

  1. Nick says:

    “From what I’ve seen over the years, as computers can do more and more, most “analysts” seem to know less and less what the numbers and computer-generated statistics actually mean… and what they represent.”

    This. I’m gravely concerned at the path our local schools are heading down, with greater amounts of IT based learning at younger and younger levels. Most recently, there is a proposal for children to be completng classwork on iPads and laptops – while at an age where they are still coming to grips with writing and spelling. What is going to happen to this generation when they don’t have to put in the “hard work” of learning to write, spell, perform basic maths, because the computer does it all for them, when they hit the real world?

  2. Nick says:

    Speaking as someone who had a fair amount of natural ability/intelligence who has discussed this with others, I’d say another failing of those with gifts is that they tend to rely on that talent/ability to carry them along, because things come easy – think of the stereotype student who parties all year, never studies, then turns up for the exam and gets a pass (not necessarily aceing the exam, but a reasonable pass). These people may not be intentionally taking a short cut, but because they don’t HAVE to work hard to get by, they don’t always develop the discipline less gifted people require to in order to achieve. Then, when faced with circumstances that require that discipline, the talented person finds that their gifts won’t carry them as far as they used to, or now need them to, and that discipline/work ethic has to now be learnt the hard way, under far less favourable circumstances.

    One story that has stuck with me was from a friend talking about a job interview – The interviewer noticed my friend had a B average across their marks and said to my friend “There are two types of B average student – those who are competent because they are methodical and hard working, and those that are brilliant, but lazy – our organisation can use both types, so which one are you?”

  3. Bob Vowell says:

    The foundation is alway changing. The time it took for previous generations of engineers to learn and hone their skills and knowledge is the same as the current generation of engineers. The problem is that those skills have evolved. There is a lot of knowledge being lost in the basics of everything as the previous generation dies out but the skills and ideas those basics have become a framework for the new basics the next generation learns.

    Sometimes it makes sense to me that this is how the world should work and other times I just want to stand on my lawn in my bathrobe yelling at the kids to get off my lawn.

  4. Jim S says:

    In my own experience and observation — those with great talents often never learn to actually do the hard work; they start out with an advantage, and coast on it. The more talent, the longer they can coast. Eventually, they hit a point where the hard work of others has largely leveled the playing field. At that point, the person who never learned to dig in and push themselves ends up looking for an easy way to stay ahead — while the person who fought and clawed their way up to those heights of skill and ability can do so. Those who have great talent AND combine it with the willingness to strive and work… they’re often off the charts. Off the top of my head, Michael Jordan is one example. (Several of Mr. Modessit’s characters face this challenge; that’s one reason I’ve thought about it…)

  5. Wine Guy says:

    I don’t have much to add to what Nick said… other than to endorse those statements and add in something that I heard from a quasi-teacher/poet named Taylor Mali:

    “I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional [sic] Medal of Honor;
    I can make an A- feel like a slap in the face:
    ‘How dare you give me less than your best work.’ ”

    I see plenty of kids with soccer talent at the levels I am currently coaching (U-14 and U-16) – talented kids are a dime a dozen. They score a lot of goals and win a lot of games… but only against kids who are less talented. Against kids who work hard at their practice and training, they might do ok… but they really have to work at it and some fold.

    At that age, I’d like to pretend I was one of the hard workers… but I wasn’t. I didn’t learn the hard work until I was 16 and had my butt handed to me day in day out for 2 weeks at a camp by a kid who was 2 years younger who combined serious talent with a serious work ethic. After that, I took it quite seriously… and it helped in school and job performaces later on.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    It is little more ‘pop’ in the psychology than I’m usually comfortable with, but the Ericsson Theory “10,000 hours” rings true to me, even if his methodology is sloppy.

    (yes, I know I said I didn’t have much to add…. my fingers and monkey brain just took over and the typing just happened.)

  7. Bistromathic says:

    As the least intelligent but perhaps most well-rounded in a “gifted” family, I can attest to the veracity of Modesitt’s assertions here. Between short bouts of hard work I largely “coasted” from the time I was 7 until I was 18, when I joined the army to get some discipline (and money to finish college). By the way, I found out that there are even ways to be lazy in the army, so I had to develop my own self-discipline. In grade school I left the music to my older brother–despite my greater innate talents, he worked harder at it–and I’ve always known my gifts with math and logic are inferior to those of my siblings (but I sometimes have worked harder at those). My interim conclusion has been that the most important thing is, as Richard Bach wrote, to “keep working on love”, and as a part of that I try to meet my commitments, which may be social, scientific, business/economic, etc., etc. I have been told in various ways that I have many outstanding talents, and I suppose that with the “right”, focused efforts, I could have been a “great” man, but I think it’s more worthwhile to strive to be a good man, a good human.

  8. Ryan Jackson says:

    If anything, Natural talent and ability, barring the few truly exceptional, is actually a detriment in the long run. A few of your characters have clearly shown this issue and have to have the potential pitfalls beaten out of them (Rahl comes to mind most readily).

    I know I hit that. I was always well above average in virtually anything I did growing up. It didn’t lead to me being super awesome or exceptional in performance (Except for the few areas I actually cared about and so made real effort). It actually lead to my being lazy, arrogant and ignoring things that years later I really wished I had not skipped on.

    Generally raw talent is enough to make you moderately not bad, but it’s rarely enough to make you exceptional.

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