My Talk on -> Talent to Skill – Good to Great

Recently, I got an invite to speak at United Health Group, Noida, as part of their TNS (Test Symposium) event at Noida. I was lucky to be offered the topics and I quickly picked the one which was not in the arena of ‘Software Testing’. How much so I love talking on ‘Software Testing’, and how much hard I try to not sound boring (or too academic), it gets very difficult to piece together a software testing talk which is interesting to listen to as well as valuable to apply. I have not done any non-software talk for a probably very long time so for this one, my topic was

“Talent to Skill – Good to Great’.

I made a short and light deck, and not too preachy. The talk went well with some very good questions, comments and observations by the ever enthusiastic software engineers of UHG. If I get to do this again, I must incorporate some bits of post-lecture learning back into the deck, to close the loop as they say. Since I spent some time on making these slides, I thought it would be a good use of a Sunday afternoon to share this with wider group.

Here are the slides and a brief descripto of my thoughts.

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To begin, established the definitions of Talent and Skill. As we all know, talent is something which is more innate, something you are born with, something where you have a natural inclination to excel in. Standard examples are around painting, singing, dancing etc. It has been easy to associate this term with folks who do well in Arts, either Fine Arts like drawing/sketching/painting or performing arts like singing/acting or both. But as we would learn later that there are other talents like someone who listens well, or someone who has a great sense of empathy, or someone who could keep her calm in trying circumstances and so on. This aspect is something which is not usually understood (and hence appreciated), at least in the first go as you begin to understand the worlds of ‘Talent’ and ‘Skills’. A talent is not something which only makes you a star (popular/known) but it can equally be something which could make you a hero (someone working with autistic children, carers of cancer patients).

Skill is better understood. Something which you acquire, usually over time by practising it. Things like driving, knitting, software programming (thought problem-solving could be more innate). Skills are learnable as long as one spends enough time and puts his mind on it. We all do it as part of our jobs, our daily lives. Again just like talent, there are other softer or more nuanced skills which are not easily understood (and hence appreciated) like office-adminstation-managment, tracking expenses via a structured tool/instrument etc. As you learn more, it gets difficult to distinguish since a highly skilled practitioner (say a Heart Surgeon) of often labeled as ‘Highly Talented’. More as we go further. Do not tune out.

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After establishing the definitions and meaning and possible traps (in case of Talent as well as Skills) , lets move to these two stories of two champs. Beatles were probably the best which could happen to commercial music and that is, a lot of good music and a lot of good moolah. When the two maximise together, then it is a win-win for everyone around. Someone doing once can be attributed to ‘beginner’s luck’ (remember Gurdas Mann, Daler Mehndi) whereas if it is someone like ‘Beatles’ who kept doing it, all through, it is pure sheer ‘Talent’. The Fab Four seemed like a group who were born to play music.

Same is the case with Michael. Nick named as “Flying Fish”, Phelps kept winning. Some people attribute Phelps’ success to his body-span, almost making one feel that he was born to do this. A natural at it. And records speak for it. Unlike any regular (or even a star) champ, Phelps was metres and gallons ahead, pun intended.With 39 world records (29 individual, 10 relay), Phelps set more records than any other swimmer. With a total of 22 medals. Phelps also holds the all-time records for Olympic gold medals. Was called the ‘Fastest Athelete on this planet’, ever.

Both doesn’t happen unless there is a high, almost at a level of an ‘Outlier’, level of talent, waiting to be channelized, leverages and later unleashed. But was that all ?

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First Phelps. Well, for someone excelling in a sport which needs super-focus, he didn’t seem to be born with one. Diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit Hyperactivity disorder) at 6, began swimming at the age of seven, partly because of the influence of his sisters and partly to provide him with an outlet for his energy. The only thing which he did in his initial years was, ‘Swim’.

Lets go to Beatles. It is a fairly known story but never told as publicly. In 1960, they got an offer to play in the Bars of Hamburg. Yes, a young british band for German bars. Germans love their drink and this ensured that the usual gig of 3 hours would often get stretched to 6 hours. The rules were simple, play till the shop is open. And they were not playing at ‘Royal Albert Hall’, instead it was a red-light area of Hamburg looking for its share of girls and gigs. Not paid very well, the only thing they did was to play. And this continued for close to 3 years.

The above is often called the principle of 10,000 hours. 10K hours is what you need to spend to be a champion and Beatles did that. Malcom Gladwell has explained this concept in greater details and with many more examples in his best selling book, ‘Outliers‘. It is easy to read book, do read.

All this non-stop playing, made them later into ‘Fab Four’.By 1964, the year they burst on the international scene, the Beatles had played over 1,200 concerts together. By way of comparison, most bands today don’t play 1,200 times in their entire career.

So what does this mean ?

Having a talent is one thing but having it converted into a super-natural-skill is altogether different thing. You need one to reach to the other but everyone has the first and hence everyone has a chance to getting to 2nd.

In simpler words, everyone has talent and if you are thinking that you don’t have none then lets wait and we would together discover it.

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It is a matter of internal probing, a matter of discovery, a matter of spending enough time and patience to find out our talents. If you think you can write then just begin writing. Many of us have an interest in music and majority of us spend at least one small-sized effort towards learning an instrument, say ‘Guitar’. We spend few months, learn basic strutting, some popular songs and then we move on. But before we quit, we tell ourselves that we didn’t have the ‘Talent’. That is bull. If you persist and persevere and be on it, you would finally be able to do what you intended to. Find that talent and once you know, go for the rigour.

I leave you with this video which encourages you to ask this question on what is your talent, what would you do, what would you do if money were no object. The thought is of Alan Wilson Watts, who was a British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker.

Wind-up – Go and discover your talent and convert it into a real real skill. Don’t limit yourself from the confines of today’s societal systems, social grammar and right protocols and keep doing something which you think are you are not naturally talented for and hence not spending all the right time to convert it into a skil..

I leave you to explore more of yourself and then really really get to it, spend those 10Khours, hone your craft and do that one single thing which keeps our pride high and keeps you going.

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The sunday afternoon is now sunday evening, the breaks for errands, phone calls, more errands.

Hope this was useful.

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