We have seen the future, and it sucks.

Never Mind Talent: Practice, Practice, Practice

2nd December 2012

Read it.

 Sure, talent matters. Talent is the difference between good art and great art, between proficiency and virtuosity. But talent alone is rarely enough to get by. In our culture, we have romantic notions of the artist as a formidable, congenital genius. Obsessive focus on talent alone creates a hobbling anxiety of failure. How many of us are discouraged from trying because we were told we are “tone deaf” or “can’t draw a straight line”?

So forget about talent. If I had a nickel for every parent who told me her own kid was a “natural” at music, dance, or whatever, but never got anywhere because he didn’t like to practice, I could take everybody out for lunch. Teach your kids to practice. Practice something difficult and complex, where the rewards come slowly over time. And it doesn’t matter if they’re naturals; the lesson’s more profound when they are not.

Truest words you will have read this year.

One of the things that looking for a job teaches you is that most employers looking to hire are really, really bad at it. (Anybody who writes a job ad that says ‘Looking for an X rock-star/guru/ninja’ ought to be locked in a box until he or she grows up. Preferably without food.)

The term I hate most is ‘passionate’. ‘We want someone who is passionate about X!’ When this isn’t just a code phrase for ‘We want somebody who will spend all their time at work in exchange for minimum wage!’, it’s the mark of someone who is congenitally incapable of thinking things through. They confuse passion with enthusiasm. Sure, enthusiasm for what you do is important. But passion is not; in fact, passion is a bug, not a feature.

Passionate people are ruled by their emotions. They’re too busy feeling to think. Personally, I don’t want an employee who is feeling when he ought to be thinking. Passion never got a product out the door. Passion never met a payroll. Passion is the cocaine of the spirit — it makes you feel Truly Awesome for a while, and then leaves you worse off than you were before.

Passion is the kid who read about The Little Engine That Could and never got over it. Unfortunately, when that cold sad day comes when he finds out that I Think I Can doesn’t always get him over the hill from Hither to Yon, but leaves him on a hill with a hernia while the load he’s pulling rockets back down into rubble from where he started, he gets introduced to Passion’s handmaiden, Despair. Such people tend to kill themselves — too often after they’ve reproduced and passed their defective genes into a future generation.

So what ought they to be looking for? I’m glad you asked. They ought to be looking for Focus, because Focus is the foundation stone of Quality, and Quality is what every employer ought to be looking for from an employee. But that’s a rant for another day; I’ve got to go put that kid with a hernia out of his misery.

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