Sorry, Natural Geniuses. Developing Your Talent Takes Work

By Dino Londis

New research shows that genius is made not from intelligence but hard work, and not just hard work, but deliberate practice of specific subjects. The brain actually changes based on how and what we study. How does this relate to you? As IT changes at an ever-increasing pace, we need to adjust how we learn. We can no longer peg ourselves to an application or piece of hardware – We have to learn how to apply that app or hardware to the next wave.

It’s called metacognition.

No one is a born a golf champion. Whatever’s going on in his personal life, Tiger Woods is a world class golfer. That’s because he’s been practicing since he was two. By the time he turned pro, he’d been playing for eighteen years. Andre Agassi’s dad strapped paddles to his son’s hands and favored the tennis court over school.

No one is born or even predisposed to be a computer expert. Change has always underpinned IT, but the rate of change is now so great that new technologies replace current ones before we’ve even mastered them. Golfers don’t need to worry about this kind of change. The course will always be the course and the rules pretty much remain the same.

The reason Woods swings the club better than me is that he’s done it more – much more. His mind and body have built a perfect habit for that swing. To remain a champion, he must continue to make that swing every day, continuing to build the habit and having another microscopic layer of myelin wrap around that circuit that controls the motion. Greatness comes from day in and day out, hard work, whether in golf, tennis, piano, or IT. The great ones are great because they practice all the time.

Woods didn’t become great by blindly making swing after swing. He swings, thinks about what he did wrong, and repeats, never fearing to make a mistake. In fact, the mistake – the deviation – is where the lesson is learned. Any great athlete is constantly pushing himself out of his comfort zone, making that mistake, thinking about it and correcting it.

So two things are going on here. One is being conscious of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Second, and more importantly, is not fearing to make a mistake.

We’ve heard over and over that you’re the sum of your habits. Here’s the proof: By surfing the web instead of working, you’re wrapping another tiny layer of myelin over that distraction instead of building the habit of documenting changes or closing service tickets. You need to target the skills you want to improve – and stop doing the things that hold you back. The old habit won’t vanish, but it’ll be replaced by a stronger habit that was built with repetition.

I see this as most important to IT because we face the greatest rate of change. Golf, tennis, and the piano won’t change. But IT is changing under our feet and with it a whole new set of skills are needed. While learning about the new software, concentrate on how you’re learning it. Better still, learn how you learn. Learn how to be a faster learner. Wrap the myelin around the circuits in your brain.

It’s exciting and scary. Maybe scary enough to knock you from your comfort zone.

For more, read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

Dino Londis is an applications management engineer in New York.