Are you using your talent? Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration


Thomas Edison

There can only be one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and one Tiger Woods. We believe this because they have god-given talent and hence are destined for greatness. But is it enough just to have talent?

Mozart’s father, Leopold, was a composer and also a very skilled music teacher. So from a tender age, Amadeus was receiving instructions from his father. Earl Woods, Tiger’s dad, was a teacher and passionate about golf. Tiger received his first custom-made golf club before he was a year old. Mozart and Tiger practiced intensively under the watchful eyes of experts for more than a decade before their talent became apparent to others. Mozart composed Piano Concerto 9 at age 21 and Tiger became a member of the US Walker Cup team at age 19. Thomas Edison is right – “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” So if talent alone is not enough what must leaders do to unlock the full potential of their people? The stories of Chris Langan and Susan Boyle encapsulate a body of research that answers this question.

The story of Chris Langan

Chris Langan is a born genius. He started speaking when he was six months old and taught himself to read when he was three. The average person’s IQ is 100. The IQ for a genius is 130 plus. Chris Langan had an IQ of 195! After earning a perfect score on his SAT exam, he enrolled at Reed College but dropped out because of an administrative error: his mother neglected to complete the scholarship renewal form.

After 18 months of working in construction and as a forest fire fighter, Langan enrolled at Montana State University. He never completed his course because, as told by Langan, “I was living thirteen miles out of town … and the transmission fell out of my car … I didn’t have the money to repair it. So I went to my adviser and said, ‘I have a problem. The transmission fell out of my car, and you have me in the 7.30am and 8.30am class. If you could just transfer me to the afternoon sections of these classes, I would appreciate it.’ My adviser said, ‘I see that you have yet to learn that everyone has to make sacrifices to get an education. Request denied.’ So I dropped out of college, simple as that.” Dropping out of college was a turning point for Langan. He spent almost 20 years working as a bouncer in a Long Island bar and never made a significant contribution to the world of academia. Malcolm Gladwell wrote much of what you have just read about Langan in his book Outliers. To this, he added: Chris Langan “had to make his way alone, and no one — not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires and not even geniuses — ever make it alone”.

The Story of Susan Boyle

Many of us know Susan Boyle, an ex-church volunteer, who found fame and fortune in the 2009 ‘Britain Got Talent Competition’. In 2010, her album topped both the US and UK charts. But the journey was not an easy one. In 1995, Boyle auditioned for My Kind of People, a TV entertainment program. It did not go well. The host, Michael Barrymoore, was more interested in mocking her than in showcasing her singing talent. So who gave Susan Boyle the self belief to enter the ‘Britain Got Talent Competition’? Her mother, Bridget, and music coach, Fred O’Neil. Boyle pursued a musical career to pay tribute to her mother whom she cared for till her death in 2007. The then 47-year-old Boyle almost abandoned her plan to enter the competition believing she was too old, but O’Neil persuaded her to audition. Her performance in the competition was the first time she had sung in public since her mother died. At the competition Simon Cowell (a judge in the competition) asked Boyle:

Cowell: “What’s the dream?”
Boyle: “I am trying to be a professional singer.”
Cowell: “And why hasn’t it worked out so far Susan?”
Boyle: “I have never been given the chance before…”

Lessons for organisations

There are many people, like Langan and Boyle, with the talent to achieve great things. But some never realise their potential because they lack:

  • Self belief. Susan Boyle’s confidence was crushed by people who “judge a book by its cover.” But her mother and music coach gave her the self belief needed to pursue her dream.
    Leader’s action: Understand and align the dreams of your people with what the organization can offer.
  • Application. Langan could have obtained a PhD from a big school. But because he didn’t have academic credibility, his intellectual work was not taken seriously by people who could judge its value. He could not apply his talent.
    Leader’s action: Identify the talent of your people and help them productively apply it by finding them the right jobs and careers.
  • Development. Not completing college meant Langan lacked the stimulation needed for his intellectual growth. Susan Boyle attended the Edinburg Acting School, had a music coach and participated in many local singing competitions. She was trained, coached and refined her singing abilities on stage.
    Leader’s action: Select the right development strategy for your people — one that encompasses the right mix of training, coaching and learning on the job.
  • Platform to showcase talent. Without the Britain Got Talent Competition stage, the world would never have gotten to enjoy Susan Boyle. In Langan’s case, we can only wonder what he could have accomplished if he had the opportunity to showcase his gift.
    Leader’s action: Provide a platform for all employees to showcase their talent by empowering them to solve tough business problems and present their solutions to the senior leadership team.

People love doing what they are great at and they are at their greatest when they use their talent productively. Then work is fun, challenging and exciting. This positive energy rips across the organization and translates into business results. Leaders need to figure out what their people’s talents are and how to unleash it. Some leaders know that answering these two questions is as important as working out what their business should look like in the next three years. When these leaders find the answers, their next three years is going to look a whole lot better than the rest.



Photo credit: Library of Congress

Leave a Comment