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The myth of (business) prodigy

A great article featuring The Tipping Point’s Malcolm Gladwell: The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters.

I remember that it was a tremendous obsession by my parents to get my sister and me into the "gifted" programs in the Seattle School District. At first, we were in a program for the top 5%, then in a program for the top 1%, and then by 7th grade, they had me apply to the Unviersity of Washington’s Early Entrance Program for kids to start college full-time at 14. There, we had people tell us constantly how we’d all change the world, and how we had so much potential, for being a bunch of "child geniuses."

In retrospect, it was all silly. It’s true that every couple years, we’d see a "true" genius come through the program that would easily outclass everyone. For example, we had a couple kids come in at 12, whiz through their classes to graduate before their 16th birthday, and finish with honors in a hard science discipline – that takes some real talent. But outside of these exceptions, 95% of the kids in the program were smart, but not exceptionally so. What they had was work ethic, highly involved parents, and that made it difficult to separate natural ability and lots of practice.

More importantly, most of the kids that then graduate from the program suffer a sad introduction to the Real World. Other than the group that go into academia (which is 40-50%), there are high levels of unemployment, or unfulfilling employment. We have people working in lumber yards, at Target as security guards, at dead-end office jobs, people sitting at home with their moms, and all sorts of other random gigs. It’s really a pretty disturbing waste of talent to see guys with 150 IQs doing hard labor for $30k/year. But it happens because of what Gladwell refers to as the "prodigy midlife crisis." Basically, people tell these kids they have all sorts of potential, but when they graduate, they’re unable to translate that potential towards something that can utilize their gifts. And more importantly, it may be that they are very good at school, but not necessarily good at innovating new things, or leading teams of people, or communicating ideas, or other important skills.

The sad truth of it is, for many of the kids that have gone through the program, it’s possible they would have had better lives by just going through high school normally, and then having a normal college experience.

Anyway, this discussion reminds me of what happens to people through their careers. At the beginning, a lot of rewards get heaped on people who are able to follow instructions well, analyze things in detail, and other individual-contributor tasks. In fact, at many companies, young people spend many years in their early career fulfilling these tasks. But as these people get promoted, the demands on them change drastically, in a way that they may not respond to well. Rather than doing the work themselves, instead their job is to help other people do, which may involve more soft skills like persuasion, information-transfer, politicking, etc.

This sometimes leads to the common concept of the "Peter Principle" which is stated as:

In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

This obviously means that eventually, people stop being able to respond well to the varying responsibilities they are given, and they hit a ceiling on their career.

Obviously for business prodigies – and I’ll use an example of those as obedient young Microsoft types that may or may not be thinking for themselves – you end up with young people who are kicking ass on their careers early on, but then face a "prodigy midlife crisis" as their roles change. Rather than following instructions really well, the demands are different, and they can’t adapt.

This is all related to a question that’s often posed to me – sometimes, my mom or someone in the tech industy will ask, why don’t you go to X huge, high-brand company? Or, why don’t you get Y degree? I’ve come to believe, over time, that these things are fairly similar to being a violin virtuoso at a young age.

Working somewhere like Microsoft or Yahoo only proves that you can work at Microsoft or Yahoo. You learn skills and experiences which only apply to those companies, and are difficult to generalize to all companies. People who want to learn about startups should start companies (or, in a worst case scenario, be employed at a startup). Otherwise, you’ll hit a midlife crisis too, as you realize that your 8 years of experience don’t necessarily make you better than a fresh college grad at building the next Google.

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