Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.
By Sean Jacobs
A few years ago a blunt and stunning passage by the late Australian philosopher David Stove caught my eye:
If you are recruiting potential basketball champions, you would be mad not to be more interested in American Negroes than in Vietnamese… Any rational person, recruiting an army, will be more interested in Germans than in Italians. If what you want in people is aptitude for forming stable family-ties, you will prefer Italians or Chinese to American Negroes. Pronounced mathematical ability is more likely to occur in an Indian or a Hungarian than in an Australian Aboriginal. If you are recruiting workers, and you value docility above every other trait in a worker, you should prefer Chinese to white Americans. And so on.
Stove’s words are typical of a thinker truly committed to discussing ‘the things we think but do not say.’ Critical, witty and clearly direct, not everything he wrote earned him prominence or broadened his legacy. ‘Stove,’ as American art critic Roger Kimball reflects, ‘would not have been made to feel welcome at many American colleges or universities.’
But his point didn’t ruffle me or stimulate offence – as so many are keen on doing today. It got me thinking about the idea of ‘aptitude’. Clearly, just by way of being human, we’re all born with an orientation toward some things over others. ‘Of course,’ writes the psychologist Carol Dweck, ‘each person has a unique genetic endowment. People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, but it is clear that experience, training, and personal effort take them the rest of the way.’
As young people we need to sharpen up and focus on what we’re good at, especially if we want to avoid mediocrity and the easy path of just plodding along. ‘The problem with coping,’ writes Seth Godin in The Dip, ‘is that it never leads to exceptional performance.’ Not thinking seriously about your skills, and what you want to do, is a gangplank to average performance and not getting the most out of life.
Exploring your aptitude is, ultimately, a lot like finding your passion – some serious discovery is required. What do you love to do? What would you do for free? What comes easy to you or difficult to others? How do others view your talents and gifts? Such questions, even if you can’t answer them in full, will help tease out your aptitudes. The less you kid yourself in this process the better.
Having a career that swings between high-level policy and being ‘on the ground’, what I often find among successful people is that they tend to enjoy the day-to-day versus the title of the job. This means they may draw satisfaction from things like working in a team, providing direction or having autonomy.
Others, however, enjoy working individually or deferring decisions to others. Writing invoices, for example, may not exactly enliven small business owners. But, hidden beneath the surface, processes like relationship building, generating a service and delivering on commitments give them a sense of satisfaction.
Another consideration to make, once you have an idea of what path you want to pursue, is calibrating the odds of success in your chosen field. Modern life, with all the trimmings of instant gratification, offers fame, fortune and power as the objectives of success. Young people often gravitate toward glamourous professions – actors, musicians, entertainers and so forth. There’s nothing wrong with this but as long as they understand the likelihood of success. The ‘safer bet’ is much more useful to think about, as Dennis Kimbro reveals in his advice to young black Americans. Here’s what he means:
In 1992 there were 337,178 black schoolteachers, 68,590 black engineers, 25,704 black lawyers, and 18,795 black physicians plying their trades – many rather successfully – throughout the nation. Now contrast these numbers to the actual figures that blacks constitute in pro sports: National Football League, 789; National Basketball Association, 243; major-league baseball, 163.
You don’t have to aspire for glamourous professions to enjoy professional satisfaction or even great wealth. Whatever path chosen – carpenter, doctor, pilot or sports star – the common theme tying all of it together is to not simply rely on talent. This is what Carol Dweck means in her comment above when she says that ‘experience, training, and personal effort take them the rest of the way.’
Talent can never be relied on to go far. In fact, the consensus among all the greats is that hard work beats talent. This is why sports and academic stars in school, which young people see propelling ahead, tend to burn out once they emerge into the competitive world.
The last point I want to make here is that, even when you’ve found your craft, don’t neglect other areas of your life. Obsession can be a great thing, as the legendary rugby coach Clive Woodward explains, by helping ‘in the long hours of practice.’
But something that took me time to realise is that we’re not all heroes at everything. In high school, for example, when reading about Michael Johnson, I was amazed that he could run 400 metres faster than anyone in history but, when he applied his Herculean work ethic to studying maths, he’d barely scrape through.
This, I thought, was an anomaly. Surely world-beaters are good at everything they do? Then, sometime later, I began hearing of other examples. Michael Phelps, for instance, is the most successful Olympian ever but showed impeccably bad judgement by smoking marijuana and drink driving. In other arenas the personal choices of people like General David Petraeus and Tiger Woods didn’t so much detract from their public achievements but added to my thoughts that even world-beaters aren’t maestros at everything.
If you’re not a top performer now but have some idea of what you’re good at, or can be good at, recognise that it’s your personal business to make it happen. If you find your aptitude, and work hard on it, you’re guaranteed to do well.