you need more than talent


Last week’s sparring with Omar reminded me of an important issue: the near deification of talent in academia. What do I mean? In academia, people seem to massively overvalue raw talent at the expense of other crucial traits, like creativity, persistence, organizational skill, etc.

Am I saying raw smarts is not important? Not at all. I’d even agree that talent is the starting point of all academic careers. If you have low cognitive ability, you’ll probably never master calculus or whatever the work requires. But let’s carefully examine what it takes to be a successful professor from the perspective of problem solving:

  • You need raw ability to even understand the problem, assimilate the information related to the problem, and execute the solution.
  • You need luck and/or “fashion sense” to pick problems that other people care about.
  • You need creativity to link ideas so you can discover solutions.
  • You need “judgment” and gut instinct to avoid dead ends.
  • You need patience to sort through possible dead ends and acquire the skills you need.
  • You need a strong work ethic to pursue long term projects to solve problems that don’t have simple solutions and deal with delayed gratification.
  • You need time management so you can be a good researcher and a good teacher and a good family person.
  • You need “follow through” to actually complete the papers or books reporting your results.
  • You need social skills so you can maintain a network of colleagues who can help you.
  • You need stamina and maturity to deal with rejections and skeptics.
  • You need academic “street smarts” so you can acquire the resources and the job needed so you can complete your work.
  • You need writing and communication skills so you can alert non-specialists to your accomplishments.

Once you see the complexity of academic achievement, it’s amazing that people obsess so much over “she’s smart.” Sure, you need smarts, but you need a whole lot more. And when you realize the trade offs, you see the diversity of careers. A person high on raw talent may gravitate to problems that have short, but elegant, conceptual solutions. A person who isn’t creative but has a lot of organizational skill may focus on big data collecting projects. What’s remarkable is that science is advanced by having all types of people.

I also find interesting it when academic careers are attributed mainly to raw talent and not other traits. A long publication record may be due to talent,  but also to connections to the right people, great writing skill, or an ability to spot popular topics. A short record may reflect poor “follow through” or a preference for flashy, but rare, conceptual breakthroughs. It’s dispiriting when career outcomes are often attributed to “smarts,” and not often enough to the other traits I described.

The bottom line: When you evaluate people, think about what they bring to the entire research process, and you’ll have a better sense of what they will contribute. If you appreciate the diversity of the research process, then you’ll appreciate the diversity of academic contributions. And of course, don’t obsess over smarts!

Written by fabiorojas

December 3, 2007 at 1:08 am

Posted in academia, fabio

13 Responses

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  1. This is quite a thoughtful and engaging note. Perhaps our disciplines are in fact leaderless team enterprises, and at the aggregate level, they demand a variety of skills and abilities to move things along.

    I’ve heard myself telling people that “smart is baseline,” meaning that everybody here is intelligent — there’s restriction of range on this, however it’s measured.

    Variance on the DV (academic productivity, to invoke another blog) ought to be a function of multiple, interrelated things, because most other forms of performance are too!

    The contribution of this list is perhaps that one of us will read it someday, after a rejection, bad set of course evals, or other setback, and see a reason to bash on. Thanks for that!



    December 3, 2007 at 2:29 am

  2. […] makes successful academics successful Fabio at orgtheory has some thoughts: I’d even agree that talent is the starting point of all academic careers. If you have low […]


  3. “Variance on the DV (academic productivity, to invoke another blog) ought to be a function of multiple, interrelated things, because most other forms of performance are too!”

    That really hits it on the head. Performance is complex. It requires multiple inputs. Yet, we act as if there is only one factor. It’s a shame, really.


    Fabio Rojas

    December 3, 2007 at 6:32 pm

  4. Hi There!

    I just read your post on “smarts” after reading the post on the 70s sociology one… and reading them in parallel is quite troubling.

    What puzzles me, as a newcomer to the field altogether, is how homogeneous and almost incestuous the field appears. In my survey course on Org Theory, taught by Woody Powell, we are reading the same people you called the greats (Meyer, Granovetter, Hannan, and all the others). There is nothing wrong with this, since they are the big names, they are the classics, and I actually enjoy reading them. However, these men, those organization theorists, have been working together since the 70s, citing one another, build off of one another’s work, going to workshops together, writing grants together, thanking one another in footnotes of papers… And newcomers cite those same big guys again. And again.

    To me, this is exactly a symptom of normal science in the Kuhnian sense — what was evoked in the 70s post. In network jargon, it’s about too many strong ties, and not enough new information. In institutionalist jargon, it’s about isomorphism. In pop ecology, it’s about niche and a narrow “fitness function”.
    All of this means hurdles to innovation. We *know* that.

    How does that relate to the smarts issues?
    First, I think that it has implicit limitations on your DV. If everybody gages academic productivity the exact same way, by your connection (aka “strong ties”) to the right ideas and people in the field, and all those ideas and people closely interact with one another, then you constrain possibilities in output. What is considered valuable by a very close-knit set of friends and colleagues is too closely homogeneous to be revolutionary (science).

    Second, some of the skills you point to, including “academic street smarts”, “fashion sense” and “social skills” imply following rules carefully, being aware of people’s sensitivities, etc., all of which make you buy into the same paradigmatic research agenda that the founders built over time. And since variation is slight in what people consider valuable, newcomers will be judged mostly by their smarts, for nothing else is allowed to vary! As such, as soon as I define my organization research work outside the boundaries prescribed by org theory, I am likely to pay the price when the big guys evaluate it for it won’t fit with their definitions of academic street smarts, fashion sense or social skills.

    Ok. That was quite a rant. I’d be curious to know what you guys think, though…





    December 3, 2007 at 8:58 pm

  5. Nice post. I think you smarts are necessary but not sufficient. I do think they are grossly overvalued in some corners. This reminds me of a discussion of quarterbacks where two former pro quarterbacks said they thought teams grossly overvalued size and arm strength and spent too little time evaluating presence of mind, leadership, and the ability to read defenses.

    In addition to being smart I think judgment, focus, and a point of view are very important.

    I hate to agree with Mintzberg, but Ph.D. programs spend too much time training technicians and too little time developing creative thinkers (not weird for weird’s sake, not politically correct, not screwy, not artsy). How many interesting ideas have you come across reading journals recently?



    December 4, 2007 at 11:30 pm

  6. L, I would be cautious in applying Kuhn to the social sciences. (I realize many others have done so, but it is really a distortion of the idea of paradigm.) No social science, except perhaps economics with its rational man, has ever been dominated by a theory the way sciences have. In org theory there have always been multiple, competing theories. You might be outside of the big guy network, but you won’t be jobless the way you would if you were an astronomer who said the sun revolved around the earth.

    Further, while I would not dispute that the names you listed are great names, if you went to another insitution and took an org theory class you might be presented with a very different set of readings. I’ve seen professors start from very different places in terms of “this is what’s really important in the field.”

    In other words, I think you have grounds for more optimism.



    December 5, 2007 at 1:23 pm

  7. […] college recordgabrielrossman on black studies in the teachers college recordTurducken on you need more than talentezra hill on is […]


  8. Fabio,

    I agree. Chambliss found talent is not important in predicting outcomes. It is hard to believe, but you do not have to be “talented” to win a gold in Olymipcs.

    Daniel Chambliss 1989. The Mundanity of Excellence. Sociological Theory 7:70-86.



    December 7, 2007 at 12:11 am

  9. I don’t think Chambliss said that talent is not important, rather that talent is not sufficient.



    December 7, 2007 at 1:23 am

  10. Hear, hear! I’m not sure there are many who can start a successful academic career withour most of the traits you mention.


    Sherman Dorn

    December 9, 2007 at 10:20 pm

  11. […] in 2008? If you’d like to explore these questions in more depth take a closer look at this post and discussion at a blog called Fabio asks that perennial question – what does it takes to be […]


  12. I’d like to see someone quantify the traits/behaviors needed for success and then use them to predict professional success.


    Michael Bishop

    March 8, 2008 at 9:58 pm

  13. […] novel ideas, networks, coaching, and academic street smarts. Or, as I’ve said before, you need more than talent. IQ may put you in a position to make an impact, but among people who are in that position, success […]


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