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!