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An Unorthodox Definition of Talent

By Peter Weddle, CEO TAtech

Talent. We throw the word around with reckless abandon. We talk about the War for Talent and describe ourselves as professionals in the talent acquisition field. But what is it? What constitutes talent? And, what makes it so hard to find?

The dictionary defines talent as a “natural aptitude or skill.” Okay, that would seem to make sense. But does it go far enough? I loved to play baseball in high school and was pretty good at it – I had a natural ability to get clutch hits – but no one from the Yankees was beating down my door. If I was talented, I wasn’t talented enough to play in the Bigs.

That would seem to indicate there’s a range of talent. Some people have a lot of it, while others not so much. Some people are All Star first basemen and others are unable to move beyond their high school team. That’s just the way it is … unless there’s another factor that qualifies the dictionary definition.

Yes, talent is an aptitude or skill, but more importantly, it is the capacity for excellence. It is not only what a person loves to do, it’s what they do at an exceptional level. That’s why we so often associate talent with those in professional sports and entertainment. They not only love their aptitude or skill, they excel at using it on-the-job.

Now, to be clear, talent is not an occupation or a job. For example, the talent of a pro baseball player isn’t baseball, it’s their athleticism and hand-eye coordination. They’ve just chosen to apply and nurture that talent in the sport of baseball. Similarly, the talent of a successful salesperson isn’t sales, it’s their capacity to engage with and persuade others to do something. They’ve just found the most rewarding expression of that talent to be in sales.

So, when we say we’re engaged in a War for Talent, what we’re really doing is acknowledging a shortage of workers with the capacity for excellence. And, that’s a tragedy. You see, talent isn’t reserved for a select group of people. It doesn’t exist solely in those who can sink three pointers from half court or belt out the blues. Talent is actually an attribute of our species. It is as defining a characteristic of being human as our opposable thumb. In short, everyone has talent. But only a few of us bring it to work each day.

The Untapped Energy Source of Our Time

All of us are born with the capacity for excellence. It’s there in each of us, waiting to be recognized. Only a few of us, however, are lucky enough to detect it. Somehow, they instinctively know what they love to do and do exceptionally well. Often from an early age, they realize where they can excel and then spend the rest of their lives developing, expressing and experiencing that capacity. It’s as if they hear an internal voice them what they should do. Perhaps that’s why we say such people have a calling.

For the rest of us, unfortunately, that voice is too soft to be heard or missing altogether. We have to discover our talent on our own. And, that’s where our educational and societal institutions have let us down.

Take the experience children have in elementary school. Instead of telling every child they are talented and helping them to discover that capacity, we set up special programs for a select few called Gifted and Talented classes. Now, before you rise up in righteous indignation, of course we should do everything we can to develop students with advanced learning capacities. But, think what such segregation does to every child not in such a program. It subliminally tells them they are not gifted or talented.

And, that terrible “some-are-most-aren’t” view of talent continues to shape people through the rest of their education and, sadly, throughout their careers. We have a War for Talent, not because there is a shortage of talent in the workforce, but because most workers have never been given the tools and support they need to uncover their inherent capacity for excellence. But, that doesn’t mean it’s too late to start. Talent never goes away. It’s the untapped renewable energy source of our time. It’s also the unmatchable competitive advantage waiting to happen for any employer that can figure out how to unleash it in every employee.

Food for thought,

Peter Weddle is the author or editor of over two dozen books and a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He is also the founder and CEO of TAtech: The Association for Talent Acquisition Solutions. You can check out his latest books on Amazon or in the TAtech Bookstore.