THE BLOG

Election Selection: Precocity or Mastery -- Which Will Voters Choose?

Jun 24, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, I spoke at the American Society for Training & Development's International Conference and Exposition. Malcolm Gladwell also spoke. The bestselling author of The Tipping Point and Blink is promoting his new book, Outliers, to be released in November. Because it was a gathering of people who are deeply involved in corporate professional development, a.k.a. employee education, he focused his remarks on how businesses identify talent and move that talent up and through the ranks. I couldn't help but draw parallels to the way we have come to select presidential candidates.

Gladwell classifies talent as either precocity or mastery. Precocious talent shows itself early in life. Such geniuses do eye-popping, paradigm-busting things early in their careers. People around them naturally take notice and select them for fast-tracking through the organization. Think Barack Obama.

Mastery is described as slowly evolving, experimental, painstaking, incremental, error-infused work that ultimately results in an extremely high level of competence and expertise. Think Hillary Clinton and, perhaps, John McCain.

Alas, Gladwell avers, there is trouble in mastery-land. It seems that our fast-paced, stimulation-addicted culture is biased in favor of precocity. But this is shortsighted, he argues, and he provides some examples to illustrate his point. The first is from the world of fine art. Gladwell describes Pablo Picasso as precociously talented. Picasso broke into the art world in his twenties and quickly created a sensation with his paintings. His talent was identified immediately and he became an overnight celebrity. The story then shifts to Paul Cezanne, who took quite a while to produce the art that he became famous for. Throughout his 20s, 30s and even 40s, Cezanne carefully honed his craft. Through trial and error, he mastered technique. Unlike most artists of his time, he became proficient in several styles. Still, his work went unnoticed for the most part until he reached his 50s and 60s.

Now here's the remarkable thing: Picasso's early paintings created when he was in his 20s, sell for 4 times more than his later works. On the other hand, Cezanne's later works, created when he was in his 50s and 60s sell for 15 times more than those done earlier in his career.

Gladwell gave other fascinating examples of how we think we know what we're doing when it comes to identifying talent, but really don't. From sports, he told about how giving intelligence tests to quarterbacks has been a huge failure with several hall-of-famers scoring at the low end while many who scored high, badly underperformed. From pop music, he related how Fleetwood Mac's album "Rumors," one of the best-selling rock and roll albums of all time, was not its 1st, 2nd, or even 3rd album. It was the seventeenth album by this group that had been working at their craft for years.

What we lose when we surrender so easily to the precocity model of talent selection is a range of important skills that mastery types like Cezanne, Fleetwood Mac and, yes, Hillary Clinton (and, again, maybe John McCain) bring to the party. Skills like persistence despite failure and the learning opportunities that presents, the ability to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds (McCain's POW experience? Hillary between Super Tuesday and concession?). How about the ability to maintain passion through it all? Maybe there is even something about the struggle itself that sustains and nourishes mastery.

Gladwell calculates that mastery occurs after 10,000 hours of practice -- that's about 3 hours a day over 10 years. Now, Obama certainly has spent the requisite time mastering the skills of big-arena oratory. He is a smart guy and if he wins the election, we have reason to be hopeful that whatever gets shoveled into that brilliant brain of his will be retained. But we also have cause for concern. A president's time is divided among many vital issues, most of which he must know a great deal about so he can make those all-important 3 a.m. decisions. In this case, the math, so favorable to Obama during the primaries, doesn't bode well.

Keeping all this in mind, it could be that the way we have come to choose candidates for the most important job in the world -- subjugating it to our insatiable, 21st century hunger for constant entertainment, viewing campaigns as an endless series of reality shows, the more explosive and voyeuristic the better -- is a very poor way to do so, indeed.

When did we give up on selecting the Cezannes, Fleetwood Macs and, yes, Hillary Clintons of the world? Why have we lost patience with those whose genius takes longer to blossom? How much value has been lost? What do miss when we dis mastery?