Just taking an opportunity to share some of the signals and observations that have surfaced recently in my ongoing Work/Play project.
Signals: neuroplasticity research, the expert performance movement in psychology, the 'talent myth', the baby genius edutainment complex
The human mind retains its capacity for development and reprogramming throughout adulthood. It was previously believed that childhood is the only malleable period for the brain, but neuroplasticity research, including studying the neurological effects of meditation in Buddhist monks, indicates otherwise. These findings make a scientific case for mental training throughout life, not just childhood.
The Expert Performance Movement
Psychological field that studies the qualities of experts and how expertise is fostered. Research indicates that quantity of practice is important, but not sufficient in becoming an expert at something. Rather, it is the quality of practice, and conditions within the system of practice itself that more reliably predict expert development.
The Cult of Talent
The fall of Enron precipitated a hard look at management strategy in large corporations. The rise of Google, and their different way of doing
things, is changing how systematic innovation is understood. The 'star
system' approach of Enron - preached by McKinsey, their consultants -
is based on getting the 'best' people and then getting out of their way. Google also gets the 'best' people, but has a very carefully designed system in place to nurture their potential. The difference in paradigm between the two companies is that Enron saw 'talent' as a fixed quality in its employees - either you got it or you don't. Google instead acknowledges the passion of its people and puts them into a system designed to help them realize their own possibility.
The Baby Genius Edutainment Complex
Middle-class America is experiencing a surge in products aimed at fostering accelerated development in babies and very young children. Displaying early aptitude is considered necessary for 'success' in life, and parents go to great lengths to get their kids into the 'talent' star
system starting at birth, or even before. Getting into the 'right' pre-school is deemed essential to get into the 'right' college, in order to get a top job with a hefty salary in a corporate star system.
Changing theories of mind away from “neurogenetic determinism” to a combination of genetic influence and individual self-conditioning. Expert performance research helps us to understand which systems best foster mastery in individuals, and also to understand that it’s not about innate ‘talent’ but about the motivation and passion of the individual. Dedicated practice in pursuit of mastery is motivated by love; it is improvement for improvement’s sake. Likewise, then, innovation is born out of passion and curiosity – it is trying to be better than yourself, and playing with the sacred.
Understanding how systems can foster mastery will help us design and manage ‘better’ organizations – better for the individual, and better in terms of innovation and thus competition in the post-industrial economy. If the mission of an innovative company is to ‘be better than itself,’ what does that company look like? How does it work? I think we can look to studies of expert performance to begin answering these questions.
The notions of fixed intelligence and talent lay the foundations for corporate star systems and baby genius culture. Once our understanding of learning, intelligence, and what it takes to become expert (a little natural aptitude, a good system of practice, and lots of passion) changes to reflect the evidence presented in recent research, the star system falls apart. So what will be there to take its place?
If you don’t love what you’re doing, you won’t care enough to challenge yourself to continuously improve. And though we cannot make people love their work by superficial means, we can design new systems (and improve existing systems) to help people find their passions, and help passionate people excel.