Your Glass Ceiling

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Francis Galton was a man who truly believed in natural talents and an upper ceiling for success and achievement. Take the following quotes, which were borrowed from Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin.

His maximum performance becomes a rigidly determinate quality.

He is no longer tormented into hopeless efforts by the fallacious promptings of overweening vanity…” He discards the foolish notion that he can ever do better, makes peace with the idea that he’s as good as he’ll ever be, and “finds true moral repose in an honest conviction that he is engaged in as much good work as his nature has rendered him capable of performing.”

Galton believed that each of us was born with a specific set of abilities and a predisposition to perform well at a certain type of work. After engaging in that level of work for awhile, Galton believed we would all hit a true ceiling, a level at which we could no longer improve.

I’ve certainly felt this way. Haven’t you? I would pick up a new hobby (playing guitar comes to mind), try to mimic professionals, and then give up when I fell terribly short after only a few days of practice. After sulking in frustration, I’d blame “natural talent”; it was the perfect scapegoat.

The “natural ability” blame game reminds me of Carol Dweck, who describes two different mindsets – a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.

Galton more closely related to the fixed mindset model rather than the growth mindset. In today’s society, I think quite a few people inadvertently are hopping on the fixed mindset as well. They hear stories of famous entrepreneurs and chalk the results up to circumstances outside of their control. Musicians and professional athletes must have had something that separates them from the rest of us. While being born to parents on the wrong way of six foot puts you at a disadvantage on the courts, it’s probably not the only reason you’re watching games from the stadium seats instead of playing it first-hand.

The fixed mindset offers the easy way out, an explanation for failure at new pursuits. On the other hand, a growth mindset, one that chooses to disregard limits, promises years of frustration. After picking up a new hobby or interest, you’ll likely spend months just trying to get good enough to enjoy it. You’ll have days where you truly just want to give up. Your initial output truly will suck. You’ll probably feel embarrassed and want to draw back into your safety cocoon and just work on things you’re good at.

But, that’s part of the growth process.

You have to see how terrible you are in the beginning in order to appreciate how far you go in the end. To quote Ira Glass:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

During the growth period, you learn an incredible amount about yourself. What makes you tick? How do you learn best? How hard can you push yourself? Those are the fun questions to answer. If you skipped straight to the fun part (being proficient or better yet, good), you wouldn’t truly appreciate your success.

So, take some time to work at one skill you’re truly passionate about. Aim to master your own craft. Ignore shortcuts and suffer through the days when you just want to quit. When you think you’ve reached your potential, look for other ways to improve. Change up your practice style or look to shadow someone with a slightly different perspective. No matter what domain you work in, there’s always room for improvement. There may be a ceiling on ability level, but it’s a false cap that lures most of us into laziness offering the perfect “out” from hard work.

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