I got a little carried away in a response I posted on a particularly good post on a quality blog about high potentials and requisite organization theory. So as not to waste all this wonderful, thought provoking typing I just did (ha), here’s a reproduction of my response to the author’s query as to whether the effect he describes regarding thinking you’re the smartest person in the room being a fool’s errand is also present in athletics.
Interesting question. I’ve been able to pull out some wins due to the belief that I am faster than another person, thereby doing what it took to keep or gain the lead, that I might not have done if I didn’t believe myself to be faster. This would seem to be in conflict with your proposal. Of course, “faster” isn’t the same thing as “talented.” Faster is a combination of talented, experienced and prepared.
I can see how someone who see’s themselves as really talented might not be as consistently motivated to do the work and preparation it takes to have consistent performances. I can also say that the people I know who perform well tend to credit the work they do to prepare rather than emphasize inborn abilities.
I think in any kind of performance enhancement situation, how one responds to success or shortfalls in performance comes down to one’s self belief in success being primarily due to nature vs. nurture. If one thinks it’s nature, well, there’s not a lot that can be done to change one’s lot. If one thinks it’s nurture, it’s simply a matter of doing the right kind of work and preparation over an adequate time period for improvement.
In your scenario, you have an individual thinking they are smarter and hence THINKING that they are winning the battle. In a race, it’s not so easy to fool oneself. You either cross the line first or not. I do see how talent-focus can lead to a flash in the pan career, while preparation-focus will more likely lead to consistent performance over time. You could relate this to time delay or time horizon issues.
Another topic that I’ve seen crop up on your blog and other places is the question of self control. Best preparation means controlling the things you CAN control and wasting NO energy on the things you can’t. Your Make Better Decisions By Being Emotional blog post and this interview with John Bargh highlights the many ways we can think we’re in control but are not. It’s my sense that the more we know about the ways we fool ourselves, the more semblance of influence we can have toward a specific future outcome because we know better where not to waste our time.
What we can do, however, is deliberately adjust our environment over time so that many subconscious influences on our behaviors be more advantageous toward meeting particular goals. An example of this would be making adjustments in our social group. I recall a study where it was shown that people are less likely to stay with a diet or exercise program if they continue to hang with the old poorly-eating, non-exercising social group.
Another comment I’d like to make on nature / nurture and athletic performance. World class athletes are both tremendously talented AND do the work. These days, you can’t get away without both pieces of the puzzle. There is some discussion that nature (inborn temperament) MAY partly influence a person’s willingness to work hard consistently over many years towards peak performance. The rule of thumb is that it takes 10 years.
FWIW, I also ran my mouth (fingers) about self control (ironically) over on Gordo’s blog post where he talks about control and the ability to pause and think longer term before acting. That settles it. I’m nothing like Janet Jackson.