Can People Really ‘Get Better’ at Stuff?

Posted on | February 19, 2009 | Comments Off on Can People Really ‘Get Better’ at Stuff?

In a recent exchange with a colleague, Lori Wilson, an internal change artist at New Jersey’s Montclair State University, she poses a great polarity:

‘Marcus Buckingham, author of First Break all the Rules, believes that some qualities are in-born talents that will not respond to any kind of training. Geoff Colvin, conversely, in Talents are Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, appears to believe that a person can improve themselves in any area, with hard work and relentless practice. What gives?’

My experience is that everyone can ‘get better’ at anything. They just may not get to mastery. In working with leaders and entrepreneurs, the working principle that is most-used is ‘delegate your weaknesses’. Hire people who are masterful in areas where you need to work really hard to be adequate.

Personally, I suppose I could learn to be relative adequate at working with spreadsheets, but as of now, I get a headache just thinking about it…

‘Motivated Skills’
Years ago, before Dick Bolles wrote What Color is Your Parachute, an old friend and colleague, Bernard Haldane, discovered and named what he called ‘motivated skills’– things that gave people energy and joy when they did them. He had a classic window pane model that showed Things You Like Doing/Don’t Like Doing (vertical dimension, I believe) and Do Well and Don’t Do Well (horizontal dimension). In the upper right pane were your ‘Motivated Skills’ — things you are motivated to do because of how you feel when you are doing them.

Here’s an excerpt from a web-based piece by Dick Knowdell about how Haldane discovered this principle:

‘At the end of World War II, thousands of veterans were returning to the United States and were in need of employment. The vast majority of these returning veterans had entered the military directly from school and the only “work” they knew were the military jobs that they had been trained to do such as infantryman, tank operator, machine gun operator, or sniper. Since none of these jobs existed in the post-war world, they had little idea of what civilian jobs to pursue. Faced with this challenge, Bernard spent many hours questioning these veterans, not about their military job titles, but about their specific accomplishments while in the military and how they went about their jobs. He was interested in what skills they had used in activities that they enjoyed doing, believed they did well and were proud of.

While most of his contemporaries were assisting job seekers by focusing primarily on the job titles that individuals had held, Bernard believed that he could reveal “the excellence in each person” by analyzing the skills that individuals had used in performing past accomplishments. This belief led to the development of “Skill Factor Analysis.” Bernard designed a skill checklist of functional skills with columns for past accomplishments where job seekers could check off those skills that were used in each accomplishment.

In 1947, Bernard formed Bernard Haldane Associates, and by establishing BHA offices in New York and Washington, DC, Bernard was able to offer skill identification and job search assistance to more and more individuals. As BHA grew, Bernard recruited and trained individuals to manage these offices.

One person who Bernard recruited was John Crystal. Crystal had served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. The OSS was the predecessor to the CIA and Crystal was skillful at interviewing people in order to gather intelligence. It was a natural extension of applying the intelligence-gathering skills that he had used in spying to teaching job seekers to conduct the networking that is so critical to a successful job search. John Crystal went on to impart knowledge of successful job seeking techniques to an Episcopal Priest who was fired from his job and was looking for ways to find another job. That priest was Richard Nelson Bolles, the author of What Color Is Your Parachute? the all-time, best-selling job search book. Crystal collaborated with Bolles in 1974 when they wrote Where Do I Go From Here With My Life?
Cool, huh?

Dick Bolles and I met when we were in Campus Ministry at the same time-he was at UC-Berkeley and I was at Cornell. I have a mimeograph copy (anybody remember those?!) of What Color lying in a file drawer somewhere. . . What an amazing phenomenon. I think it was the best-selling non-fiction (business) book ever until Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence.


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