Motivation Over Talent and Process

Jurgen Appelo has a new post over at Agile Zone that got me thinking.  The thesis is basically that motivation for increasing one’s competence is more important than raw talent any process.

It reminds me of a book I read recently: Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. This book talks a lot about “deliberate practice” (which is what I would call your studying up on how to be a good presenter). Two things about deliberate practice:

  1. It’s not just experience doing the thing. If your talking sports, it’s doing drills, lifting weights, studying game film, etc. If it’s doing presentations, it’s reading books and blogs, practicing in front of your wife or a mirror, etc.
  2. It’s work. The author thinks it’s not fun and that’s part of it, but I think it’s the motivation you are talking about that actually brings a certain amount of pleasure (if not fun) in doing that hard work.

Where does that motivation come from? How do you cultivate it in others? Or do you just have to find it in your recruiting process and build a team out of intrinsically motivated people?

I’m not sure, but I’m inclined to think some processes (or at least environments) can stifle the motivation to improve and others can nurture it.  Processes that have tight feedback loops are more motivating to improve than processes delay feedback.  Processes that are rigidly proscriptive demotivate people to change their own behavior except possibly to comply.  Financial incentives tied to individual performance can improve individuals (sometimes at the expense of the team).  Financial incentives tied to team performance can improve individuals and the team.  Incentives tied to the performance of the whole company can do little to motivate because they are seen as outside the individual’s sphere of influence.

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  • Sammy  On December 14, 2010 at 00:47

    I think both talent and motivation are very important. I don’t think it’s one vs the other at all.

    Consider someone with no talent at all and plenty of motivation. They’ll never develop the basic skills to program and even if they do get a tenuous grasp on the subject, they’ll constantly struggle against their own nature to get basic things done.

    No consider someone with plenty of talent and no motivation. We all know obnoxious intelligent people who are completely unreliable and think too highly of themselves. No one wants them on the team.

    A good analogy is photography. A few internet forums I know have repeated and heated debate every once in a while about whether the gear matters or it’s the talent of the photographer. Anyone that’s tried to use the wrong camera for a particular kind of photography (eg. a point and shoot for fast action that requires a DSLR) will quickly tell you the gear does in fact matter. Yet you also see a lot of people with expensive gear who just leave the camera on auto and hope for the best, and they are the ones being outdone by more talented amateurs. So here’s a great example of both requiring the right skills (talent) and gear, and also of requiring the motivation to get past lazy automatic mode.

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