March 16, 2023

Joe Baker, Author of “The Tyranny of Talent: How it Compels and Limits Athletic Achievement…and Why You Should Ignore It,” High-Performance Sports Coach, Professor at York University

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #97

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Joe Baker, author of The Tyranny of Talent: How It Compels and Limits Athletic Achievement… and Why You Should Ignore It. Baker is also Director of the Lifespan Performance Lab at York University in Toronto, Canada

On this episode of Bring It In season four, Joe sat down with Sam and why we should stop using the word Talent, the difference between high and low quality instruction, and the most critical element for long-term development.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Baker shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Almost every element of human performance we see in other domains we can capture in sport.”
  • “We never get to a place where our brain is full and it’s unable to learn new things.”
  • “Nobody leaps off the couch and becomes an Olympic anything.”

Sam: So I guess, Joe, to start us off, maybe you can give a quick background. You don’t need to go all the way to the beginning, but maybe a quick background on yourself and what brought you to writing the Tyranny of Talent

Joe: Yeah, so the most important part is I was an athlete myself, and so I was always interested in how much of elite performance is due to hard work and how much of it is due to genetic potential or just luck, all those kinds of things. And so the idea of talent was always interesting to me. And then I’m lucky enough that my day job is doing research with high performance athletes and organizations, and trying to figure that question out. So, as a professor at University of Toronto, I’m lucky that I get to explore this thing that’s been such a question that’s driven a lot of my interests over the years.

Sam: I have the book here and it’s all marked up. So I have to read between the notes and the highlights, but the title is, the Tyranny of Talent; How it Compels and Limits Athletic Achievement, and Why You Should Ignore It. Can you give us a little brief of those that haven’t read it, like what the focus of the book and your research is around talent?

Joe: So our research looks almost exclusively at sport performance, but we use sport performance as almost an ecosystem for exploring almost anything that humans do. Like we can see amazing creativity, we saw it last night in the football game. We can see amazing physical stuff, and that’s what most people think of when they think of sports.

But there’s the execution of an expert pianist in the fine motor skills that an archer uses. There’s the performance under pressure that an elite special forces soldier uses that we see in someone competing at the Olympics. So almost every element of human performance we see in other domains we can capture in sport.

And so in our research, one of the problems is when we talk to coaches, when we talk to parents and athletes, this idea of talent is so predominant in the way that they think about sport performance, and so it doesn’t fit with the research that we’ve done on what talent is and how it could constrain a person’s development.

And so for me, I wanted to write a book that sort of provided a state of the science perspective on what talent is. And that second part of the subtitle, why we should Ignore it, I think is the really the most important part because so many of us think that our potential is fixed, that our likelihood of success is controlled by how much talent we have, where the opposite is true, and if we have messages that affect the way that a person thinks about their development in a way that undermines practice and engagement, then we’re affecting their long-term development.  What we want to do in our research is try to focus on the quality of the environment that you have, that you’re creating for people to thrive in, because that’s the ultimate determiner of how much learning occurs, how much performance you see.

Sam: And when you say the quality of the environment, I think that’s an important point that you talked about in the book. I guess, what are some of the key ingredients to creating an environment where you can get the best outta your people?

Joe: In sport, it’s about training, physical, cognitive, perceptual skill, those kinds of things. But it goes broader than that. I think any environment where you want to see development, if that’s in your employees, your athletes, your kids, whatever, you need to understand the potential for development, the trajectory for learning.

Humans are interesting. We never get to a place where our brain is full and it’s unable to learn new things. And so if you thought about that with your employees, with your athletes, with your kids, whoever, you’d change the way that you interact with them. You wouldn’t look at them as if they’re fixed. You wouldn’t look at one instance, maybe it’s a success, maybe it’s a failure, and define the person by that instance. You’d think about it in terms of the long-term trajectory for learning. 

Sam: So should we stop using the word talent? And again, I’m coming at this from even talking about the future of work as well as sport, but this ‘talent development’ title has emerged now. It’s not HR or learning and development, it’s talent development. I guess, what’s your perspective on, cuz words matter, what’s your perspective on the use of the term? 

Joe: Yeah. It’s funny cuz that’s an area where we’re doing a lot of work at the moment to clarify the power that words have for guiding behavior. And we’re in the middle of writing a paper right now, getting people to retire the word talent from all the things that they do.

So when you think about talent development, you think about the process in a different way than you think about employee development or athletic development. Athletes and employees are people, they’re dynamic. They’re unpredictable. They require certain environments to thrive in.

Talent is a nebulous, kind of obscure and vague thing. We need to be thinking about these things as people. These are unique systems of development. Every person is a unique system of development, and when you start with that perspective and throw out the word talent, you probably take a giant step in improving the way that you deliver education courses or employment opportunities or all those kinds of things.

Sam: One section of the book, I actually read to our team the other day. This is what you say. “Motivation and effort are central to learning, and especially central when you talk about K. Anders Ericsson research on deliberate practice.” You go on to say, “effort and motivation are not enough, however. Training and a vacuum, even at the highest levels of intensity is no recipe for success. In order to optimize training and practice opportunities, developing performers need to have access to high quality instruction.” Talk to me about what you noticed in your research the difference between high quality instruction and low quality instruction?

Joe: It’s one of the big constraints on a person’s development. We don’t wanna undermine hard work and effort, but that hard work and effort, if you want to get the most out of the time you spend practicing or training, it needs to be done in the right environment. And one of the ways that you construct that environment is by someone who can provide insightful and critical feedback to you. That’s one of the things we know about human learning, whether that’s a motor task or a decision making task, or a behavioral task, that appropriate feedback, the right kinds of feedback at the right time is such a powerful promoter of learning and engagement. 

Sometimes it’s simple. It can be a simple affirmation message. Sometimes it can be, ‘Hey, I don’t want you to do anything right now. I want you to go home and get a good night’s sleep because sleep is gonna help consolidate memory, it’s gonna help you with your learning.’ Like just providing those simple messages can be enough, for someone, especially if you understand your athletes or your employees well enough to be able to tailor the feedback to that specific individual.

That’s what good coaches, whether those are sports coaches or work coaches, that’s what good coaches do. They know their people so well that they can tailor those messages and that tailored message is a thing that leads to that springboard in terms of learning. 

Sam: Yeah, the one story in the book that jumped out to me was, you talk about the Wonderlic and the NFL Draft and actually read something the other day where the head of the NFLPA actually came out and was trying to totally get rid of the combine, which would be, knowing the sports performance, would probably drive a lot of people crazy. But the idea of testing, and this happens not just in sport, but at the workforce level, and even in higher learning, you have SATs, you have ACTs, there’s workforce programs that you have to pass the test to get access to job skill training, even if you’re unemployed. These talent assessment tools have become so popular. 

Joe: Yeah, I think there’s a time and a place for those kinds of things. I’m a measurement guy, so I’m never gonna say don’t measure or don’t assess. I think it’s how you frame the results of those tests, right? Like you can use them in a predictive way to say, ‘well, your score here predicts outcome X’, or you can say, ‘well, your score here helps me tailor a learning environment in a developmental environment that’s gonna help you thrive better,’ and use it almost as a report card that provides information for future instruction and future development as opposed to the way they use those tests like the combine, whether that’s the NHL or the NFL, they kind of use those as predictors of future success.

They shouldn’t be seen that way. They should be seen as, ‘well, here’s what your player looks like today. Here’s their strengths and weaknesses. Now create a tailored developmental program that’s gonna focus on the weaknesses and accentuate the strengths.’ But very rarely is it seen that way. It’s seen as a predictive sort of variable in an almost an economics kind of model where it’s a fixed capacity. It isn’t. The players don’t stop developing when they get drafted. That’s a new door that’s opened that needs to be focused on, in a very specific way. 

Sam: Would you go as far as, throughout the book there’s talk of, like there’s a whole section where you talk pretty heavily about fragility and obstacles and how they seem to be very important and almost critical to the development process. I guess can you talk a little bit about, coming back to environment, what are the types of things we have to be comfortable with in order to, again, create the space for our people to truly develop?

Joe: I think that concept of anti-fragility is gonna be a huge one for human development in general. It doesn’t matter what the domain is. We need to provide opportunities for people to develop resilience and coping skills because at the highest levels of performance, it doesn’t matter what domain. You have to figure out important coping skills to be able to handle the demands that go along with those types of jobs.

And so, I think this is in the book, it’s a reflection of this culture in sport that we have right now about making everything safe and removing threat and challenge. And I think that misses the point of what sport is and what makes sport such a powerful environment for human development.

It’s the challenge, it’s the perception of threat and risk that leads to the development of these coping skills that are so important. It doesn’t mean putting your athletes under actual risk, but they need to perceive that it’s a little bit unsafe, in order to develop those skills. And I think we could take that message also to almost any domain of employment.

Employees need to feel safe, but you also need to give them a challenge so that they can develop skills that they’re not gonna develop in the absence of that challenge. So, performance under pressure, get them to give presentations to a group that they’re not familiar with, because if they don’t, they’re not gonna develop that ability to handle performance stress.

Same thing with a high performance athlete, you wouldn’t expect somebody’s gonna make it to the NFL or the Olympics if they’ve never learned coping skills to deal with performance stress. The person with the greatest amount of talent in the world, eventually they’re gonna reach a limit of that talent and have to figure those things out. And so if we can give them the tools to figure that out more quickly, we’re providing an advantage that they’ll have that someone who doesn’t get that training won’t have. 

Sam: And if you’re a manager, coach, and you’re in a position where you have, maybe you have that talent, that fixed mindset around talent, you probably aren’t challenging anybody, right? I mean, some of those players you’re probably just saying, ‘Hey, that’s as fast as they’re gonna run. That’s as high as they’re gonna jump.’ 

Joe: Yeah, it’s probably a bit of that. And I think we definitely don’t want to go down the road of anybody can do everything, it’s a world of sunshine and rainbows, then the sky’s the limit, because there are certain people that are better suited to some kinds of tasks than others. But I think we don’t know that in the absence of opportunity and training, right? If we use a sports example, nobody leaps off the couch and becomes an Olympic anything. There’s thousands of hours, maybe tens of thousands of hours of training that is required to figure that out.

Employee development is the same thing. You won’t know on day one what the perfect fit for that person is. So create a system where you’re providing opportunities to see if they’re thriving here, they’re not here. And so, use that as a way to figure out in your system where’s the best fit for that person, not assume that everybody’s a peg that’s gonna fit in the same size hole. 

Sam: Joe, what’s your favorite kind of food?

Joe: At the moment it’s Thai, I think. 

Sam: So let’s say we wave a magic wand and you own the fastest growing Thai restaurant franchise in the world. And in your role, you gotta think about how you develop a management infrastructure with folks who are going to continue to coach up frontline workers, back of house workers, servers, and so on. I wanna throw this hypothetical out at you. So, I appreciate you letting me do it. 

How do you think about building that practice structure to develop the people within your organization? What are some of the advice you’d have for folks out there that are facing that same challenge right now? 

Joe: It’s the same as, I think we’ve developed our research lab at, at York, which is you start with a small, high quality product, you figure out the system and philosophy that you want to follow in the delivery of that product, and then you can upscale from there as long as you have that core, high quality thing that you’ve started with. 

And I think even, our Thai food restaurant example, if we, if we did one thing well, and nobody else could compete with us on that one thing, you get known for that thing, people come in for that thing, and then you start building out from there. Once you have a base of support, you’re starting to develop a network. I think that’s essentially how we created my research team at York, which I would say is, I think we’re up there in terms of the rest of the world in terms of productivity. But we’ve never compromised the quality of the people that we’re developing. And when you do that, it’s a feed forward system, right? You create interest in high quality people coming to you, and that builds out your system, in ways that you never even anticipated.

Sam: The word I circled pretty heavily in the book, and I’d come to your restaurant, by the way, it sounds pretty good, you said talent and exposure. I think it’s a simple thing, a simple concept. But today in the global workforce, there’s a lot of workers who just don’t get the opportunity to learn or to show what they know. Again, tell me if I’m wrong or anything to add on top of that, but I think if I’m a… I almost used the T word.

If I’m a coach or a C-level executive thinking about how I build a strong workforce, I have to think about providing exposure opportunities to people. Would that be a way to interpret what you were saying?

Joe: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that, from a long-term development standpoint, exposure is a critical element that may be the most critical element because, even if we focus on a single sport, there’s no recipe for the creation of an elite football player. There’s a football player who could be a football player or a rugby player, or a powerlifter, depending on the positions. That person can fit into a number of roles. It’s what’s the exposure that they’ve had most recently that’s gonna lead them in one direction over another.

So I think, for managers and people in those kinds of positions, providing opportunities and exposure to different tasks and seeing where people thrive is the critical element. Again, not assuming that everybody’s gonna thrive in the same way in all tasks. That I don’t think reflects reality. But let’s not pigeonhole somebody on day one, assuming that this is the only place that they’re gonna fit, let’s expose them. 

And we’ve seen examples of this in successful companies with the future CEO who started out in the mail room, like learning that system from the ground up, knowing every cog in that system and how it works and how it can be more efficient, that kind of systems approach I think is really important. Even if at the end of the day you find yourself focused in one area, understanding how the whole system works, I don’t see how that could ever be a bad thing. 

Sam: Yeah, you talked about Matthew Effects. And maybe I’ll let you kinda lead in and share it, but I thought about this when I thought about exposure, cuz again, in certain environments when that starts happening, it usually ends up only going to one group versus maybe the majority or the others.

Joe: Yeah, and then we see that, because time on task and practice and engagement is so important at predicting skill development and learning, that if there’s anything that predisposes one group to more opportunities for engagement over another group, then we see what’s called the Matthew Effect, which is people that get more opportunities end up practicing more in better environments. They get more feedback from more skilled people. And that’s the thing that actually ends up making the difference. In the beginning, there’s probably no difference between those groups, but providing opportunities for more people, it seems to always be a good strategy for employee development.

Sam: What was your favorite part of the book? 

Joe: For me it was the first section, going back, doing that deep dive into 150 years of research in this area to really figure out my domain better. Before that, I had no idea of the stuff that had happened in the 1800s, the early 1900s, and that was so much fun.

Sam: I guess the word talent originates around, was it currency? 

Joe: Yeah. “Talent” was a weight, a measure of weight. And so you paid for things in a talent weight of silver or a talent weight of gold.

Sam: It’s wild when you connect that history to the way the word is being used today.

Joe: Yeah, like, we use it in the same way. We use it as an implicit indicator of a person’s value based on how we think about their talent. 

Sam: Joe, talking about future of work, I guess the final question for you today, what’s your hope for the future of work? 

Joe: My hope is that we get away from this sort of, looking at people as if they’re fixed capacities. That’s the old world talent view, that talent is a fixed thing. And a 21st century view is that talent exists. There are differences between people, but it’s an emergent quality that needs to be put in the right environment for it to be able to thrive. 

For me, that shifts the spotlight to assessment and trying to figure out what’s the recipe for this person’s success, to creating the optimal environment for people to be able to thrive. And when you do that, you, the downside of that is you create an environment where everybody’s able to thrive, and so you focus more on the process instead of the outcome. 

Sam: Joe, thanks for taking time. 

Joe: Yeah, this was my pleasure. Thanks.

Topics Discussed: Talent, Environment, Development, Feedback, Training, Skills

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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