Friday, January 16, 2009

Talents in the Lab

So, I just got back from a vacation--no internet access for a week! Ugh--I think some people find getting away from it all rejuvenating, but that is not me at all. In fact, this would be a complete non-talent for me. "Non-talent" is terminology from a book that I re-read while on vacation: "First Break All the Rules..." by Buckingham and Coffman. I first read this book several years ago, when I was immersed in the misery of being mismanaged. The concepts in this book are not complicated and to me even seem obvious (now that I've thought about them), but it still seems to be true that most managers ignore these concepts. Re-reading the book last week was even more illuminating, now that I've had a couple years of being a manager myself and can reflect on my own strengths and weaknesses as a lab manager and plan small changes that may have a big effect on outcomes for our students and the science we're doing.

One of my talents is the ability to read these kinds of management and leadership books without getting too hung up on the fact that they're not perfect science. Though, I do like this one especially because it is founded in a whole bunch of research (the authors are out of Gallup Consulting) and objective analysis. Via hundreds of thousands of interviews with employees and managers across all types of industries they tried to determine common qualities of managers whose groups far outperform the others. Thus, they tried to find out what great managers do differently than good and bad managers. The main points they found out ring very true for me, and really, THE main point is that great managers recognize the following things:

  • By the time people are grownups, their brains have been "wired" in unique ways because of their genetics and their experiences growing up. These genetics and experiences produce a set of talents and "non-talents" for any individual. The authors refer to this as the unique "filter" each individual uses for their everyday experiences. The key point is that these talents are not teachable to grownups and great managers recognize this. Skills and knowledge contrast with talents, in that they are teachable. Learning skills and knowledge is easy for someone with underlying talent in that area. Learning skills and knowledge without the underlying talent is a constant uphill battle.
  • In order to succeed and be happy in a particular job, a person needs certain talents. Great managers figure out what those talents are, and try to assess those talents when hiring people. Contrast this with the system most of us are familiar with, where people are assessed based on resumes and interviews which focus on skills and knowledge. Determining what talents a job requires is not easy. It's even more difficult for a manager to assess someone's talents. And possibly, for many people, the most difficult thing is for an individual to assess their own personal talents--I know it is very difficult for me.
  • A great manager spends time helping his people discover their own talents and helps them make career decisions based on those talents.

I think while reading this book in graduate school was the first time I'd consciously considered talents existing for things besides athletics, music, acting. I think I easily accepted, for example, that professional musicians had innate "hard-wired" abilities that enabled them to enjoy the hard work it took them to achieve that kind of excellence. I knew I didn't have those talents and didn't entertain any notion that I could just "work really hard" to become a professional musician or athlete. But I don't think I ever considered the vast array of other ways people could be talented, or non-talented, and I think I was probably a subscriber to the popular notion that I could succeed at any kind of job I landed just by forcing myself to work hard. And if I was failing it was my own fault for not working hard or smartly.

While considering that last paragraph, I think it's not quite correct. Back then, I probably did recognize the existence of many talents, but I had not sensibly defined them. For example, I may have thought I had a "talent for science," since from 1st grade through graduate school I had received good grades and succeeded in science "things." Therefore, I would have deduced that I have a talent for any kind of career related to science: graduate student, professor, R&D, science writer, elementary school science teacher, science policy advisor, etc. In fact, I think I entertained the notion of all of those careers at some point. I probably made the reasonable step of considering whether I'd like those careers, but I did not even come close to considering that it was my own talents and non-talents that would determine whether those careers would be thrilling or miserable.

Ever since reading that book, I've been wondering about my own talents. Ironically, I'm untalented at discovering my own talents. I suppose some people are very talented in this. When I preach to my students about this topic, I'm often asked, "What are your talents?" I know that I have many talents, and some I know specifically. For example, I know that I absolutely love computer programming. I can work on data analysis applications for 16 hours straight days at a time and love it. This is a talent for me, and considering that I was spending 10 hours a day in 3rd grade playing around with BASIC on my Commodore 64 this is not a surprising talent. But it's one I don't get to use very much any more, due to my career choice. I also know that I have a lot of non-talents. I think it's just as important to discover these, and for me these are easier to find. I'm still not quite sure what it's called, but I have at least one non-talent that would be required for easy writing of scientific papers and grant applications. In contrast, I find these blogs fun and fairly easy to spew out--I enjoy this kind of writing, and I probably have some kind of talent that is being used by blogging. But there is something about the precision or brevity or efficiency or whatever about formal papers and in particular grant writing that give me serious writer's block. I have been writing grants for two years now and it is always unpleasant and very difficult. I feel like I produce good documents, but it is very far from easy.

That last point is the key: it's not easy. (And I don't enjoy most parts of it.) This is a great way of discovering talents. In the book, they cite a manager (anonymously, unfortunately) who developed the "Sunday Night Blues Test." He asked his employees to stop and think on a Sunday night whether they were happy the weekend was over, or whether they were a little depressed. (Assuming a five day work week.) The employees then were to consider what specific things they had planned to do the next day. Their level of happiness / unhappiness about their activities the next day would be a way of understanding what talents or non-talents they possessed. I like this test, and it's helped me quite a bit in assessing myself.

I've used a variation of the test in the courses I've taught, in the hopes that my students will learn something about themselves far earlier than I ever did. On the last day of class in the four semesters I've taught, I've presented them this last un-graded homework assignment. You can view it on this openwetware page. I ask them to reflect back on the semester that's ended and to ask themselves which courses they're most sad are ending and which they are elated to be done with. I ask them to think about specific assignments that were fun or others that were dreaded. I don't have any kind of evidence, but I feel like there's enough variety of things students are asked to do that they may be able to discover talents and non-talents this way. A few of my students "turn in" this assignment via email or WebCT, and I always find it fascinating and pleasurable to read what they have to say. Usually these are students that I've come to know a bit, so I can give them a little feedback on it too, which I enjoy. (This probably indicates a talent I have for getting true pleasure out of students' successes.)

I realize this blog is getting long. I think I did say above that brevity is a non-talent of mine. I'm considering breaking this into two posts, but instead, I think I'm going to leave it as one post glued together by this added paragraph.

So, as I mentioned above, I re-read this book a couple weeks ago, and I must have marked up every other page and wrote down several dozen ideas it gave me for how to better teach, manage our lab, and be a better person. One of those ideas which I've followed through on is to work on identifying talents of the students in our lab. I have a few reasons for wanting to do this. The most important reason is that I want to maximize the success of every student that comes through our lab. I really believe that the more they can understand about themselves and their talents, the happier and more successful they will be in their next career step. The next reason is that I can manage the lab much more effectively if I know what talents and non-talents my students have. I'm not sure I have the talent to do this, but I am sure that it can't hurt for me to know more.

Believe it or not, I actually had a "talents" meeting with all three of my graduate students this week...between 2 and 3 hours with each person. I even went so far as to use the interviewing questions from the book. This was really cheesy, but my students trust me enough to have followed through honestly with the process. The questions are designed to reveal talents. I left the book in my office, so I can't quote any of them directly now, but some of the questions I found most revealing were:

  • What keeps you working here? (in the lab)
  • What is the best kind of praise you have ever received? What made it so good?
  • What is a productive partnership or mentorship you've had? Why did it work so well?
  • What are your current goals and what is your timeline for achieving them?
  • How often do you want to meet with me to discuss your progress?

All the questions are good, but those are coming to mind now as having elicited responses that pointed towards talents or non-talents.

I don't want to get into any specific results here, because my students and I didn't really discuss yet whether this process would be open or not. Actually, what I'm hoping is that through this continuing dialog, it will become a habit of our lab to point out to each other obvious talents and even non-talents. I think we have a lot of respect and trust in each other, so it's likely we can achieve this kind of productive openness. In any case, without being too specific, I can tell you that I was really surprised at how much I learned from these meetings. Even considering that I already expected them to be productive meetings. Again, I think I am lucky to have very good and trusting students, so our dialog was very open. In addition to the questions from the book, I also asked each student to talk about their most productive time(s) in the lab so far. (Another variation on the Sunday Night Blues Test.) I found this incredibly useful.

One of the most humorous, surprising, and potentially useful result was what I learned about the students' and my own talent for competitiveness. If someone has this talent, they are driven to compete and win against other people. A different kind of talent is a need for achievement. This is different, because it is not relative to other people, but an internal measuring stick and a desire to constantly improve. It turns out I and one of my students have a strong competitiveness quality. This didn't surprise me too much. What did surprise me was that the other students did not have this quality. One common flaw of managers is to follow the golden rule of treating others the way you'd like to be treated. I have this flaw too. Up until this week, I think I'd pretty much assumed that everyone was competitive. But what I discovered is that's completely not true. I had also down-played my own competitiveness, and I now realize it's an important part of me and my motivations. So, what can I do with this information? I'm not sure, but given how surprising some of it was, I don't see how it can make me a worse manager. Just a simple example is that if you try to motivate an achiever and a competitor by having them compete against each other it's not going to work well. I don't think I've tried do that, but as a manager I'm always doing something , whether or not I'm trying to.

I'm going to try to wrap up this wandering post now. If you have a talent for reading management or self-help books, I strongly recommend you read the book I've linked above, "First Break All the Rules." If you don't have that talent, I do recommend trying out different ways of discovering your own talents. During the few weeks I've been on FriendFeed, I've already seen a few people making or considering career moves. I think talents are the number one thing that will determine whether these moves produce success and happiness. A perfect example is the ineffective way in which university faculty are chosen. Successful graduate students and postdocs are evaluated for professorships based upon their achievements, skills, and knowledge as researchers in the lab. The job, however, is not at all similar. I am now a manager, teacher, grant-writer, leader, and I don't know what else...but I'm not doing research in the lab very often if at all. In light of the selection process (and the utter lack of training), it's not surprising that there is so much struggle seen in this career path. Luckily, I think I do have enough of the talents required for my job, and I can ultimately succeed.


  1. I think talent is most important for work in lab. Because the are many new and very serious activities are happens. So there need a extra careful or experience to work.

  2.  What do I have a passion for? Sometimes the easiest way to figure this out is to look at your bank statement or credit card statement and look at what you spend a lot of money on. See more statement of purpose for masters

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Can I just now say thats a relief to uncover somebody that really knows what theyre talking about online. You certainly learn how to bring a problem to light making it crucial. Lots more people need to read this and understand this side from the story. I cant believe youre less popular when you definitely possess the gift. rtu result


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.