Jim Whiddon Reviews Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

Few would argue that educating our offspring isn’t of paramount importance. But what is the best way to go about it?

We want to make sure we plan our financial legacy to benefit those we leave behind, enriching their lives for years to come. One way we do this is by making it possible for them to receive the best education available.

As summer vacation winds down and our children and grandchildren head back to school, I will devote my posts over the next three months to understanding and assisting parents and students. I plan to review three of my favorite books on the subject of training our youth. We’ll start with a look at Talent is Overrated by Geoffery Colvin.

We often forget that getting a college degree was not always the main educational goal of most families. Colvin writes:

“In the early twentieth century something called the high school movement swept America as towns nationwide decided that every student should complete twelve years of schooling. At first this was job training; the new high schools taught students basic math, English, and science skills, and sometimes much more specific skills as well, that would equip them for growing the industrial economy. But later, as the country became richer, high school curricula expanded beyond job skills into all corners of the liberal arts. More students went on to college, the great majority pursuing liberal arts majors. It became a mark of the developed world’s twentieth-century prosperity — many would say one of its proudest achievements — that a full, rounded, advanced education came within reach of almost everyone.”

Colvin goes on to mention that many of history’s most eminent figures — such as da Vinci, Galileo, Beethoven and Rembrandt — received only a moderate amount of education, equal to about the middle of college or less. These historical figures tended not to come from large cities, but generally had to develop their academic skills in smaller environments before moving to population centers. Today, unlike throughout most of history, we have a wide range of educational opportunities readily available for our kids. How can we make the most of them?

Here are seven important concepts I gleaned from Colvin’s work, which may help you shape a successful educational experience for the next generation.

1. Mastering memory. Short-term memory capacity often falls into a range of five to nine items. You can help improve your child’s memory capacity with memory training. This can help immensely with their study and level of comprehension.

2. Learning at home. Homes that foster educational success start early in developing a child’s basic skills. Parents consistently teach that work comes before play, obligations must be met and goals are to be pursued. A culture of “spending one’s time wisely” is always present. With my own children, we taught them basic time management skills which they appreciate, because it means more ‘play’ time.

3. Be patient. Eventual top-level achievers are rarely child prodigies. It almost always took the great masters ten years or more of what Colvin describes as “deliberate practice” to create their greatest works. And because of the sheer amount of information our children have to learn and master, innovations and achievements take even longer today.

4. Know their drive. Many great musicians and athletes are “pushed” by their parents at a young age. This is not always the best approach, as we have all witnessed. We also know that very few young athletes go on to the college or professional level. In business, as in math and high-level science, it is generally different. Future stars in these fields can be distinctly un-driven even into their 20s.

5. Intrinsic motivation. As parents, we look to move our children in directions we see as compatible with their talents. This extrinsic motivation can only take them so far, and can even evoke anger or revolt if we are not careful. In the larger picture of their lives, they must have an intrinsic motivation for their field. Identify and celebrate your children’s passions, and gently direct them there. I try to continually teach my children that ‘earned success’ takes time. It is a source of great joy as they make progress and take pride in their achievements.

6. Avoid commoditization. Big Data could replace your child’s career with an algorithm before they even get started. It is critical that they develop their right brain (more on this next month). The right-brain shift is now widespread enough that the MFA – master of fine arts – is gaining ground on the MBA as the preferred graduate degree for young adults heading into business fields.

7. Instill a lifelong learning ethic. Eli Whitney did not invent the cotton gin, although he is often credited with doing so. He brilliantly improved existing designs because he understood what had come before. He kept studying, and learning and his developments changed history. He continued to invent until his death at age 60. Many college students are so focused on the outcome — obtaining a degree — that they set aside their education once it is achieved.  Graduation should be seen as just the beginning! If anything, it is even more important to be dedicated to continuous learning now than in any other period of history.

Colvin wraps up his message with a caution and an encouragement. First, a caution regarding the possible result of getting to the top of any field:

“We often see the price people pay in their rise to the top of any field; even if their marriages or other relationships survive, their interests outside their field typically cannot. Howard Gardner, after studying his seven exceptional achievers, noted that ‘usually, as a means of being able to continue work, the creator sacrificed normal relationships in the personal sphere.’ Such people are ‘committed obsessively to their work. Social life or hobbies are almost immaterial.’ That may sound like admirable self-sacrifice and direction of purpose, but it often goes much further, and it can be ugly.”

Your children may decide that the price of being the best in their field is too high to pay. But Colvin’s caution is followed by this hopeful message:

“The evidence shows also that by understanding how a few become great, anyone can become better. Above all, what the evidence shouts most loudly is striking, liberating news: that great performance is not reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.”

And that includes your children and grandchildren.

The opinions expressed by featured authors are their own and may not accurately reflect those of the BAM ALLIANCE. This article is for general information only and is not intended to serve as specific financial, accounting or tax advice.

© 2014, The BAM ALLIANCE

Jim Whiddon, CFP®, ChFC, CLU

James Whiddon, CFP®, MSFS, serves as Director of Investor Enrichment at Buckingham Strategic Wealth. He is the author of two books: "Wealth Without Worry" and "The Investing Revolutionaries."

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