This weekend Tom Brady will quarterback the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, having won four Super Bowls and two MVP awards, among other accolades, throughout his illustrious professional football career. Brady, 39, might very well go down as the best quarterback in the history of the game.
But, as many sports fans know well, Brady wasn’t highly regarded as a professional prospect coming out of the University of Michigan in the 2000 NFL draft. In fact, at Michigan, Brady wasn’t even the team’s full-time starting quarterback. He spent his first two years on the bench as the backup. Brady was drafted, now famously, with pick No. 199 in the NFL draft, in the sixth round. Six other quarterbacks were selected ahead of him. None have been as successful.
So what happened? Why did so many NFL talent evaluators miss on Brady? This includes the team that ultimately drafted him, the Patriots. After all, they waited nearly 200 picks to take him.
There are two lessons talent evaluators, whether they work in sports, business or elsewhere, can learn from the example of Tom Brady.
The first — and this is something that I’ve addressed in an earlier column — has to do with the flaws of human judgment and decision-making. Put simply, people’s intuitive judgments are often imperfect, leading them to make poor decisions. Brady was an accomplished college quarterback, but professional talent evaluators obviously missed something.
Perhaps it was Brady’s famously unimpressive performance at the NFL’s annual scouting combine, where executives and coaches gauge incoming players’ measureable athletic talents — like how fast they can run a 40-yard dash, or how high they can jump. Brady was average at best in these areas, and his scrawny, non-athlete appearance probably didn’t help him either. Brady simply didn’t look the part.
This type of talent evaluation folly was famously profiled in Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball,” which traced how the Oakland Athletics baseball team in the early 2000s undermined their competitors by winning with inexpensive, undervalued players that other teams had passed on because they “didn’t look the part.”
The other factor that likely led to Tom Brady’s success — and what will be my focus here — has to do with the difference between fixed vs. growth mindsets when it comes to developing talent.
Many academics and other leading thinkers on talent have identified the notion of a fixed vs. growth mindset. I recently came across the idea while reading Angela Duckworth’s best-selling book, “Grit.”
In simple terms, a fixed mindset is the belief that people’s intellectual capability or skill doesn’t change. People’s basic qualities — skills, intelligence, you name it — are simply fixed traits. Those who believe in the fixed mindset mentality also tend to think that talent alone, without effort, creates success.
On the other hand, a growth mindset is the opposite. Those that believe in the notion of a growth mindset think any ability or skill is acquired with the right amount of effort and study. To be sure, not all individuals are one or the other. According to Carol Dweck, the psychologist best known for her work on this mindset trait, individuals are placed on a continuum when evaluating if their talent is from fixed characteristics or those that came from continuous effort and study.
Tom Brady has many natural abilities that help explain why he is a good quarterback. He’s tall; he can throw a football; he has some baseline athletic ability. But the difference between Brady simply being an average quarterback and being one of the best of all time likely has to do with him having a growth mindset.
Ever since Brady entered the NFL, he’s been known as an obsessively hard worker. Sports journalists for years have chronicled Brady’s neurotically strict diet and workout regimen. He’s the first person in the Patriots’ practice facilities each day, and the last one to leave at night. He challenges himself. He sets high goals. He believes he can and will get better in every area of his game. And he doesn’t let setbacks get in the way. That’s what makes him successful. NFL talent evaluators underestimated Brady’s growth mindset and undervalued the role it would play in his future potential as a quarterback.
Business leaders should consider where on the fixed-growth continuum they fall — both in regards to their own professional development and in how their companies view talent. For instance, companies that placed too high a value on so-called high potential leadership development programs risk missing out on a Tom Brady of their own. But those that recognize the inherent value of having a growth mindset, and allowing that type of culture to pervade throughout their organizations, open themselves up to the possibility that they have many hidden-gem performers waiting to be uncovered.
Keep that in mind, either as you’re watching the NFL playoffs and Brady this weekend or as you continue to plot your organization’s talent development strategy. What constitutes achievement and success in business is often represented as a function of an equation that includes many variables. Innate, fixed talent is simply one of them. Everything else is under our control. Having a growth mindset is the key
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s Managing Editor.