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Based on dialogues with thousands of candidates and clients, we have found a common assumption amongst both groups: that the following two cognitive factors particularly lead to high performance:

1. high intelligence and

2. strong memory.

Yes, possessing one or both of the above cognitive abilities may contribute to achieving some level of high performance, but will not guarantee it. In fact, research does not seem to confirm any notable differences between the cognitive, or the social, environmental or psychological characteristics of high performers compared to average performers (Kelley, 1998).


Most people have heard of the “10% of the brain” myth, where it is claimed that most or all humans only make use of 10-20% of their brains. It is suggested that a person can take some level of control of this unused potential and increase intelligence. Though some factors of cognitive abilities can increase with training—e.g. memory—or improved wiring, the popular notion that large parts of the brain are unused and could subsequently be “activated”, is clearly not supported by research (Beyerstein, 1999; Chudler, 2013).

Even though cognitive abilities will not guarantee success or differentiate high performers from average performers, it should be stressed that every job requires some minimum level of cognitive ability and that smarter people in many contexts do better than less intelligent people do. Moreover, a small intelligence advantage at an early age in some cases may trigger a multiplier effect that could lead to high performance many years later. Research performed by Professor James R. Flynn (Flynn, 2007) on IQ gains from generation to generation, indicates that people in professional, managerial and technical jobs as a group have an above average IQ, and with the complexity of the work, the average IQ increases. Moreover, IQ has proven to be a fitting predictor of performance on new and unfamiliar tasks; however, it predicts nearly nothing about performance when a person has been in a job for just a few years. Additionally, when it comes to achieved sales results, no correlation seems to exist between e.g. the level of intelligence and how well a salesperson can be predicted to perform.

Therefore, it is not so much the capacity of your hard disk, your personality or social skills that makes the decisive difference; it is how people administer these skills that makes the difference. What really differentiates high performers from average performers is not intelligence or other cognitive abilities but their innate desire to improve and enhance through what is termed deliberate practice. As Professor John A. Sloboda of the University of Keele, put it, “There is absolutely no evidence of a fast track for high achievers” (Colvin, 2008).

We have all heard cases of parents having reported early, spontaneous signs of talent in their children e.g. speaking or reading at an unusually early age. However, in most cases it was determined that the parents were spending an extra-ordinary amount of time and effort in the children’s stimulation and development. In fact, researchers working in the field of high performance have found that people who have become superior in their field did not show early evidence of special gifts.

Amadeus Mozart—who composed music since the age of five—is a recurring example given by believers in God-given talent. However, when digging deeper into Mozart’s upbringing we find a brilliant pedagogue behind the young Mozart as perhaps the decisive differentiating factor. Leopold Mozart—father of Amadeus Mozart and himself a famous composer—reportedly, subjected his son to intense training since the age of three. The truth is, Amadeus—like most other geniuses—trained hard since a very early age. In fact, no original manuscript supposedly made by Amadeus Mozart has been found from his young boyhood. Reportedly, his father always “made final adjustments before they were made public.

Another example is Tiger Woods, whose father, Earl, was also a brilliant pedagogue—in fact, he was trained as a teacher with an unbeatable passion for golf. Before the age of one, Tiger had received his first golf club and soon thereafter he was watching his father hitting balls in the garden or he was himself attempting to hit balls from his walk stool. Since a very early age, Tiger was training furiously hard—apparently trying to emulate the one person he looked up to the most—his father.

Based on extensive interviews with families, the American psychologist Benjamin S. Bloom conducted a study of 120 young top performers within mathematics, neurology, piano playing, sculpting, swimming and tennis. Bloom concluded that the home environments of high performers shared a number of traits. They were child-focused families with the parents investing an extra-ordinary amount of time and effort into their children and imposing a strong work ethic at home. In fact, the backgrounds, professions and incomes of the parents played no significant role on the outcome.


When we talk to executives in the Life Sciences industry—aside from intelligence—they often seem particularly impressed with the concept of memory. Again, something believed to be handed doen to the aforementioned lucky ones by nature. This is not the case, since memory in particular can be improved through training and creation of meaningful structures. In fact, evidence shows that memory ability is more or less an acquired skill and can be acquired by most people through a targeted retrieval structure. Bottom line is, average people can achieve extraordinary memory ability by developing what—for them—is relevant retrieval structure.

Several grandmasters of chess have neither tested more intelligent than the average person has nor do they possess some special memory capacity by nature. Through deliberate practice, professional chess players have created meaningful structures that allow them to memorize thousands of plays where the untrained person struggles with memorizing only a few. This is because the professional chess player has trained him/herself to understand and recall plays by obsessively practicing numerous important elements of chess, chunking and grouping them into meaningful frameworks. Another example is trying to memorize two sentences containing the same characters e.g.:

We are going to watch a documentary about Danish Prime Ministers.

Agiwe rinogt gotwcah ucadoymentry Duatbo ihsna mePir Msterniira.

Research of comparable sentences shows that the average person is significantly more inclined to remember the first sentence as opposed to the second sentence—in spite of both sentences containing the exact same characters. The reason why we are better able to recall and understand the first sentence is that, like the professional chess players, we have acquired the cognitive game of reading through many hours of deliberate practicing. We have learned to chunk letters from left to right into words.

So, the ability to build remarkable memory is apparently available to anyone seeking domain expertise. Research shows that high performers in most fields exhibit superior memory of information in their fields. In fact, they have developed a structured long-term memory skill—what researchers like Professor Anders Ericsson call long-term working memory. Through deliberate practice, they have built a retrieval structure connecting data to concepts allowing them to remember more data within their domain. It is the high performers’ deep understanding of their field—through years of intensive study—that becomes the structure on which they can connect vast amounts of data.

In summary, it is not so much the capacity of your hard disk, your personality or social skills that makes the decisive difference on whether you will succeed e.g. in a new job or not; it is how you administer these skills AND if you are willing to improve and enhance these skills.

Albright Partners A/S is a retained executive search firm. We are exclusively focused on serving clients within the Life Science space – delivering tailor-made solutions sensitive to their sector, their organization and the specific challenges they are faced with.

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