Pathfinders: The Science (what’s under the hood)

Natural Talent Diversity

The Emerging Science of Natural Talent Diversity

New things are unfolding inside the science of nature vs. nurture. We’re steadily cracking the code on how the brain is wired up and amassing evidence that our mystifying, innate abilities do in fact exist. We are born with potentials to perform certain things more naturally. For instance, within the domain of musical ability, scientists recently discovered that jazz players brains are wired up quite differently than classical musicians.

“Nature” has a branding problem. There’s an ongoing backlash against the nature camp, which asserts there is a small club of “gifted” people with high IQs and SAT scores. In an effort to level the playing field, schools are opting for the “nurture story,” which embraces grit and the growth mindset. However, the latest science is finding that although both camps have merit, neither side has the full story. Answers hidden in our brain circuits are being revealed—we’re on the verge of a paradigm shift in understanding what it takes to reach our full potential.

Grit v. g

On the Road to Grit, Unexpected Things Are Happening . . .

Square Peg Gritting in Round Hole

I did all the right things, where did I go wrong?

In our moments of excellence, we can all recall experiences where we’ve tapped into our natural talents and felt the joy of hard work. But, this dance between nature and grit hasn’t yet found its way into our educational process and career choices. We’re stuck in a zero-sum game, the “or” between nature – nurture often manifests as an internal conflict. 

Part of us likes nurture’s grit metaphor; it’s a highly egalitarian, democratic message that gives us courage to pursue our dreams, “you can do anything you want, hard work is mostly what it takes.” This appears to be at odds with nature’s “born for this” story, where part of us also admires people like Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs who have found their talent sweet spot. Deep down we all have sense that we’re “meant to be really good at something.”

The problem is the nature camp has stubbornly held on to an all-purpose definition of “smart,” known as general intelligence or “g”, which leaves people with unimpressive SAT and IQ scores with limited choices and feeling left out. In the other camp, a big downside of “it’s all about grit” is that it’s creating the opposite problem, young people are feeling overwhelmed with choices. If the world’s your oyster, and you aren’t limited by a lack of natural ability, how do you narrow things down?

Another downside of relying on grit as a compass for navigating your career choices, you may gritting with all your might and still not get very good at something. For instance, I meet a lot of distraught young lawyers who discover that after all that hard work, they turned out to be average on the job in comparison to others who seem to have a natural knack for it.

To make matters worse, the current college major system is set up to encourage grit over exploring different subject areas to discover your natural talents and abilities. There are steep penalties for changing majors. And this road doesn’t get any easier after college. Switching careers is a highly complex endeavor, on average it takes 7 to 10 years to make a full-blown self-reinvention to a new field or profession (although, I’ve seen self-educated, highly resourceful people with the fortitude to forgo going back to college cut the transition time in half). 

As it stands, nurture’s grit camp has won hearts and minds. The slightest hint or wisp that “human innateness” plays even a small role is taboo. I’m in a unique position to see the unforeseen consequences of ignoring Mother Nature. From my close up view on the front lines, having helped thousands of college-educated people who have unwittingly gritted their way into ill-suited career, the one question I’ve heard daily for the last 25 years is, “I thought I could do anything with hard work, and I achieved the dream career that I thought I wanted, but something isn’t clicking. Whatam I—really—good at?

Without an internal compass for their natural potential, young adults are stumbling into their mid-thirties and beyond as they try to navigate their career choices by costly trial and error. With sky-high price tags on college and graduate degrees, on top of life commitments to family and mortgages, how many do-overs can people reasonably attempt in a lifetime?

Gritting your way forward, haphazardly, hoping to discover your talents does eventually payoff for some people. But the friction of pounding square pegs into round holes is squandering talents; the obstacles to making meaningful changes are structural and systemic, leaving a lot of people feeling trapped . . . and wondering if they somehow missed the boat.

The good news is we’re in the midst of developing a very different metaphor for how we think, and it’s going to be disruptive. Pioneering neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, and cognitive psychologists are challenging the either/or assumptions of the nurture vs. nature argument. They are finding that grit or “practice only” isn’t enough to excel—engaging your natural talents does matter. Nor can a person with certain gifts excel without any practice at all—even someone with natural musical ability can’t just jump off the couch and instantly become the next Yo Yo Ma. Leading scientists on each side of the debate are finding ample evidence of an interplay between nature and nurture, but this more nuanced message has not gained mainstream attention. 

If we are truly committed to unleashing everyone’s potential, it’s time for both sides to shake hands in recognition of the other’s role in the matter and find a new, middle ground. 


Different Kinds of Smart

Natural talents_female bike mechanic

Have you ever noticed that you just “get” certain things easier, right out of the gate? For instance, without much practice some people are naturals at fixing bikes and other mechanical gadgets, while others live in their inner worlds of imagination and love to write and read history. Even the political tribes we identify with seem to just feel right to us, as does our preferences in music and tastes in food, art and movies. We like what we like, often without explanation . . . and now we’re beginning to understand why.  

Rather than an all-purpose general intelligence or single IQ score, there is growing evidence for talent variation or a stock set of specialized multiple intelligences that were bootstrapped together along the evolutionary journey that “designed” our brain.

Gary Marcus, a neuroscientist, explains that natural talents are prewired tendencies or potentials in a newborn’s brain, as instructed by the genes, and remain somewhat flexible throughout life:

“Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises . . .  Built-in does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.*”  

This is what is meant by “play to your strengths,” which is to develop your stronger innate potentials with lots of practice. For example, young people with a knack to think in 3D or spatial ability, combined with heightened sensory perception, logical temperament, visual memory and manual dexterity say they can’t really explain their intense attraction to understand how mechanical stuff works, “Ever since I was a kid, I was drawn to tinker.” And if you swap in intuitive perception and an empathetic temperament to this mix, you see young people exhibiting an uncanny knack for filmmaking and visual arts. What we’re finding is natural talent diversity—where we all have a different mix of natural potentialsrather than the exclusionary notion that only some of us are “gifted.”  

My work over the past two decades has taken this much further; the science is just catching up. I’ve found that blends of these knacks or natural intelligences form talent patterns, where a number of aptitudes and traits working in unison give us natural ability to perform activities such as understanding physics or human psychology. A good metaphor is a 16-channel sound-mixing board (IQ tests measure a small subset, say 2 or 3 channels), where each talent is a separate aptitude or trait with its own volume knob that appears to be prewired along a strength spectrum from slight to more pronounced.

When we engage in activities that develop our pattern or mix of stronger talents operating in concert, especially when driven by a sense of purpose, we often enter a flow state—that in the zone feeling we get when time seems to stop and things just click.

When you’re in your talent sweet spot, very interesting things start to happen. Potential mentors start noticing you, they are instinctively attracted to helping the “naturals” with a sparkle in their eye. Suddenly you feel compelled to work harder and get even bettergrit happens organicallyyour motivation comes from an internal drive to stick with something because you love doing it. 

Anecdotal evidence for this talent diversity viewthat we’re all smart at different waysis obvious in the daily lives of students and teachers. The math whizzes don’t seem to be working all that hard at calculus, while the empathetic kids seem to be wise beyond their years when it comes to surmising about the inner life of other people. Parents say they notice early signs of natural talents in their children, often without much formal practice some have a knack to be politicians, comedians and entrepreneurs, while others show up as young scientists, engineers and nurses.

But we haven’t been looking for clues to our natural talents in an intentional way. From K – 12 and college through graduate school we’re not explicitly asking students to play to their strengths; in fact, we’re very intentionally doing the exact opposite. Many say the message they got was that successful people grit harder to overcome their weaknesses, or to go after a career that’s a safe bet, and that it was rare that someone encouraged them to follow and develop their natural potential.

If we don’t engage our natural talents, we can survive well enough through hard work, but not without a cost to our well-being over the long run. Hard work alone is not sustainable.

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

~ Albert Einstein

*Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 2012, page 130.


How Are You Wired Up? (3.5 min. video)

We now have tools that can see the brain in action. By watching the brain circuits and pathways fire in real-time and understanding the chemistry of how these circuits are initially wired up to begin with, as well as finding out how the brain was gradually shaped by culture-gene co-evolution to solve different challenges over the past 1.5 million of years, we are developing a new model for how we think. 

Neuroscientists have known that our brain is comprised of modular-like lobes that each do a specialized job, and now they are discovering that each of us has variations in our connectome, the connectivity within and between the brain regions. Patterns in the wiring pathways are as unique as a DNA fingerprint, and there appears to be several recurring global brain patterns that are common in our species. For instance, big-picture, curious, flexible, creative thinkers have a similar wiring pattern, and as a group, they are wired up differently than practical-minded, resolute, concrete thinkers.

Fun Fact: Can you guess which political tribe maps to each brain pattern?


A Sports Talents Story

In January 2006, a young college basketball player at a university in Missouri was bragging about his slam-dunk skills. A guy on the track team bet him that he couldn’t clear 6’6” in the high jump. He took on the dare and cleared the bar on the first high jump of his life. On his second and third jumps he cleared 6’8″ and 7’0″. The track team coach was astounded, he just couldn’t believe it. On his seventh high jump, ever, Donald Thomas cleared 7’3.25″, a record at their university field house.

SportsTalentsIn The Sports Gene, David Epstein continues to unfold this amazing story. Just two months after the initial dare, Donald Thomas placed 4th in the Commonwealth Games in Australia, competing against the best professional high jumpers in the world. All of this was without having an official track coach. By August 2007, Thomas, who had accumulated just eight months of sporadic formal training in the high jump, decided to go to Japan to compete in the World Championships. After several rounds of preliminary jumps, the bar was set at 7’8.5″. A top competitor, a winner of 11 consecutive national championships in Sweden, missed the jump three times, and a world class jumper from Russia also missed it. Thomas cleared it on his first attempt. And then on Thomas’ winning jump, he exceeded the bar, clearing 8’2”, and was crowned the 2007 world champion. The Swede was dumbfounded; he had been practicing the sport since childhood and had a 20,000-hour (~20 years) grit advantage over Donald Thomas.

Exercise physiologists and scientists specializing in neuromuscular research have hacked the code to sports talents, debunking the myth of the all-around athlete. We know the precise body measurements required to excel for each Olympic sport, including observable features such as body type, height and weight, limb and trunk length, size of hands and feet, and shoulder and hip width, as well as features invisible to the naked eye such as bone mass, muscle type (endurance and sprint fiber), lung capacity, heart capacity, nerve bandwidth, visual acuity, visual memory, depth perception, spatial ability, and many more natural talents that are not easily observable.

Some countries actively use sports talent science to scout potential world-class athletes for a particular sport. For example, a decade before the 2000 Sydney Olympic games, Australia launched a nationwide talent identification program to get young people with the right innate body talents into the right sport. Australia won 58 medals that year, and in a per capita comparison to the U.S., they won ten times the number of medals per million people. Some athletes were transferred to sports they had no experience with but were a better fit for their body talents. For example, in 1994, an Australian track and field olympian who had never seen snow was converted into an aerial skier. By 1997 she was competing on the World Cup circuit and in the 2002 Winter Olympic games she won the gold medal.

Donald Thomas’ story is similar, he was converted from a basketball player to a track and field world champion, practically overnight. Scientists found that he was born with the perfect recipe of physical talents for an extraordinary vertical jump: he has long legs relative to his body height, raising his center of gravity, and was gifted with an extra long achilles tendon that acts like a giant spring. He’s like a human kangaroo, born with just the right blend of innate potentials to master the high jump.

David Epstein sums it up this way, “While physical hardware alone (e.g., achilles tendon length) is useless as a laptop with an operating system but no programs, innate traits have value in determining who will have a better computer once the sport-specific software is downloaded.” If you have the right biological hardware, you can rapidly download the sport-specific training and practice. Without the right hardware, the training doesn’t stick as well, no matter how hard you push. And even with the right natural talents, you still have to work hard to become a master in your sport. Practice does make perfect.

Fun Fact: sports talent science is finding a new rule of thumb, that if you push your natural talents hard, you can be 2 to 3 times better than those in your field of endeavor who are painstakingly gritting away to develop skills they have less innate talent for. Do you think this rule crosses over into academic fields?
Check out the book: The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, by David Epstein


A Story of Natural Talents + Grit

Female Architect

If there is a direct link between innate body intelligence profiles and natural fit with a particular sport, is it possible to identify the underlying cognitive talent profiles that would predict better performance in each academic field?

This is a contentious question that scientists are still tiptoeing around. But we can’t deny human nature much longer; we’re hacking the natural talents code—our brain’s talent patterns are as varied as our body’s sports talents.    

Mari, a PhD economist, had a sense that she wasn’t reaching her potential in the social sciences, she had gritted very hard to get this post, and was successful at it too, but she wasn’t fulfilled. We discovered that she had an untapped potential to understand complex physical objects or spatial ability to mentally rotate 3D shapes in her mind’s eye. She measured very high in this aptitude, which was a big surprise; she was unaware of her spatial gift. From a cold start, without a history of rigorously engaging this ability in her education or personal life, Mari scored in the top 1% of our career testing sample of 15,000 college-educated adults from around the world. (Fun aside: I scored in the bottom 15% of this ability, and that’s after 10 years of rigorously training in spatial mathematics and engineering.)    

Well into her mid-thirties as a non-spatial social scientist in economics, Mari decided to follow her spatial talent and enrolled in an architecture program; her family thought she was going nuts. Within a year something amazing was happening to her; she was quickly spotted by her professors as a natural. Upon graduation four years later she entered a national competition in the field of interior architecture and was nominated for a national prize in The Netherlands, coming in as a runner up for most promising new architect. Mari worked very hard to accomplish this extraordinary feat, but not as hard as many would expect; she stood out among the top of her new field in less than half the time predicated by the 10,000-hour rule that was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers.” (By the way, Gladwell stated this was an average and he also recognizes that innate talent plays an important role in achieving mastery. Somehow, the media only heard the “grit” half of Gladwell’s message.)

Analogous to Donald Thomas’ sports talent story above, Mari rose to the level of an Olympic athlete in the sport of architecture by transferring her grit and motivation to a field that better suits her brain’s prewired natural potentials, as well as a better fit with her sense of purpose.    

Fun Fact: Mari’s natural talent pattern consists of a very specific mix of cognitive talents and personality traits. She also measured strong in several creativity aptitudes, plus visual memory, manual speed & accuracy, analytical reasoning, intuition, and empathy, as well as a hybrid score in tribal/maestro social intelligence. When you combine this mix of talents and personality traits with Mari’s extraordinary spatial ability, you get the perfect recipe to perform naturally in human-centered, 3-D design fields (companies like Apple and IDEO lust for people with this profile). 


Do I Have Natural Abilities? (2.5 min. video)

Why is it so hard to figure out what you are really good at?

Ken Robinson talks about why we don’t know what our natural talents are, and proposes a new, talent diversity model for educating and fostering the full spectrum of human abilities. He’s the coauthor of Finding Your Element and a TEDtalk superstar (50 million views) on Do Schools Kill Creativity?*  

*Robinson uses the phase “killing creativity” more broadly to mean “squandering natural talents,” that is, many schools are not set up to intentionally or formally seek out, acknowledge or develop the full spectrum of innate human potentials. Rather, schools are essentially grit factories that think kids are innate-less balls of clay, and at the end of the day, their performance is summed up as a single, general intelligence, as measured by the SAT. This is ironic, because SATs were originally designed as sneaky IQ tests by the nature camp. This is largely why I see a steady flow of bright, but unexpectedly “lost” college students (many who sported 4.2 averages in high school). They tell me, “Yeah, I’m smart, but I have no fr#@king idea what I’m naturally good at.”  Their mother’s ask me, “Why is there scarcely a soul on campus that can help them figure this out?”


Why Do I Think the Way I do? (3.5 min. video)

Curious about how your brain is wired? 

Helen Fisher talks about four thinking styles through the lens of evolutionary biology and brain chemistry. Sneak peek: What natural talents do guys with more estrogen and dopamine have? What about gals with more testosterone and serotonin? 

Fun Fact: refer to the temperament score of your Myers-Briggs personality type (SP, SJ, NT, NF), these correlate pretty well with Fisher’s four thinking styles. 

Helen Fisher’s research is integral in the mate attraction algorithm for, and she is also applying her findings to develop the new science of team chemistry, featured by Harvard Business Review. She’s a PhD biological anthropologist, Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, and a Member of the Center For Human Evolutionary Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University.



My Chesapeake Bay Retriever in her natural element

If we’re all innately smart in different ways and it takes lots of grit to excel . . . , what should we focus on first? 

“The truth is, it’s always a hardware and software story. The hardware (nature) is useless without the software (nurture), just as the reverse is true.” ~ David Epstein, The Sports Gene

Fun Tip:

Rosie says it boils down to this:

If we first identify our natural—biological potentials—that narrows things down to a “talent ballpark” of fields and activities where our curiosity to learn is triggered. When we’re good at something, the “software” or training loads more rapidly and sticks better, and suddenly out of nowhere we may feel a “passion for” or an intrinsic drive to continually practice a craft.

You’ll know you’re on track, in your bones, when your innate talents are your compass heading. Persistence and motivation kick into gear from there—what looks like “grit” to other people, feels to you like play—and when that happens, you’ve found your natural element.   

This is a recurring theme we hear from masters in every field of endeavor.

Figuring out what your talents are is just the first step. The trick is to doing great work is to aim your talents at tackling a problem that you really care about, as well as finding a natural environment with mentors to support you along this journey. With that combination, you’ll be in your natural work habitat, just like my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Rosie. She loves her work so much that she yearns out loud in high-pitched yelps, demanding to fetch big sticks in the icy cold, Potomac River.


Anthony Spadafore 

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