What the heck is talent? Part 4

What the heck is talent, anyway? 

The problem is in the definition. Traditionally, the nurture camp of scientists have defined talent as a one-dimensional gift, it was thought that you either have it or you don’t. Generally, we think of a brainy kid as generally “talented,” they appear to be smart at everything they try. But, we often find that a math wiz kid isn’t also a poetry wiz. It’s obvious to us that there are multiple talents, but we don’t have language to distinguish them.

what the heck is talent

Something else is going on. Talent is not a one-dimensional mental construct. Our brains have more than one talent, but what are they? Unfortunately for everyone, employers are mistakenly trying to find the rare “top talent,” rather than find people with just the right “set of natural talents and traits,” plural, to perform specific activities.

Anecdotally, our everyday life experiences confirm that there are different kinds of natural talents. Certain things just come easier to each of us, often with very little practice. Keep in mind that becoming masterful requires deliberately practicing our natural talents, as we’ll as support from mentors. When our biological self is the basis of our endeavors, our personal motivation (grit) and commitment to stick to something for many hours a day (for many years) feels organic. Hard work feels more like play, it doesn’t feel like drudgery. 

I think the zeal to debunk the myth of innate genius is well intended but is missing the real point—most people don’t want to become geniuses, rather, they want to know what their unique abilities are so they can enjoy what they do everyday. If you don’t like what you do, you won’t stick with it long enough to master it. Natural talents are stealthy, but their whispers are not hard to hear if you’re listening and observing carefully. 

Michael Jordan’s exceptional talent on the court was a result of very hard work for many years, he wasn’t born as Air Jordan. Mastery is something you develop; you’re not shot out of the womb a ready-made maestro. But, he was definitely endowed with just the right mix of physical and mental abilities for basketball. Some of you may know that he gave major league baseball a try, he was only average at it. 

If you came up through the U.S. educational and college system, you were indoctrinated by the nurture camp, and that’s why most people don’t know that they have a set of natural talents. Unlike sporting talents, we can’t see how our brains are wired up. So, most of us think of ourselves along a single dimension of “smart”– to “average” — to “not so smart.” That is, we think of our brain’s intelligence sound-mixing board with just one knob on it.

Interestingly, many highly educated people start to question this around 30-something, mainly because they’re in painful career situation. The alarm goes off after they’ve earned more than one degree in a field that isn’t panning out. My career change practice is filled with young lawyers from top colleges that aren’t cut out for the legal field, but they don’t know why. Many recall their career choice logic, they picked a field on the short of career paths that “smart people are supposed to do.”  

a well-balanced square peg

Part of this problem stems from a cultural ideal, many parents are nudging their kids to be “well-balanced” and push them to excel at all the appropriate, trendy activities required to look good for an Ivy League resume. They are hoping to grow or nurture a genius, or least a success story. I see the results of ultra-nurturing, they are recent college grads who are well-groomed and well-rounded, but don’t know who they are or what they’re best at. They’re trained to be excellent at stuff they don’t give a sh#t about.

I’m in the nature and nurture camp, and follow the work of cognitive ability researchers who define talents as distinct or individual aptitudes. In this view, our brains are wired up with multiple natural talents. For example, imagine the brain’s intelligence sound-mixing board has 16 talent channels, each set at a different level. In this understanding, the word “talent” is defined as one of several aptitudes or innate potentials. Each of us come with a brain that is wired up with stock set of many cognitive aptitudes, for example, empathy, tonal memory, spatial reasoning, inductive reasoning, and analytical reasoning to name a few. Typically, people score high in a some aptitudes, moderate in some and low in others. In this paradigm, your combination of talents is what makes you naturally good at certain activities.

Figuring out what we’re best at sometimes happens by trying different things, but most of us don’t know how to decipher the subtle whispers of our natural talents. Our unique pattern of talents form of a cognitive profile. Depending on your pattern, you will find that certain activities come naturally to you, while other things feel like a struggle or just aren’t that fascinating to you.

For example, people who show a proclivity for mastering a musical instrument have strengths in several aptitudes and traits: introversion, tonal memory, pitch discrimination, rhythm memory, manual speed and accuracy, visual dexterity, feeling, and spatial reasoning. This set of abilities work in unison, and if you’re high in all them, playing a musical instrument comes very naturally, and this lends to the ease of learning how to play from the get go, which then motivates you to want to keep playing and practicing.

Some people who are born without these strengths will still enjoy playing an instrument, but even with lots of practice they’re starting from a deficit. You see this on today’s soccer fields for kids, it’s obvious which ones are the naturals. If your kid isn’t, all the push in the world won’t ignite them. The inner motivation has to come from them. Kids know when they’re not good at something. Still, we send our kids to the best schools hoping this will turn them into great people. We may not realize it, but we’re treating them like blank slates. It’s not until they graduate from college that most kids realize that they’re not a tabla rasa, but they don’t have a precise way of naming just what they are.  

As a culture we still haven’t admitted that strengths and weaknesses are relatively constant throughout life. I’ve met mid-career mechanical engineers who tested low in spatial reasoning, even after 20 years of practicing this ability in a 3-D field. Although you can improve a weaknesses to a small degree, it’s smarter to work very hard at improving your strengths. The trick is to choose a livelihood that sets the stage to constantly practice and build on your strengths, as well as downplay your weaknesses. As it goes now, Gallup research finds that more than two-thirds of professionals are trying to pursue “success” by improving their weaknesses. Again, this is because we’re probably the only biological creature that’s able to ignore our innate talents in pursuit of what our social circles or tribes declare as more prestigious. This aspect of the human condition is ironic, our “hive mind” or tribal nature, one of the most profound social intelligences in the animal kingdom (a species typical trait that endows us with an intrinsic pull to be loyal to our tribes and follow social norms) seems to be hoodwinking us (as individuals) to ignore the whispers of our other biological talents.  

The truth about nature and nurture is somewhere in between the two extremes.

Many everyday people who excel and do well are tapping into the momentum of their natural abilities and working steadily to develop these strengths over the long haul. Knowing their weaknesses helps them rule out dead ends. This helps them shrink the vast world of choices down, so they can concentrate on the slice of the career pie that suits what they do best. Their benchmark is rarely to become genius or national success story, but to get up in the morning with enthusiasm and to excel at what they do. A hand full in this club are more determined, they will push much harder and engage in deliberate practice with laser focus, and with a little luck and the right circumstances they’ll become extraordinary. To the untrained eye, they’ll appear to be geniuses. Deep down, though, they’re just being what they are, just like my Chessie. As Michelangelo put it, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.”

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