Why do others seem more talented than we are?
Is talent innate? Is it just practice? Or is there something else.
Incredibly the key to talent is in the way you define talent. Change the definition and you see it in a whole new light.
In Part 1 of this episode on talent, you'll see how mere definitions change the way you see the world of talent (and how it can get you talented faster than before).
In this episode Sean talks about
Part 1: Our battle with talented people.
Part 2: Is talent a reduction of errors?
Part 3: What has “Austin’s Butterfly” got to do with talent.
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Re-release: The Talent Journey and How to Get There
Original: Rapid Talent (How To Get There and What Holds Us Back).
7 miles per second
That’s what it takes for a spacecraft to break out of Earth’s orbit. Breaking free of the gravity of Earth and heading into space requires “Escape Velocity” and is easily one of the biggest challenges of space travel. The spacecraft needs an enormous amount of fuel to break free of Earth’s gravity. And yet, that very fuel adds to the weight of the rocket. The more fuel you have, the more thrust you achieve, but the fuel also adds to the weight of the rocket.
It’s almost a maddening Catch 22 situation that scientists have been trying to solve for ages.
And it also drives us crazy when we look around us and see people who are clearly more talented than us
We had this problem in school. Some kids were brilliant at writing and others that excelled in maths.
As we grew up, we noticed people who sang better, danced better, are better artists, speakers, pick up languages faster than we could ever imagine.
And then we brush it off
We believe we were born with certain skills and it’s best to use them to our fullest capacity. The gravity of our situation holds us back.
That's not the way scientists look at gravity. For them, gravity is a challenge. Achieving “escape velocity” is simply a matter of breaking through what holds us back.
It’s always about how to go at 7 miles per second in the most efficient manner possible.
What you’re about to read is my battle with talent.
You may already know of some of my skills. Writing, drawing, teaching, painting, cooking—that’s what you might have seen. You may not know that I’m also an excellent babysitter, dance exceedingly well, learn programs at very high speed and know more than six languages.
And the reason I’m stating all of this isn’t to impress you. In fact, it’s the reason why I started studying the science of acquiring talent back around the year 2008. I’d be sitting at the cafe, and someone would come up to me and tell me how I was “talented” at drawing. I’d be on the dance floor, and I’d get a compliment about how well I danced.
Compliments are amazing. They were my Jamba Juice.
They spurred me on to get a lot better. But they also drove me crazy. It almost seemed like people were suggesting I was born with the skill. And so I started on an uphill climb. To prove that innate talent may not exist. In reality, I don’t care whether it exists at all. But it wasn’t easy to say it out aloud because the very concept of acquiring talent seems improbable. “Not everyone can be Michael Phelps,” they tell me. Not everyone can be Albert Einstein.
The funny thing is I love pushback
I love it that people kept putting objections in my way because somehow I had to prove beyond any doubt that talent could be acquired. What made the challenge even more interesting was the concept of 10,000 hours. I was determined to prove that you have didn’t need anything remotely close to 10,000 hours to acquire a very high level of skill.
But you don’t have to believe me—well, not right away.
All I’m asking you to do is listen to three definitions of talent. And then I’ll have made that little dent in your universe. Or at least that’s the theory. So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of talent and see why mere definitions can make you see the world the way I see it.
It might even make you a better dancer.
Are you ready? Let’s go, then.
Definition No.1: A reduction of errors.
No matter where you look, you find people who have talents in one area or another—except one.
Not one person has innate talent when it comes to riding a bicycle.
Definition No.1: A reduction of errors.When you see parents trying to teach kids to ride, they run wildly behind the kid, shouting out instructions that fall on deaf ears. After all the kid is trying desperately to pedal, steer and not go kaboom into the tree. So no one teaches you to ride a bike, and no one (at least no one I know) was born with the ability to ride a bicycle.
Assuming you can ride a bicycle, that leaves us with only one conclusion
Bike riding has x. no of errors you can make. Errors that involve steering, pedalling, balancing, etc. And slowly but surely, you started eliminating those errors one by one. The more errors you reduced, the less crashed into trees. Eventually, as you ironed out most of the mistakes, you were able to sail away down the road, chattering with your friends.
When you begin to learn a new skill, you make an enormous number of errors. Like a student driver who’s learning to drive a stick-shift, you lurch back and forth, trying to master the skill. Since your brain has no reference point of the errors, it’s unable to cope, and you continue to find the learning extremely tedious. If you were to ask someone how to learn to drive a car or a bicycle for that matter, they tend to answer in a single word: practice.
Yet, practice is not the answer
Even deliberate practice is not the answer. Instead, what’s needed is an understanding of errors. When the brain consciously or sub-consciously knows what errors it’s making, it prompts us to take corrective action.
Take for example the act of dealing with a hot pan. There’s only one kind of error that’s possible with a hot pan. And yet a two-year-old child may not realise that glaring error and head right for the pan. But once we’re aware of the mistake, we take scrupulous care to avoid hot pans. We also avoid stepping in dog poo, potholes, and closed doors.
The trick to learning, or talent, isn’t just in practice or deliberate practice. Instead, it’s about understanding the errors. Once you understand the errors, you are closer to fixing them. Once you’ve reduced or eliminated the errors, you effectively are talented.
An excellent example of error fixing is the website building software called Dreamweaver
If you were to open up Dreamweaver today, you’d find the option of viewing a website in two different modes. You could see the website in HTML on the left-hand pane, while simultaneously seeing the graphical view of your site on the right. Even if you were completely oblivious about HTML code, all you’d need to do is open up a perfectly good looking website in Dreamweaver.
Then head into the HTML pane, and make a single change. You’d immediately see the change reflected on the right-hand side. Immediately your brain would go into “hot pan” mode, recognising the error. You may run into hot pans in the future, but at least you know better because you've learned from your mistake.
Many of us believe that talent is either inborn or acquired by practice
Instead, it’s acquired by a reduction of errors. Everything you do today had a huge error rate at one point in your life. Addition, subtraction, spelling and grammar were all riddled with errors. Some people you may know make mistakes such as spelling. They spell “you’re” as “your” or “pique” as “peak.”
When you see these mistakes, you experiencing a situation where the person has not learned to spot and correct the error. You can’t fix a mistake unless you know you’re making one in the first place.
Take for instance my niece, Marsha
When Marsha was just three years old she came to visit us in New Zealand for the first time. At the time, her speech was a bit garbled, like most three-year-olds. Even so, one of the letters that foxed her was the letter “r.”
Wherever “r” was prominent, she’d substitute it with a “y.” So “road” became “yoad,” and “room” became “yoom.” And of course, we only ever “yolled in the gyass” (that’s “rolled in the grass”). If you tried to point out that she was pronouncing “r” as “y,” she would look at you with puzzlement. In her brain “r” sounded like “y.”
Then one day I decided to speak exactly like her.
I didn’t say “road,” I said “yoad.”
I didn’t say “grass,” I said “gyass.”
Marsha didn’t say anything, or if she did, she probably said it in her garbled method. But within two days, she was pronouncing the “r” perfectly. Her brain, it seems, was able to detect the error when the word was said incorrectly. And within days, and without any training, she was able to fix the problem.
This isn’t to say that all learning is made through trial and error
The brain is a pattern-recognition system and will learn efficiently enough by just copying patterns. It's why we learn to speak a language, then adopt the accent of a parent and then change our accents depending on where we go to school.
A good chunk of learning is purely pattern recognition. What holds us back from learning a skill like dancing, cooking or drawing, isn’t pattern recognition, but knowing what we’re doing wrong.
There’s a video online called “Austin’s Butterfly.”
It shows a group of very young children appraising the work of one of their classmates. Austin, who’s probably in first grade, and has just drawn a butterfly. There’s only one problem. The Tiger Swallowtail butterfly looks amateurish, and the kids know it. At that tender age, they’re not about to let Austin get away with such a terrible piece of art.
Then something quite unusual happens.
The teacher takes over and asks the kids to give feedback
One by one they pipe up with their critiques, so that Austin can take a crack at the second draft. They point to the angles, the wings, making the wings of the butterfly more pointy. They go on, and on, and the illustration improves with every draft.
Six drafts later, the butterfly looks like something you’d find in a science book. The finished butterfly is so stunning that anyone—you, me, anyone—would be proud to call the illustration our own.
What’s at work is simply a reduction of errors
This article isn’t about becoming Michael Phelps or Muhammad Ali. We’re all tempted to diverge into why we’re not winning gold medals by the dozen at the Olympics. And yet, even at that level of super-heroes, there’s only one gold medal winner.
Why is this so? In the Olympic pool, Phelps is often only one-hundredth of a second faster than his rival. That’s hardly an advantage. The only difference is that Phelps is committing fewer errors. And just for the record, Phelps too was beaten by a much shorter, stockier swimmer from Singapore. On that particular day, in that particular race in the Rio Olympic Games, Joseph Schooling made fewer errors.
Talent is merely a reduction of errors.
When you reduce the errors, you get talented.
But that’s only the first definition.
But what of those who seem innately talented?
They do things that we could never hope to do. In the next section, we look at the second definition of talent. Where talent is just pattern-recognition at high speed.
(Additional rocket launch audio recordings used in this episode are courtesy of NASA (https://www.nasa.gov/))