How do we get talented?
Part 2 of “How To Get Talented” is a bit of a shocker.
You realise that talent is only the stuff you can't do. If everyone can do what you can, then it's not really a talent.
Ok, so that's the spoiler, but listen or read anyway.
In this episode Sean talks about
Part 1: Pattern recognition and energy
Part 2: How can you achieve a ton of talents
Part 3: Is all talent inborn?
Definition No.2: Talent is merely high speed pattern recognition.
What is 11 x 13?
What is 11 x 27?
Yes, it’s 297.
And just for good measure, what’s 11 x 45?
If you said 495 in a flash, you’d have the right answer.
However, the chances are you were slightly flummoxed by the questions
You could clearly see that we were dealing with the 11 times table, but it made no sense whatsoever when you had to multiply these random two digit numbers with 11. And yet a 10-year-old could do it quite quickly. I know this to be true because I teach willing 10-year-olds this simple maths trick.
Let’s start at the top, okay?
First, let’s look at the numbers. What’s 2 + 7? OK, so take that 9 and stick in the centre, of the 2 and 7. What number do you get? Sure it’s 2-9-7. Now, what’s 11 x 27? It’s 2-9-7.
Confused? My brain took a little time to work out the system as well
So let’s take a simpler example where you already know the answer. What’s 11 x 12? It’s 132, right? So what we did was take the 1 + 2, and we got 3. We stuck that number 3 in between the 1 and the 2. And we got 1-3-2.
Okay, so what’s 11 x 44?
4 + 4 = 8. So that’s 484.
What’s 11 x 33?
3 + 3 = 6. So it’s 363.
Once you have the pattern, you can pretty much multiply any two digit number by 11 and get an answer in seconds
And what you’ve done is acquire a talent. An witty-bitty talent, but a talent nonetheless. And the way we’ve gone about it is to isolate the pattern and then roll it out slowly. At this point, your brain can figure out the pattern no matter what two digit number you multiply with 11.
A similar concept applies to just about any skill
Take drawing for example. Many, if not most of us, say we draw like a six-year-old. And you know what? You’re right. You draw like a six-year-old because you stopped drawing when you were six. You can walk into any school on the planet, and you’ll find that kids love drawing.
Give them a set of crayons, chalk, even a piece of coal, and they’ll be drawing endlessly. But ask them to do maths or grammar, and they look at you like you’re a banana.
However, that kid gets a packed lunch and is sent off to school. The years whizz by and those kids are 10. Ask them about grammar, or multiplication tables, and they can give you pretty solid answers. But ask them to draw and notice what happens. They draw like six-year-olds.
Talent is about pattern recognition
Those kids were given patterns that involved algebra and grammar, and so they picked up on those patterns. Music? Arts? Clay modeling? All the stuff they did right at the start? Well, that’s for babies, isn’t it? And this is how we go about life. We learn or are given patterns, and we dump the others. Or at least put them in cold storage. Some patterns are crucial, so we keep refining them.
Take eating with a spoon, for instance.
When you were a year old, trying to get a spoon full of mashed potato from the plate to your mouth was a major issue. Given a chance to “do your own thing” the potato mash would be partly on your face, on the ground and the dining room floor would look like a potato war zone.
Now you’re able to use a fork, knife and conduct a conversation while trying to look up Facebook on your phone—and all at the same time. Somewhere along the way, pattern recognition kicked in. What seems like a mundane task of eating a potato was once horribly complicated. But given enough time and pattern recognition, you’re now a pro at potato eating.
And that’s because all of this pattern recognition is costly in terms of energy
Think of it as a mansion with lights. When you’re first learning something new, you have to turn on every light in the house. It takes enormous energy just to do the simplest task. Over time the brain figures out the pattern. Instead of every light, it turns on half, then quarter of the lights. Finally, it probably needs almost negligible energy to do a task you’re familiar with.
Take for example the task of walking. You were utterly hopeless at walking when you first started, right? You don’t think much of it now, do this small task for me. Stand up and walk across the room, and say “left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, balance, balance, balance.”
You’ll make it across the room, but your brain is using up so much energy that it instantly rebels. And it does so because it’s already worked out the pattern. It needs almost no power to get you to walk across that room.
All the skills you struggle with are a matter of pattern recognition and pattern execution
When you see someone giving an excellent presentation, you wonder how they become such great speakers. And yet, you’re not looking at their feet, are you? If you look at the feet of excellent speakers, they’re not randomly moving around the stage. They’re purposely moving in a triangular shape from one end to the other. When they get to one edge of the triangle, they stop. They scan the audience from one end to the other, thus making eye contact.
So without saying a word, a speaker would have to learn how to walk, how to stop, how to make the sweeping eye contact—all elements of pattern
recognition. When you look at the speech, it’s a series of items that include the graphics and content on the slides, the structure of the presentation, great stories and examples, and yes, crowd control. If you thought, “hey,
I’ll never be as good a speaker as that guy up on stage”, you’re right. You’re right because there are dozens of elements that the brain has to recognise and then implement. Just the walking across the stage might take you a few weeks to master, let alone everything else.
But what about those who can pick up patterns instantly?
All of us, without exception, pick up patterns very quickly. We do have biases of picking up patterns. Some of us may find reading to be more fruitful than audio, while others may love audio. Some may prefer video and others detest video.
Picking up of a pattern relies strongly on the bias, but also on the way the pattern is laid out. A good teacher can get a student to pick up patterns a lot faster than a mediocre teacher that simply doles out information.
Even so, some of us recognise patterns faster than others
Stephen Wiltshire is a pretty good example of instant pattern recognition. Wiltshire is an autistic British architectural artist. He’s gained fame as he’s able to draw an entire city after just seeing in once. In video after video on YouTube, Stephen draws New York, Rome, London and Singapore after just a single helicopter ride.
His work is so precise that he matches every window, pillar, and doorway. And this is the kind of pattern recognition that most of us refer to when we talk about talent. We can’t just waltz into a room, pick up a violin and play complex music.
We feel that only talented people can do this. Yet, there’s a downside to being able to do very complex activities almost instantly. Wiltshire, for instance, struggles with everyday activities: like boarding a train or having a long conversation with people.
The reality is that we “average” people can achieve a ton of talent in various fields
We consider ourselves to be pretty average, but with the right teacher, the right methods and the right group, we can achieve extraordinary levels of talent in diverse fields. There’s no instant hit for us, of course, but we can achieve all of the talents we need and still do everyday activities with ease. The moment the talent or skill is broken down into isolated pockets of learning, we can quickly pick up the talent and become exceedingly good at a skill.
Talent is just pattern recognition and pattern execution at high speed
And you know it’s a pattern because you can see the works of art. You know a Picasso is a Picasso because Picasso had a style. And what is style? Yup, it’s just science sped up.
Picasso may not have been able to explain how his brush work ended up as a piece of art, but the very fact that we recognise it means he used a system, a style that was his own. For a forger to replicate a Picasso, all he needs is the blueprint of the pattern and we’d be duped into buying a very expensive piece of junk.
It’s easy to believe that all talent is inborn
Yet, almost everything we do today is a learned behaviour. Our languages, the ability to write, speak, walk, dance, cook—they’re all a style; a pattern. And while no doubt there’s something, some hardware we’re born with, the vast majority of what we do is all learned through pattern recognition and execution.
Which brings us back to 11 x 22
Yes, the answer is 242.
But what about 11 x 29?
You carry over the digit because it adds up to 11. So it’s 3-1-9.
And one more. What is 11 x 99?
Hah, you’ll have to remember that by heart: It’s 1089.
See, it’s a pattern. Find a great teacher, who has a good system and a group, and you’ll magically become talented. No doubt practice will be involved, but it’s far less practice than you’d imagine. And the results will be far superior to just plodding around on your own.
So we’ve finished two definitions of talent.
– Talent is a reduction of errors
– Talent is a pattern recognition system.
Let’s go to the third part, which will stop you in your tracks a bit. Let’s explore talent from quite another angle: something you can’t do.
Definition No.3: It’s only stuff you can’t do.
Imagine I told you I was really talented at washing dishes.
Okay, how about sharpening pencils, would you consider that a talent?
And yet when I say: I’m magnificent at cooking or superb at drawing cartoons, you’re instantly interested, aren’t you?
In effect, talent is only something you and I can’t do.
If you can wash dishes and I can wash dishes, it’s not a talent.
The moment you can do complex maths equations and I can’t, hey, now you’re talented.
Look around you and see what you consider to be talented people
They’re just people who are doing things you can’t do. They know how to write programs, or can sing well, or dance well. And you can’t do it, so it’s suddenly a talent. I grew up in Mumbai, and when we were out on the street, we’d have kids speaking different languages.
I learned about six languages without trying too hard. While I’m not fluent in all those six, I can understand and be understood.
If you showed up from a country where the only language of instruction is English, you’d think I was excellent at learning languages. However, on the streets of Mumbai, almost any kid would know more than two-three languages.
It’s the same in Europe as well. You’ll find most Europeans on the mainland are fluent in two or three languages. And they don’t think it’s something wonderful. They don’t see it as a unique talent.
Now put yourself on the starting blocks of any Olympic sport
And almost immediately you see how the competitors consider themselves. They don’t see this vast gulf of talent. Sure, one athlete may hog most of the medals, but it’s not like that athlete is way ahead of the others. They’re just marginally faster, often by a few hundredth of a second. And so are you, by the way. You write slightly better than the next person. Or slightly worse, as the case may be.
But there’s one more pretty insidious point we have to cover
Let’s say one person can write, draw, cook, dance, sing, take pictures, garden, and ski very well. And let’s say you can’t do any of the above. It seems like you chose the short straw in life, right? That when you were born, somehow you got deprived of all but the most mundane of skills.
That somehow the other person can excel in half a dozen competencies, and still continues to “discover” more talents along the way. Surely not one of us is so deprived while another person has such a vast number of abilities.
There’s no doubt that we all have different brains, but to have such a high inequality of talents seems utterly bizarre. ”Even so, we’ve come to believe this untruth. Which is where I need to take you down a slight detour of why I feel so passionate about this talent discussion.
Back in 2008, I started up a blog on this topic of talent
I had to write things down because the more I discussed this issue of talent, the more people brought up objections. And it’s not like they’d stick to a single point either.
I’d find the topic would bounce wildly from Michael Phelps, to genetics and everything in between. But it wasn’t enough to write a blog. And so I decided to do something that would prove without a doubt that talent can be acquired in an incredibly short period.
The challenge was simple enough
If you walk into a cafe and ask: Who’s a writer? Who’s a singer? Who’s a dancer? You’ll get some response. If you were to ask “Who’s a cartoonist?” the place goes quiet.
So we decided to start up the cartooning course. It wasn’t about picking people who could draw. Instead, it was quite the opposite. The challenge was to turn everyone into a cartoonist. Notice I didn’t say, “anyone.” I said, “everyone.”
There would be no failure
Every single person in that cafe would become cartoonists if they joined the course. But of course, I had my “cafe” at 5000bc. And so I offered the course free of charge. Today that course costs over $1000, but back then I wanted to prove that this crazy goal was possible. And if you look at the work that comes out of the cartooning course, you will frankly, be stunned.
The same concept needed to be applied to article writing or headlines or copywriting. It wasn’t just about getting one person or two people to be very talented. I wanted to make the training like I got on the streets of Mumbai. Everyone was able to speak “languages.” Everyone had the talent.
It’s incredibly hard to believe that talent isn’t inborn
We somehow like to believe we’re special, but for the most part, talent is just a reduction of errors. If you find the errors, you can fix them. The fewer errors you make, the better you are at completing a task. Fewer errors result in greater efficiency.
Instead of the job just being another mundane task, you’re now able to push your limits. So when I took two days to write an article, I had no energy to do much else. Now I can write over 4000 words in a morning, and I still have the energy to find some great stories and make the article come alive in a way I could never do before.
All those errors I used to make back in the year 2000, well, I don’t make many of them anymore. And so hey, I’m a writer. That’s the first point: talent is a reduction of errors.
The second point is simply one of understanding how your brain works
It’s all about pattern recognition. You probably couldn’t multiply 11 x 24 before today, but now you can. And maybe you can’t write a sales page without banging your head against a wall, but given the pattern, you will.
Any skill can be broken down into smaller bits, and you can recreate the pattern. Will that make you Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt? No, it won’t. There are a lot of other reasons that we’re not covering right now.
Instead of bringing up objections about why you can’t do something, go out there and find the teacher, find the system, find the group. And understand it’s a matter of recognising the pattern and then executing it.
Yes, you can cook food as well as any other accomplished chef. You can draw just as well as anyone. And you can make an outstanding presentation. All the limits lie in not understanding the pattern.
Finally, the last definition of talent is a closer look at ourselves in the mirror. How come we got passed up when the next guy got not one but a dozen talents? And how come we consider those gifts to be talents only because we can’t do it. It’s time to ask yourself these hard questions.
The concept of inborn talent is a prison.
If you believe in innate talent, that’s it; you're done. You can’t learn any more. You’re stuck forever. Or you can start searching for a teacher, system, and group. And explore a world like never before.
Oh, and yes, I am really talented at washing dishes!