The Mystery of Natural Talent (And how to find and cultivate yours)
Have you ever noticed that some people naturally excel in certain activities? Take the beefy jock who deadlifts 200 kilos. The computer programmer who designs new apps on a napkin. The musician who was humming and strumming before he could walk. It appears that some people have a natural inclination toward certain lanes. Let me ask you this. Do you think that the skinny fore-eyed computer programmer would ever achieve a 200 kilo deadlift, if he dropped his computer and dedicated a life to the gym? Likewise, do you think the strong man will ever sing melodies so fine as the human hummingbird? I sense the answer is no.
These caricature examples paint a vivid picture of natural talent and finding one’s lane. Yet for most of us, the process of discovering and cultivating our talent is more subtle.
Where does our talent come from? Is it cultivated in our environment and upbringing, or is it an innate God-given gift? How much choice do we have in the fate of our talent? I urge us to explore these questions for they are both fascinating and practical. The answers may empower us to manage our creative energy effectively, cutting away distraction and finding leverage points for our growth.
Back to the main question: Where does our natural talent come from? Is it cultivated in our environment, or is it a God given gift? I wish to start by Identifying the different types of talent. There are several models we can use to describe the diverse human abilities that exist.
The first one is Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner first outlined this in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, where he suggests that all people have different kinds of "intelligences." He initially proposed eight, and then later added a ninth. They are as mathematical / logical, linguistic, visual/spatial, kinaesthetic, musical, inter-personal, intra-personal, natural, and existential. Most of them are self-explanatory, yet I will describe the latter three as they are more mysterious. Intra-personal intelligence refers to self-awareness and self-knowledge, understanding one’s own feelings, motives, strengths and weaknesses. Natural intelligence is to be in tune with nature, noticing subtleties in the plants and animals, seasons and climates. Existential intelligence is the trans-human domain, asking questions about the nature of reality, the meaning of existence, and what lies beyond death.
If you are like me, there is probably three or four of those abilities you are naturally strong in. When I self-reflect, I was naturally strong in certain areas from an early age. For me, it was linguistic, inter-personal, and intra-personal, with a little math and logic. For you, it may be a different spread. Thankfully I have been able to develop other abilities through consistent work and dedication. Yet when it comes to my natural intelligences, I was always ahead of the game. There is a saying I like: Work on your weaknesses until they become your strength. Work on your strengths until they become your nature.
There is another model for identifying your natural talents and inclinations: The doshas from Ayurvedic medicine. The doshas are three body-types which describe a person’s constitution, focusing on the elements which predominate their body and mind. Your personal proportion of wind, fire, water, and earth will dictate many of your physical and mental traits. Bear in mind that dohas go beyond the physical, also describing mental and energetic characteristics. Let us explore the nature of each dosha. If you already know them, feel free to skip the indented text. Dosha 1: Vata Elements: Wind and Space. Physical traits: Thin, light, fast moving, mobile, subtle, cold, dry, rough. Personality traits: At their best they are fast moving, fast thinking, creative, expressive, and enthusiastic. When out of balance, they are overly sensitive, fragile, anxious, and may suffer from insomnia and weight loss.
Dosha 2: Pitta Elements: Fire and Water. Physical traits: Muscular definition, strong metabolism and digestion, defined features, hot, oily, intense, sharp, penetrating, and acidic. Personality traits: At their best, pitta is energetic, ambitious, and courageous. They have a sharp intellect, with the strong capacity for focus and rational thinking. They are natural leaders, with direct and penetrating energy. When out of balance they can suffer from anger, impatience, over-competitiveness, acidity, and inflammation.
Dosha 3: Kapha Elements: Earth and Water Physical traits: Larger build, solid, stable, slow, heavy, moist, cold, smooth, and oily. Personality traits: At their best, kapha is loving and kind, patient, warm, supportive, and considerate. They are very stable; it is hard to ruffle a Kapha. Physically they have the best stamina of all the doshas. When out of balance they can experience weight gain, excess mucus, depression, dullness, withdrawal, and emotional attachment. The doshas line up with the three body types of ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph. As for the elements, wind is a metaphor for the lighting fast movement of nerve impulses. Therefore, Vata (wind and space) is known for having a more sensitive nervous system. Pitta, the fire element, is a metaphor for ATP, the pure physical energy as it combusts in every cell. Hormones also seem related to Pitta, as they regulate athletic physical performance. Lastly, kapha (earth) is the principle of having more bone, muscle, and fat. It is the element that binds matter.
Considering your dosha can help you discern your natural strengths and tendencies. Perhaps you are very dominant in one dosha or have a mixed dosha. Different doshas tend to have different talents. For example, my theory is that pitta-kapha is the strongest and most robust constitution on the physical level. It is the constitution of the athlete. This is because they have the large frame, yet also have the horse-power of pitta burning under the hood. Likewise, vata-pitta may well be the realm of the writer and intellectual. Vata brings inspiration and speed of thought, while pitta grounds it with focus and determination. When you know your dosha qualities, you accept yourself for the natural strengths and weaknesses you may have. It is a large topic, so give yourself time to explore it.
So far, I have spoken to the natural, innate capacities of human beings. Now that nature has been accounted for, what is the nurturing process? What are the methods for cultivating supreme talent? There are several authors who have spoken to this subject. Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, Jamie Wheel and Steven Kotler’s Stealing Fire, and Mihay Csikzentmihai’s classical book Flow are all great resources. These men studied some of the highest performing and happiest people across various fields, and they discovered a few things about peak performance.
One key method is deep focus. This is to practice the skill with zero distraction and 100% attention. Also important is pushing the edge; Training not too hard and not too light, going just beyond your comfort zone to maximize engagement. Another key ingredient is consistency. Daniel Coyle suggests training a little every day, as this keeps the neural networks and myelin sheaths well insulated. Keep the consistency cooking for years and that’s a great recipe. Coyle also mentions the idea of hard skills and soft skills. A hard skill would include a single martial arts strike or musical scale. A soft skill would include sparring with someone or playing a musical jam. With hard skills you are like a builder, constructing the blueprint of a perfect technique. With soft skills you are like a skateboarder in a half pipe, practicing your intuitive and responsive ability. Utilizing an expert coach is the final key to developing your potential of a given skill.
Talent is a blend of natural ability and commitment. It would be a back-handed compliment to point to a high achiever and say that they are just naturally talented. You would be denying and ignoring the hard work it took them to get there. Yet not everyone can achieve every goal equally just by putting in the same work. We all have different set points. To reach the top, you need to line up your hard work with your natural ability.
I still believe we should expand in every direction, growing in our stronger and weaker areas simultaneously. Yet it would be an error to pour all your best energy into your natural weaknesses, achieving a level which is good but not great. Because at the same time you will be neglecting your strengths, thus remaining at a level which is good but not great. You essentially end up in no man’s land, mediocracy. The best approach is to pour your best energy into your natural strengths. Then you can go from good to great. You can achieve the cutting edge. When you reach mastery in One thing, it becomes a leverage point for ample opportunity. Everything else becomes easier or unnecessary, as Gary W. Keller says. Sure, become sufficient in all areas of life. Yet focus on your mastery. It is how you will impact this world.