Month: January 2011

Stealing Talent: A Pickpocket’s Guide

Of all the strange and surprising patterns of talent distribution, few are stranger or more surprising than the phenomenon called the Michael Jackson Law. This is the rule that the most talented performer in a family musical group will be among the youngest children.


  • The most talented Bee-Gee? Andy, the youngest.
  • The most talented Jonas brother? Nick, the youngest.
  • The most talented Hanson brother? Zac, the youngest.
  • The most talented Andrews Sister? Patty, the youngest.

The pattern isn’t exactly new. Mozart and JS Bach were also the babies of their families.

The question is, why? Why are the Tito Jacksons and Nannerl Mozarts of the world fated for obscurity?  Is it simply a coincidence? Or is there something deeper going on?

There’s plenty of interesting research on birth-order that seeks to explain these kinds of patterns. Most of it focuses on intra-family dynamics and unconscious motivational power of role models — and it’s fascinating stuff, no question. But I think it overlooks something more basic and, for us, more useful.

I think the younger kids are more talented because they have more opportunity to steal. That is, to spend lots of hours intensely watching their siblings, borrowing what works, and discarding what doesn’t. To use their siblings as a test kitchen for developing their own circuitry.

As a skill-building method, theft is historically underrated. While Picasso was a big proponent (as he put it, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal”), modern culture tends to take the Puritan view that it’s more virtuous to figure things out for yourself.

While I find this view admirable, I do not find it shared by many top performers I’ve encountered. In fact, the opposite. Most top performers tend to be incorrigible thieves, relentlessly on the prowl for new ideas, methods, and techniques. You might even say that stealing is their greatest talent.

Good examples of this include Bob Dylan (who never met a poet he couldn’t rip a lyric from), John Wooden (who spent each offseason intensively stealing ideas along a single topic — such as free-throw shooting), and the Green Berets of the 5th Special Forces Group, who recently started a program that sends their soldiers into the boardrooms of General Electric, in order to crib ideas they might employ on the battlefield.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas — stolen, naturally — that the rest of us might use.  The idea behind them is to recreate the same daily environment that Michael Jackson, Andy Gibb, and Nick Jonas profited from: a habit of constantly eyeing a group of performers, and seeking to pickpocket something shiny and useful.

  • 1. The YouTube Method: Spend 5 daily minutes watching a great performer. Reading an instruction book is fine — but actually watching a Ben Hogan golf swing or a Don Draper sales pitch — then watching it again — takes full advantage of our brain’s innate ability to learn by mimicry.
  • 2. Buy a notebook and try to steal one good idea each day. Write it down so you can keep track of what works and what doesn’t.
  • 3. Cast your net widely.  Find parallel worlds that employ the same skills you are seeking to learn. Aspiring rock guitarists can learn from by watching Yo-Yo Ma’s fingerwork.  Aspiring soccer players can learn by watching Roger Federer’s balance and footwork. Aspiring writers can learn by dissecting song lyrics.
  • 4. Ask. If you’re in a position to make a connection and ask someone about their methods and techniques, there’s never been an easier time to do it. People love to talk about their talents.

Have You Had Your Vitamin S Today?

When was the last time you were completely, utterly alone?

When you map the lives of talented people, some strange and surprising patterns emerge. One pattern I’ve noticed lately has to do with their general level of social connectivity; that is, do they tend to spend a lot of time alone, or do they prefer to be surrounded by people? Are they solitary geniuses working away in a candle-lit apartment? Or are they glittering comets flying across the social galaxy, constantly bouncing into new people and ideas?

Here’s the surprising part: many talented people seem to be both. Their lives contain a paradoxical structure, alternating between periods of utter solitude and periods of robust connectivity.

Mozart is a nice example, his life oscillating from the carnival of Vienna society to the isolation-tank of his workroom. As he said, “When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer–say, traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep–it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

Pablo Picasso, who was no shrinking violet when it came to connecting, took a similar approach: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”

In our world solitude is a lost art. Solitude is widely regarded as a quasi-depressing situation (what, you’ve got no friends?). Connectivity, on the other hand, is regarded as an almost saintly condition — an  indispensable framework for creativity, and genius. Connection definitely has its merits — as Steven Johnson and others have vividly showed, connections matter hugely for the sharing of ideas and innovation.

But as the lives of Mozart, Picasso, and others show, connectivity is only half of the talent-building equation. The other half is found inside the mystery of the candle-lit studio, in solitude and isolation. And  here’s where we find the modern problem, because solitude is an increasingly scarce resource.

In fact, solitude is so scarce that we have come to regard it as a luxury — something to be found on vacation, or as an unexpected oasis amid the endlessly unfurling savanna of a busy life.  When we get it, we’re surprised and gratified, but the truth is, most of us don’t entirely know what to do with it.

This is especially true when it comes to kids. (If you’re a parent, do a quick calculation: how much total isolation — when you were in their own space, completely alone — did you have on a typical Saturday in your childhood? How much does your kid have this Saturday?)

The problem, I think, is not that we undervalue solitude. The problem is that we are thinking about solitude in the wrong way. Because solitude is not a luxury to be enjoyed on rare occasions. It’s far closer to a vitamin — something essential that our brains and bodies require to thrive. Think of it as Vitamin S. It’s a daily supplement that centers our identities and our desires, that grants us the space to experiment, to make mistakes and correct them, to get obsessed solving the endless series of tiny, fascinating problems that form the foundation of any achievement.

If we want to increase our daily allotment of Vitamin S, we first need to make clear what solitude really is. Because it’s not mere peacefulness, not mere unplugging, not mere escape. It’s an escape into something bigger — it’s when, as Mozart said, we are in the state of being “completely myself, entirely alone.”

Real solitude seems to share three basic qualities:

  • 1) It’s gotta be reliable — which means there have to be real, impermeable barriers that you alone control. It’s not really solitude if someone can interrupt it on a whim.
  • 2) It’s gotta last. It’s not solitude if it’s only a few minutes.
  • 3) It’s gotta be repeatable.  Productive solitude is about developing a routine — a kind of workspace for action — which is tough if the platform is constantly shifting.

If you want to go deeper on Vitamin S, check out this brilliant essay, Solitude and Leadership, by William Deresiewicz. Or see this fine website on creativity and solitude (where you can find the Mozart/Picasso stories, along with lots of other case studies).

The next question is, how do we build more solitude into our lives? Is there perhaps a way to use all this technology to create more solitude? (Is there an app for that?)

Got Passion? The Quiz

What’s life’s single most important question?

There are many perfectly worthy ones — questions about family, relationships, work, love — but when it comes to charting our futures, one question rises above the rest.

What’s your passion?

Yes, it’s a cliche. But it also happens to be irrefutably true. Passion — that primal, unreasoning, uncontrollable enthusiasm that links our identities with a distant goal — forms the emotional foundation for all excellence, no matter who you are.  Science shows that passion functions in our brains like rocket fuel; with it, progress is swift and exhilarating. Without it, progress is slow and tedious.

So the question before us is not whether passion is important. The big question is, how do we know when we’ve got it? Life is a series of crossroads and decisions: how do we choose what path to pursue? How do we tell the difference between our casual enjoyments and our true, lasting passions?

One logical way might be to look at case studies of successful, passionate people — since they located their passion; perhaps we can learn from their process and apply their insights.

Yet when we ask those successful, passionate people how they found their passion, we get a surprising result: most of them have no idea. In fact, the smarter and more successful they are, the dumber they sound when they talk about it.

For example, here’s Warren Buffett on how he discovered his passion for investing.

“From a young age, I always was interested in money, and how to make it.”

And here’s Wayne Gretzky on how he discovered his passion for hockey.

“I liked playing hockey. I’d play all the time.”

Not exactly insightful stuff, is it?

But I don’t think Gretzky and Buffett are being falsely modest or evasive. Rather, I think it’s because they genuinely don’t know. Passion occurs largely in our unconscious mind. It sneaks up on us. It isn’t like an inborn trait so much as it is like a virus — infecting us without us knowing, directing our primal thoughts and emotions, taking over our emotional lives. Asking a successful person how they got passionate is like asking someone how they caught the flu. They don’t know because they can’t know. One day they didn’t have it. The next day — wham! — they do.

What would be useful for most of us, I think, is some kind of passion-detector. Some tool that we can use to know when our fires are being lit; a thermometer that gives the early warning signs of a passion infection

So while we wait for neurologists to build such a device, I’d like to offer the following brief quiz. It’s a completely unscientific list of questions based on my experiences visiting talent hotbeds (where the passion virus tends to be epidemic) as well as ideas cribbed from motivational psychologists like Carol Dweck and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

It works like this: put your potential passion in the place of X. In each paired statement, choose whether you agree more with (A) or (B). (Of course, putting “sex” or “eating chocolate” in place of X will work fine, just as it should.)


A) X gives me a feeling of euphoric happiness

B) X gives me a feeling of euphoric happiness plus a deep fascination. I find myself wanting to look deeper. I want to figure out how it’s done.


A) I think about X a lot.

B) I cannot not think/talk/dream about X. My friends and family think I’m a bit nuts.


A) X provides me with enjoyable payoffs — like recognition and pride.

B) I would do X for free, even if nobody were watching.


A) When I’m doing X, I’m happy and engaged.

B) When I’m doing X, it’s as if I’m in a private world. Time flies.

Scoring: If you answered (A) to most questions, you have a mild case of passion for X. If you answered (B), on the other hand, then you might have a serious passion infection. Choose your path accordingly.

Big thanks to all you readers for your great comments and questions — I appreciate every bit of it. Here’s to a great 2011!