Family Talent

Jeff Nugent, CEO
The Nuge's Brother
The Nuge

A few years back I was eating dinner with Ted Nugent (for this Outside magazine story). The Nuge was on a roll — you know,  shredding on his guitar, raging against The Man — until midway through our venison steaks he lets drop a little family fact. His brother, Jeff, happens to be a successful businessman. In fact, he was CEO of Neutrogena (now CEO of Revlon).

I thought Nugent was pulling my leg. But in fact it turned out to be true.

While it’s relatively common to find siblings who are talented at the same skill (Venus/Serena Williams; the chess-playing Polgar sisters, the skiing Mahre twins, the Jackson/Osmond/Gibb singing dynasties, etc.). It’s quite another — and perhaps worth exploring — how a single family can produce two unique and diverse talents.

Because the Nugents aren’t the only ones who follow this pattern. Consider Irving and Arthur Penn — one a great photographer; the other an Oscar-winning film director. Then there’s William and Henry James (psychologist/philosopher and writer), and more recently brother and sister Maile Meloy (fiction writer) and Colin Meloy (songwriter and lead singer of The Decemberists. On a personal scale, I can think of a handful of familie, including the Putnams, a brother and sister who were my childhood neighbors in Anchorage, who grew up to be a successful filmmaker and a Sports Illustrated writer.

So what accounts for this pattern? To put it more concisely, what makes these remarkable families tick?

I think the first thing to point out is that the talents in question aren’t quite as diverse they first appear. Look closer at the Nuge and you’ll find an incredibly disciplined, calculated, message-conscious, ambitious entrepreneur — perhaps not as unlike his buttoned-down brother as you might suspect. The same deeper connection exists with the James brothers (pioneering thinkers), the Penns (visual artists), and the Meloys (creative types). It’s not like one sibling is an Olympic sprinter and the other an impressionist painter. (Though if anybody knows of an example like that, I’d be curious.)

If we think about talent as a neural circuit requiring practice and motivation, this pattern makes sense. Siblings usually share a common identity that can fuel motivation, especially when there’s some competition. The shared environment helps those talents along exactly as it does in the case of the Williams sisters or the Brontes: they are motivated to deeply practice in that area.

These families also help underline the importance of what we might call meta-skills — the larger qualities that form the foundation for all high performance: qualities like self-control, focus, ability to project toward a goal. As a neurologist might point out, these are also neural circuits; they’re also partly a result of the shared family environment. We could theorize that these families are examples of a kind of hothouse effect, where kids with a shared identity have a tendency to develop meta-skills in certain areas.  Then they diverge, as siblings tend to do, into their own narrower areas of expertise.

That’s kind of what happened in my family. I’ve got an older brother who’s a writer/editor and a younger brother who’s a doctor, and I’m in between — a guy who came very close to going to med school (even took the MCATs) but who ended up writing. We three brothers are different in many ways, but underneath we share the same way of looking at the world, analyzing it to see the underlying patterns, the same work habits — the same meta-skills, you might say, along with obviously much of the same identity.

To be fair, someone else could look at this pattern and see it as evidence for some talent gene that predestined the Nugents, Osmonds, et. al. It’s tempting to see it this way — and in fact Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, along with his modern successors, tried for years to prove that such a gene or gene combination exists. But they haven’t had much luck. Because the fact is, there is no gene for family talent because it simply takes too much deep practice, time, and motivation to build fast, fluent neural circuits.

And besides, if family talent was all about genes, how in the world would we explain Jermaine Jackson?

(I’d like to send special thanks to Bill Forward for bringing this to my attention–and who wisely suggests adding another sibling duo: Rahm and Ari Emanuel.)