Friday, July 29, 2016

Be your own headhunter or how talent is found

When I finished high school, I had no idea what the next step would be. Shall I study math? It was an obvious choice, I had won some competitions. Or shall I become a rabbi?
It was a somewhat provocative reaction to the pressure from my parents to seek higher education, but I was drawn to its spirituality too, not to mention I was looking for my roots. I had four or five serious ideas if I don't count the half-baked ones, like follow the traces of the main character of my favorite novel, The Tin Drum, and learn to become a monumental mason. I was really clueless, finding the right job or education was not easier than finding the right girl to date, but that's another story.
It was a rainy day when ended up in the career counselor's office. I was given a bunch of tests to fill out to measure the different aspects of my personality, from intelligence to introversion. They added some gadgets to the mix to learn about my eye-hand coordination, monotony tolerance, and other arcane properties of my psyche. I spent a few hours excavating hidden corners of my mental and emotional landscape, then I had a long break while the counselor processed the test results. I had high expectations when I finally entered his office, now I would hear the voice of authority, I would have THE answer.

The counselor wore a white robe that made him look more professional, his desk covered with my test results. After a little warm-up chat he started to convey the message, I was all ears. "You definitely have good analytical skills, you could pursue some sort of scientific career." I nodded. "At the same time, you seem to have a desire to express yourself in an artistic way." I nodded again a bit impatiently. No stunning news so far, I knew the bits, I just couldn't assemble the pieces. "You are also deeply interested in the philosophical aspects of things. My suggestions is, and this is only a suggestion, the decision is yours, of course..." I was sitting on the edge of the seat. "that you go to some university."

That was it. Test results processed, final wisdom emitted. I tried to ask clarifying questions. He was a pro, he had published books on the matter, he could pretend to respond without giving an answer. In retrospect it was like Dorothy meeting the wizard of Oz. I expected him to show me the way home and he turned out to be only an ignorant Mini Mouse.

It's easy and fun to bash him now, but it was not completely his fault. It's so easy to ask a short question. "What shall I do with my life?" "How shall I draw a five point star with a compass?" They sound so similar, they request for information on how to do something. I'd expect a simple answer in both cases, like do this first, then do that. The second question actually sounds more sophisticated, it involves special concepts. But this was only my naive teenager attitude. Ruler-and-compass construction may be challenging for some, but it's a realm of human knowledge with straightforward answers. Do this, then do that. Questions about the meaning of life and how Dorothy could get home are more complex. What both my counsellor, and the Wizard of Oz failed to do was manage expectations. They didn't tell upfront about their limitations.

As a young man, I had a simple model of how career works, and I bet many people share this model. It can be summarized in a few sentences. If you are one of the few who was born with a talent it becomes obvious at a young age. You have nothing to do but use this talent, and you'll make it to the top of the world. If you were not born with such a talent, you are out of luck. You may have a little spark, the shadow of a talent, something that you can use to make a decent living. But let's face it, you belong to the masses, you are a loser after all.

This is a powerful mantra, it has made the lives of millions miserable. Let me repeat it, before it gets quoted as deep wisdom, this mantra is utterly wrong, it's harmful bullshit. But this was the music that was playing in my head when I went to see the counsellor, and all I wanted to hear was a single sentence. "It may have gone unnoticed, but you have an immense inborn talent of X." It was not only a piece of information I requested, it was not only the missing piece of my life's puzzle I was looking for. I needed the whole sentence so I can devour it, tuck it into my chest, wrap it around my heart to keep my soul warm in those cold days that are so frequent when you are young or when you are old. I expected him to say I was special and I wanted him to say what my exactly my specialty was. He failed on both.

He failed, because he jumped to solution mode right away, he didn't take time to lay the groundwork. He didn't ask me general questions to understand my philosophy, he didn't learn about my model, so he couldn't point out how mistaken I was. Talent is not a thing like a raincoat that you either have, or you don't. Talent is not an attribute like your body mass index that can be measured directly or calculated. Talent is not the ultimate answer to all your career-related questions.

Maybe it was not his fault after all, it was in the air at the time. This was the bullshit mantra repeated by millions that inspired scientific researches on expertise and human potential. It inspired Martin Seligman to turn away from researching learned helplessness to exploring a field that later became known as positive psychology. It inspired Anders Ericsson to explore the nature of human expertise and performance which findings were later popularized by the book "Talent is overrated". It inspired Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton to survey hundreds of thousand people to find out about their strengths and positive traits. There is a growing body of knowledge about talent.

I'm as old now as the counselor was back then. I'm not so sure about my knowledge, but at least I have a growing body around my belly. I can imagine a rainy day when the streets are empty, I walk alone with an umbrella when the fairies come. They take me with their gentle power and fly me to an institute. They change my dress, they put a light blue shirt on me and a white robe, they fix my face to be stern. When I come to my senses, I'm sitting in an office, a worn out desk in front of me covered with printouts of test results. Someone knocks on the door and enters a young man with a desperate and eager fire in his eyes. He has come to hear THE answer which I don't have. I'm afraid the answer he expects to hear doesn't even exist. What am I to say?

I'd say talent is like treasure, finding your talent or your edge is like going for a treasure hunt. You suspect something valuable is buried in the mountains, because that's what mountains are like. In tales they hide the golden of the goblins, in reality they contain limestone or coal. You just don't know what kind of treasure you are after and you don't have the faintest idea where to find it. What do you do? There are as many strategies to go for this quest as people in the world. Some start digging where the ground is easy to dig. Some go to the next village to ask the locals. Some take a sample of any mineral their shovel hits and try to sell it to see its value.

These are the first steps of a life-long quest. You may find a nugget. Was it due to your perseverance or you were lucky enough to have been born near the right mountain? You can't go back to be born again at another mountain, so you can never be sure. If a decade of dedicated work resulted in a nugget, does it mean there are more in the ground? You can never be sure. You'll face a nagging question time to time: Is it worth digging deeper or is it time to move on to another locality? And the answer is again, you can never be sure.

Talent is elusive, my friend, now you see it, now you don't. But one thing is for sure, there is treasure in the mountains. The golden of the goblins or limestone or coal.

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