Talent spotting: finding my forte at forty

TES column 25 July 2014

“We all have a talent – it is just a matter of finding yours”, was a popular mantra among the teachers who tried to guide my education. Certainly at school, some pupils excelled – effortlessly, it seemed – at maths, english and sports. I was top quartile in most subjects, but getting into the top ten percent took real effort.

To my shame, anything that could not be achieved by native wit was, generally, too much work.  Once my ‘talent’ revealed itself, I reasoned, areas of patchier scholarship would be unimportant. Try as I might, though, I never alighted on the sphere where I felt a clear, natural advantage.

In fact, it was not until my early 40s that I recognised an ability that set me apart.  By then, I had been to an awful lot of meetings – students unions, trades unions, political parties, company general meetings and, of course, school governors meetings.  As a journalist, I had observed public meetings, council meetings, party conferences, Parliament, EU summits and even the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

It took a colleague – himself a cerebral writer who by dint of his activism is among my heroes – to identify my ‘talent’.  “At any meeting that requires motions to be framed, debates entered and daft initiatives beating down, you are in a different league to the rest of us”, he told me.  “You see things happening and can anticipate reactions in a way that I simply cannot”.

I laughed off the compliment, with a blush.  But on reflection, I realised that – despite feeling immodest to say so out loud – he was right. I’m not the best, I know, but in this narrow field, I am, at last, effortlessly ‘top ten per cent’.

Fans of writer Malcolm Gladwell may already have spotted a possible explanation.  Gladwell posits a ‘10,000 hour’ rule – the amount of practice required to really master any discipline.  If Gladwell is right, then my apparently intuitive ‘meeting skills’ are actually the result of have attended many more formal gatherings than most normal people.  

My hunch, though, is that while witnessing the completion of so many agendas might be necessary to acquire such an ability, it is not sufficient.  The real difference is that, for reasons I can’t explain, I really care about the decisions that meetings reach – no matter how arcane their consequences appear. I have never ‘sat through’ a meeting in my life.  I always watch and listen intently, trying to work out how to shape debate to achieve whatever I consider is the best end.

Whatever skills I possess have been honed through sustained focus over a long period.

The reverse is true of Gin Rummy, a game I once played endlessly with a teenage girlfriend.  I didn’t mind that she mostly won – her company was my prize.  She on the other hand became adept at memorising long strings of cards, such was her will to win.

The lesson I draw is that whatever skill or talent you wish to develop, caring passionately about the end results is the key to achieving the focus required to benefit from your hours invested.

How that determination can be instilled in youthful learners, I don’t know.  My strong suspicion, however, is that really wanting to improve an ability, and believing that improvement is possible, are more useful attributes by far than possession of a mere ‘talent’.

Photograph © Tim Dawson