Good and bad news about talent

There is some good news about talent: it’s over-rated. It’s not that a level of proclivity isn’t helpful in what you’re doing but it increasingly appears that practice and hard work are more important for mastery or success that an inborn gift that places you head and shoulders above the dirty minions who surround you.

What’s the good news? The world is before you and you can take what you want. Set your goals, practice thoughtfully, and find a mentor. Before long you will be better, smoother, sleeker, smarter or whatever adjective you aspire to.

The downside? You can no longer blame your parents or your genes. You have to look yourself squarely in the mirror and admit that you are who you are because you have designed you to be this way.  If hard work and practice garner predictable results then so must laziness and couch-potatoeness. You have run out of excuses.


Cam Newton and the transforming power of gloriously blowing it

If you follow American professional football, or at least watched the Super Bowl, you know who Cam is. If not then I’ll fill you in. He is the young – 26 years old – quarterback of the Carolina Panthers who is brash, arrogant, and so full of himself that I have spent the last several months making a weekly prayer vigil to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for Carolina to lose. I don’t care who wins. I just want Cam and Carolina to lose. I know that this is petty and childish and I admit that it’s unfair to judge a human being by the ten minutes of television interviews I’ve seen. I guess I’m just a shallow SOB. As much as he irritates me, I have to say that he has been spectacular this year. He throws like he is drilling the ball through concrete. He runs faster and stronger than most team’s running backs. He’s six-foot-five and weighs 250 pounds and can carry linebackers like luggage under his arms. I cannot imagine standing between him and goal line when my job is to stop him. Everything came together for Cam and the Panthers this year and they lost only one game prior to the Super Bowl. They utterly embarrassed my Seattle Seahawks. Twice. And with every first down Cam does ‘the dub’. A little dance to celebrate just how damned good he is. Fans love it. People do it where I work. I hate it.

Last Sunday Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers had their pants pulled down in front of a couple billion people. It wasn’t an embarrassing loss but Denver crushed them in every category. More than once Cam’s confident smile melted until he looked lost and unsure of what he was doing. After the game, Newton sought out winning quarterback Peyton Manning and shook his hand and smiled a smile that beamed through all the glitter and ticker tape. But off the field and in front of reporters and TV cameras he sulked and refused to talk. When he did talk he mumbled. He stared into space and then pulled his hoodie tight over his head. Finally, he walked off the set.

Cam Newton behind his hoodie.

This week, social media is castigating him from all corners. A few fans are defending him but not many and not well.
But I think Cam will look back one day and see this as the time when he began to find real greatness. He’s not going away – he’s far, far too good for that – and probably has a few more Super Bowls to win.

This entire episode reminds me of a three-minute conversation I had with a boss once. A decision needed to be made about who would manage a nasty and hazardous project. I wondered aloud if Joe was right? “Nope. He’s never screwed up.” I asked if that wasn’t kind of a good reason to hire him? Don’t you want someone who doesn’t screw up? “Nope. A person who has never blown it has played it safe. I need to know how he would act if this thing goes belly up. I need to know if he can handle a problem or if he’ll fold and make it worse.” I’ve never forgotten the conversation. It was such a different view than I was expecting.

Cam Newton doesn’t know it yet but these words are true. Losing and blowing it and screwing up in glorious fashion is essential in making you better or best. You won’t believe it and certainly won’t see it until you’re on the other side. I’ve seen it. At least twice. It is heart breaking. You doubt everything you were once sure of. Some people never recover and I don’t blame them. They get a nice desk job and put in their time. Nothing wrong with that. But if you can recover and resolve to be better then you find a new calm that isn’t so easily shaken when things start going bad. You learn that screwing up isn’t the end of the world. You learn that you can do well even in the middle of seeming disaster.

Maybe Newton needed to be knocked down. He’s not even thirty and he’s already had an envious career. Maybe he needed some humility. Maybe he needed to learn that you have to earn your rewards before you celebrate them. I don’t know. What I do know is that Cam will come back stronger and more sure of himself and more unshakable in the face of collapse. Losing the Super Bowl just might be the one hurdle he needed to become one of the best players in the game.


The Secret to Improving

The Secret to Improving

The importance of doing to sharpen ourselves as we age can hardly be overstated. Do crosswords or Sudoku. Go on walks. Work in the yard. Learn Russian. Do something. Do anything. But there is usually a missing piece of the advice offered. And it’s the thing that tips the cart toward improvement rather than just maintenance. That missing part is that what you are doing should be hard. Ouch.

Take crosswords, which I enjoy. There are plenty of crosswords that I can complete in ten minutes without mistakes. They’re fun and they help me maintain a level of mental acuity but they don’t improve my ability or mental state. To do that, I need to form new neural connections. Neural connections are the nerve paths that connect one part of our brain to other parts of the brain or to our body. How do we form new neural connections? By doing things that are different or hard for us.

Do Hard Things

Let’s stick with crosswords. I can maintain the level of mental ability I have for crosswords by doing the same kind of puzzles over and over. I consider myself a Tuesday NYT puzzler. I have never in my life completed a Saturday NYT puzzle. (I read once that President Clinton finished the NYT puzzle each morning before breakfast. Forget Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship. That Saturday puzzle is his crowning achievement.) If I want to get better – and by better, I mean strengthening existing ‘crossword neural paths’ and building new ones, then I have to do puzzles that make me wince. Puzzles that force me to expand my vocabulary and word associations. That make me see clues and answers from different perspectives. Makes me think hard about who won Best Actress in1976 (Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). So take what you like and ramp it up to the next level. Learn to enjoy the angst of not knowing.

Do New Things

Learning new things is key to continued and improved mental acuity.  I once planned to sign up for a voice over acting class at our local college. I didn’t – we moved a

few hundred miles away – but my thinking was that this is so far out of the realm of what I normally do that it would be a whole new world for me. I would meet an entirely different group of people, learn all kinds of new words, and stretch myself in ways that would make me squirm. Exactly the kind of things that cause us to grow.

Do Physical Things

Wayne Dyer, when he was a practicing therapist, said that when people come into his office complaining of depression, he would try to get them outside. “Let’s go shoot some hoops or ride bikes and get an ice cream,” he would suggest. His argument was that so much of our mental state is tied to our physical state and it’s hard to be depressed when you are shooting baskets. Part of why I like running is that it’s a healthy way for me for clear my head. It sounds silly, well, it is silly. but I write with my left hand sometimes. It’s hard and sloppy and my wrist never holds quite right but that uncomfortable physical act puts a whole raft of thinking in place that contributes to growth. It probably won’t lead me to a Nobel Prize but, as in all things healthy, it all adds up.


You already enjoy something – now master it. Jump into it with both feet and become an expert. Engaging your mind like this – or your body – heightens your experience and by definition improves your abilities. Start with something easy. If you do woodwork and build furniture learn to master a simple joint. Not just the sawing and chiseling but they

whys. Why does it work this way? Why use it rather than another joint? If you cook learn to make the perfect macaroon. Learn to make a cookie so damned good that your neighbors make excuses to visit you. Then, when you master one rudiment move onto another and build a repertoire. It makes whatever you do more enjoyable and puts you on a continued path of growth.

So go do something or learn something. Go ride a bike. Do anything. If you’re trying to improve, then doing is almost always the answer.


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