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Friday, August 12, 2011

You are unlucky if you have cognitive talents

In a research findings@ of 120 talented individuals sampled from six fields comprising aesthetic fields like music and sculpting, psychomotor sports fields like tennis and swimming, and cognitive fields like mathematics and medicine, 20 most talented individuals from each of these field were asked questions about acquiring their extraordinary talents over a period of 20 odd years. Their parents and teachers were also interviewed to corroborate the answers.

The research findings brought out many interesting, and sometimes counter-intuitive conclusions, such as 'extraordinary talents are not spotted at an early age to succeed'.Infact, none of the 120 talented individuals, not even the musicians and sportsman, in the sample were child prodigies or were discovered due to their 'extraordinary' talent.

But more than the generic findings, the 3 observations on nurturing cognitive talent versus other talents clearly brings out the huge challenges that you knowledge workers - programmers, engineers, managers, chartered accountants, lawyers, medical consultants - have to surmount in 'identifying and nurturing your cognitive talent'.

1. While development of aesthetic and psychomotor talents is visible, development of cognitive talent is invisible: If you are good in Music,dance or sports, your ability is visible to all, even to a layman. This helps friends and family members to automatically recognise these talented children as 'fast learners' and use the surrounding eco-system of teachers, competitions and social recognition to initiate the cycle of learning at an early age.

In contrast to this, for cognitive performers such as in mathematics and medicine, almost all of the action takes place in their minds. Nothing is visible to others. Until some expert teacher in that specific subject recognises the huge talent, say after solving a 'mathematical problem', the talent remains 'unrecognised' and therefore 'not encouraged'. The virtuous cycle of learning starts late.

2. While aesthetic and psychomotor talents, due to their nature, are identified at an early age, cognitive talents are identified very late: Because their talents depend on 'senses' and coordination of muscles, the musicians in the above sample began their formal studies in music by the age of 6 and the sportsman by the age of 7. This helps the individuals with aesthetic and psychomotor talents to explore and engage early in lives and produce demonstrable and objectively verifiable 'work' by the age of 11-12. This in turn provides them the necessary confidence to 'choose' their talent area, which in turn helps them invest huge time and energy on one 'talent', further increasing the probability of success.

In contrast, the mathematicians in the above sample began their formal studies in mathematics by the age of 13. Because they start late they cannot produce any demonstrable and verifiable work quickly. This delay in 'focusing' on one talent path splinters their time and attention, which further delays their learning on their talent area.

You may think that students with high IQ ( IQ above 160) can choose their talent field easily. But that is not true. A book by Ruth Feldman on these high IQ 'Quiz Kids' spells out the difficulties these cognitive performers face in 'choosing their talent path'.

3. Trajectory of cognitive talent development makes it difficult for cognitive performers to nurture their talent:

Because the talent of musicians and sportsman is recognised early, by the age of 20, they are spending 4-6 years per day on nurturing their talent in the second phase of their learning, perfecting their talent. Their parents provide the monetary support for talent development, while different type of teachers and coaches actively help them to sharpen their talents.

In contrast, trajectory of cognitive performers starts late. This means that even when cognitive performers have identified their talent area, they cannot get the required time to practice, because other responsibilities - such as earning for oneself - come in the forefront. The hormones of adolescence further derails their talent development journey by distracting their mind and time.

Parental support, by that age, is practically absent due to societal factors. Teacher support is available for 'researchers' who are doing Phds in universities, but for other cognitive performers, even this support is non-existent. Even the companies, who stand to gain the maximum from their talent, do not actively support the development of their cognitive talent, because it does not benefit them directly.
Isn't this surprising? In aesthetic and psychomotor fields, talent development is understood well enough and one can use also the eco-system to sharpen one's talent.

But if you are a cognitive performer ( such as programmers, managers, sales individuals, consultants, advertising professionals, lawyers and practicing medical consultants) which perhaps constitute 70-80% of the performers in a population, you are simply unlucky. Neither you have the knowledge ( of training methods and processes required to identify and nurture the talent), nor do you have the supporting eco-system ( competitions, coaches and training time) to help you identify and sharpen your talent.

But if you are working in cognitive domains, what can you do? At least, you could start at the beginning. Removing the confusion around the word 'talent' could be the first step. In this blog, we shall describe the knowledge and the eco-system that you could use to develop your cognitive talents.

@ Benjamin Bloom: Developing talent in young people

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