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The Myth of Talent

Talent is the idea that a person is born to perform well at a particular task or has an innate increased ability in some field. We look at star-athletes and sports stars and assume that they were always better than their peers. When news channels interview a musician or singers old high school teachers, you always hear the same story “She was always talented, even back then, I knew she was going to be a star.”

We tend to only see the end result and so we attribute their skill to talent.  We completely miss the many years of practice, experiments and failure which help to build a strong skill set. Matthew Syed, author of Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice says:

Expertise is a long-term developmental process, resulting from rich instrumental experiences in the world and extensive practice. These cannot simply be handed to someone.

Author Malcolm Gladwell also explored the importance of practice and how sheer luck and circumstance contributes to excellence in his book, Outliers. He was also responsible for popularising the 10,000-hour rule which states that it requires 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. We don’t see the 10,000 hours, only the resulting skill.

However, 10,000 hours of practice alone, won’t automatically result in mastery or expertise. It’s key that you take part in purposeful practice.

The ten-thousand-hour rule, then, is inadequate as a predictor of excellence. What is required is ten thousand hours of purposeful practice.

You have to always aim for skills which are just slightly out of reach and beyond your current limitations. With this approach, you will fail and fall short repeatedly.

If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.

Among many other things, Syed’s book highlights that anyone can become world-class in almost any skill if they are willing to put in the time and effort to constantly push themselves to the point of failure until you achieve success. And once you achieve success? Push yourself further and repeat the cycle.

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Smart Thinking

The SuperThinker’s Guide to Success in Everything

If I were able to go back in time and give only 1 object to my younger self, it would be a single sheet of A4 paper with the following advice:

“There are only 6 skills you need to succeed and if you learn then now, I promise you will excel in any career you choose and be able to achieve any realistic goal:

Our memories make up the narrative that is “us”. They’re also the foundation for any skill, knowledge or learning you’ll ever encounter. Using visual markers, mind palaces and other proven memory techniques spend time trying to develop a strong and reliable memory – it will improve your life more than you can currently imagine. You’d be surprised at how much of a difference never forgetting a name or a birthday can make.

After developing a strong foundation (memory) and can accurately retain lots of information, you should explore how we actually learn. Understanding the learning process will allow you to create a tailored approach, drastically increasing your speed at learning and deepen your understanding of a subject. When creating customised learning plans for yourself, take into account META Learning principles and leverage the effectiveness of interleaving and spaced repetition.

Once you can remember most things you read and understand most things you try to learn, it’s time to increase how quickly you can take in information by learning to speed read. Focus on methods that include eliminating sub-vocalisation, widening your peripheral vision, minimising saccades and using visual markers.  You want to aim for a speed of 800wpm; at this rate, if you read for an hour in the morning and an hour before bed, you can complete a new book every day. This will be incredibly valuable at university, where you’ll be able to complete the required reading for most modules in a few days and even the recommended texts in just over a week. Imagine how much you’ll learn when you’re consuming 300+ books a year.

The 4th skill takes time and practice to perfect but is incredibly valuable. By honing your observation skills and being aware of events and details around you you’ll pick up so much information that goes unnoticed to most others. Observation is a particularly important skill when it comes to people and observing and understanding body language and behaviour is the best way to understand how someone is feeling and even what they might be thinking (after a LOT of practice and trial and error). I don’t think I need to explain how useful a skill THAT is.

To pull all this together, you need a solid understanding of logic, particularly reasoning and should learn how to perform in-depth analysis using all your observation and exploration skills. Finally, a solid grasp of strategic thinking will enable you to get a long-term view of your environment and formulate plans to achieve your ends.

With all these skills, you’ll be able to observe and notice details which others will miss, about people, events and situations. Your superior memory will help you retain these details long-term and you’ll be able to recall them when they’re most useful. These details will give an edge when analysing and evaluating a situation ultimately giving you a much better picture of what is happening around you.

Combined with your strategic mind, you’ll be able to come up with well-thought-out plans which take your observations and knowledge into consideration to produce winning strategies in business and life.

In addition to all this, I recommend that you sleep for either 6 hours or 7.5 hours – go to bed either 6 hours 15 minutes before you intend to wake up or 7 hours 45 minutes. This will ensure you wake up at the end of a sleep cycle and will awaken feeling refreshed.

Upon waking practice meditation and mindfulness. It can help to calm and focus you and is good for overall mental health. Eat within 30 minutes of waking and consume at least 30g of protein with your breakfast.

Feed your body nutritious foods, this will make you feel better, but will also improve your health, physique and cognitive abilities. Regular exercise will also boost your energy levels, increase your fitness and feelings of well-being.”

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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Availability, Correspondence and Affect Heuristic

The Affect Heuristic is how we feel, is how we think. This is known as the affect heuristic and shows that our mood heavily influences our thinking.

When we’re happy and relaxed, we’re more likely to be forgiving, more open and less sceptical in our thinking. Conversely, when we’re tense or unhappy, we’ll be more judgemental, close-minded and cynical.

The way to stay objective is simple, ask yourself “would I be thinking this if I were in a bad/good mood?” Often just asking the question can prompt you to be more open-minded, with a healthy level of scepticism.

Availability is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. This is based on the idea that if we remember it and it comes to mind first, it must be important. Being unable to distinguish the difference, the brain stores both the relevant and irrelevant so what immediately jumps to mind, isn’t always the most relevant or useful.

Correspondence Bias: This usually relates to ourselves but is often applied to other people. When correspondence bias is in play, we tend to believe that our own character and actions are responsible for the good things in our life, but our environment and external factors are responsible for all the bad things.

However, with other people, we’re not as affected by this, unless of course you don’t like the person, then you’ll be more likely to assign every negative outcome as their fault.

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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Representativeness

Representativeness shows that even if the odds of something are small if the person or situation matches a stereotype that matches we’re far more likely to give this more weight than we should.

Example, Mark is a detail-oriented, driven person who values logic and straightforward thinking. Is Mark more likely to be a Regional Manager for a bank or work at the checkout for a large retailer, such as ASDA or Walmart?

There are far more checkout workers than there are Regional Bank Managers so statistically, Mark is far more likely to work in a supermarket. However, we’re blinded to likelihood and probability and focus on the fact that his personality is representative of the type of person that we believe would succeed as a Regional Manager for a bank.

This also applied when we are considering events and not just people. Consider the popular example given by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman:

Linda is 29 years old, single, outspoken, and intelligent. She studied Gender Studies and as a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-war demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

This is the conjunction fallacy in play and is another great example at why humans are bad at probability – even statisticians. We incorrectly judge the likelihood of multiple events judged as more likely than a single event when directly compared.

The chances of Lucy being a bank teller AND a feminist are much lower than the chances of her just being a bank teller.

These are just a few of the MANY biases that our brains are susceptible to, but they’re the ones you’re most likely to come up against when you’re trying to judge a person or a situation.

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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Recency Effect

Availability often combines to our detriment to the recency effect. The recency effect dictates that we give greater importance to memories and experiences that have happened recently over past experiences and memories from further in the past.

You can see this often when couples fight. A typical example would be, one party is supportive and helpful for the majority of the relationship, but for the past month or so, has been slightly judgemental and not as helpful as normal.

The other person will judge their recent actions as being more prolific and common than they actually are. Saying things such as “you always do x” or “you never do y” – even if it’s clear that the person has a history of doing it, just not recently.

The strength of the memory, recent or otherwise also plays a huge part. If one memory is only visual, but another is rich and detailed with memories of sounds, smells and feelings, this memory will mentally be given a higher status.

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