Apr 7, 2010
My wife and I were recently at dinner with her sister’s family. One of the boys is about 14 years old, and as we were waiting for our table, he was looking through the bottles of wines displayed nearby. (No, he’s not drinking yet, we don’t live in France) He observed one bottle keenly, and turned to my wife asking, “I wonder what Irony tastes like.” My wife replies, “probably somewhat bitter-sweet,” at which point our nephew breaks out in laughter.
As I look through all of my nieces and nephews, most of them are far too young to have conversations like this. They are all bright young people, but I wonder if they will all have the same ability to connect random thoughts and ideas, and create different types of meaning that were not there before or not intentional by the originator. It’s not that I have some strange familial desire to see my family smarter than everyone else out there, but in my experience, the ability to connect the dots between seemingly disparate pieces of a puzzle is somewhat rare.
It also occurs to me that the ability for the mind to think this way is not necessarily trainable. Taking myself as an example, I am known in my family to be the world’s worst student. (1) Ok, ok, being Chinese, the standard of expectation is fairly high. I absolutely hated studying, and basically managed to slip by the first 12 years of schooling without looking at a text book. Somehow I managed to end up with a 4.0 and took so many AP classes that my high school ran out of classes for me, but I seriously never studied. Instead, I remember various science and math classes where I would get pulled aside by the instructor. The conversation was always the same: “This is not how we taught you to solve this, but somehow it’s correct and the work checks out.” In my mind, I would never know how I was supposed to do something because I didn’t study, but I could find ways to connect the dots and figure things out.
For me, college was most interesting learning experience. I went to a small, liberal arts college (that probably would not admit me now) where the provision of trade skills is not at all important, but the provision of thinking skills and analytical problem solving is. I do believe that creating an approach for thinking through a problem is indeed trainable, but still, the ability to connect seemingly random pieces of information is not. The people out there who have both of these abilities running in tandem are probably your strongest innovators and thought leaders. These are the people who rise to the top of the individual contributor ranks in your organization, and given other skills might become top management candidates. These are the people that when you’re looking to fill critical roles should be at the top of your list. Regardless of the experience they have, these candidates have an uncanny ability to work through problems and come up with incredible new ideas.
The irony in this to me, is that that primary ability to discover unseen connections and pull together ideas that might have been heard in a completely unrelated topics months ago is both a key attribute you want for your talent, but is also almost completely impossible to detect and record without significant observation and experience. I believe it’s a key talent attribute, and I can tell you when someone has it, but can’t tell you how to measure or record it.