Skill vs. Talent

My wife earlier posted an article about intrinsic and extrinsic ability (genetics vs. environment) and how the understanding of the two different factors influence child-rearing methodologies. If you favor the intrinsic/genetic effects, your methodology will be more laid back and prone to assisting a child reach his full potential, while making sure you don’t commit any gross actions that destroy or impair his natural ability. If you favor the extrinsic/environmental model, then you’re more inclined to take an active (very active bordering on dominating) role in your child’s life dictating the correct course of actions to help them be successful. As my wife and I are very compatible, I’m sure everyone already knows what I’m inclined to favor. Instead of spouting more (personal) feelings on the subject, I’ve decided to talk about potential options for development in children; whether a parent should focus on developing their children’s skills or talents.

In my mind, I tend to think of the final result in any pursuit as ability, with skill and talent helping to shape the end result. If you were to look at world class basketball players and rate how well each player is at the game, you would be judging the basketball players on their ability to play basketball. Their ability would largely be determined by the input of two different variables – skill and talent. Skill is basically how much time they’ve spent training and developing a deep understanding of basketball. Talent would be how well their inherent strengths help them achieve a high level of basketball ability. A “talent” for basketball may include such factors as being tall, weight-lifting, cardiovascular development, and exceptional balance. All of these traits help the basketball player be a better basketball player, but they don’t involve specific training in basketball playing. If these talents are developed (or strengthened) they can be applied to a variety of options, just not basketball. A strong cardiovascular system is a benefit in swimming, cycling, and track, while being tall is also an advantage in football and management careers!

The point of differentiating options into skill and talent is that when one considers what to do, one needs to understand whether the end result will help develop skill or help develop talent. Let’s take math as an example. (I’m picking math for two reasons; firstly I’m fairly good at it and I’ve been doing it a very long time so I have a lot of experience in options for mathematically inclined people. Secondly,  the diversity of options you can take make math a natural example for talents).

We can consider math as not only a skill or a talent, but also as a career. Being a mathematician is a very viable career opportunity. Yet one can also apply math to a number of other career options from engineering to business so it is definitely also a talent. Learning a specific form of math, like calculus or quantum electronics, takes time and one can classify it also as a skill. So what exactly is math? And what do you want to get from it? Math is an example of a subject that is all of the above, but most importantly being good at math is a very strong long-term talent. As a parent who is talented at math, this is a strong area of expertise I hope to pass onto my son. I’m not particularly concerned with what area or type of math he learns, just so long as he develops a talent for math. Whether he wants to be a physicist, an engineer, a businessman, or an investor, math will be valuable in any of those career options. Being comfortable with math and being good at general math is much more important than being very good at any specific form or type of math.

In fact, I’m quite happy if he isn’t good at any one specific type of math; just so long as he is comfortable in dealing with math in its many forms. I’m not interested in how skillful he is in calculus or convex optimization; rather I’m more interested in my son being able to be comfortable in picking up an introductory textbook on a mathematical subject and teach himself. I feel that being talented at math allows a person to retrain themselves in different mathematical pursuits whenever it’s necessary. That makes being talented at math more important than being skillful at math. Just as certain athletes can easily retrain themselves for different sports (like Herschel Walker in Football/MMA, or Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders in Baseball/Football) by being talented in sports, so to can humans be talented enough in subjects that they can pursue different careers. While I tend to focus on math and opportunities for people for mathematical talent, that doesn’t mean that is the only possible area of developing a talent.

As a parent I will focus my effort on developing my child’s talents not specific skills. What will you choose?



Ravi had learned the word “pocket” several weeks ago, but he never quite liked the function of it.  I tried to show him what pockets are used for by putting small toys into them, but he always responded angrily by taking items out and throw them on the floor.  It was like I invaded his most private domains and committed the worst crime in the world.  So I stopped forcing the issue and just point out “pockets” to him whenever we come around to this topic.

Last weekend, Ravi was being his usual self playing at dangerously high places with things he has no business touching… i.e. on top of waist height cabinets full of framed family photos with grandpa’s huge box of AA batteries.  I vaguely remember it was me putting him there since I got tired of holding him all the time, but who cares.  Let’s move on!  I dared not risk taking the batteries off his hands or taking him off the spot, because he would show me his ultimate weapon — fake cry.  The result would be my parents immediately rush into the room, one would immediately grab him and comfort him, the other would begin to give me a lesson or two about psychological damage of child getting upset all the time.  So I saved myself some pain and just let him do what he wanted.

Ravi opened up the box and was excited to see all the batteries in it.  You see, he has developed an obsession with small things of the right shape that fit perfectly into his little hands.  To see this many of them at the same place really made his day.  He picked up one after another, very soon he couldn’t hold anymore into his hands.  I decided to take a risk and show him what pockets are for yet again by putting one battery in his pocket.  He was fascinated.  Then I put another one in the same pocket.  His eyes widened up and I saw a light bulb came on.  He began to put all the batteries in his hands to the same pocket.  Then he picked up more and put them in again.  I picked up another battery and put it in the other pocket, and he did the same.  Pretty soon the box start to empty up.  Grandpa walked by and was amused by his action.  He took out another box of batteries (don’t ask me why grandpa has such a big stash!) and lay them in front of Ravi.  Ravi was so excited, he began to use both hands to pick up batteries and stuff into his pockets.

Ravi and batteries

The madness continued for good half an hour, which was an eternity in Ravi’s world.  Finally, Ravi’s obsession with batteries and pockets subsided and wanted to be held again.  I emptied his pockets and counted to at least ten batteries in each!  Finally he has learned about the function of pockets.  We can close that chapter now.


The Upside Down Show on NicJr

I am always on the look-out for inspirational shows for Ravi. I want the time he spends in front of the TV to be inspirational and rewarding. While there are many educational shows that help to teach basic numbers and letters, and general knowledge, there are very few shows that focus on creativity and imagination. I think the main reason for this is that it is much easier and structured to teach content, but much harder to teach and develop creativity. Young kids are very creative. They spend tons of hours making up games, imagining themselves doing weird and wacky things, and, in general, just exploring. This creativity tends to become diminished as they grow up. Our educational system is designed to impart fundamental working skills and concepts; you learn a lot of ‘facts’ and apply them. You don’t spend a lot of time being creative. I’m hoping to help foster and encourage creativity within young Ravi. I’m fairly confident that numbers and ‘stuff’ will come with time and practice, but creativity needs to be supported throughout his life.

The Upside Down Show on NicJr is a commendable advocate for creativity and is a show I actively encourage for young Ravi to watch. The show consists of two actors- Shane Dundas and David Collins who play two brothers that engage in wild and wacky games. They spend time ‘playing’ with their action fingers and giving baths to imaginary elephants. Each episode revolves around the two brothers making stuff up and just ‘imagining’ crazy things. From sticky rooms to underwater environments, the brothers explore and play games. This type of freestyle imagination show is super awesome for Ravi. I want him to spend time just tinkering and trying cool and different things. Every time it is on NicJr, I let Ravi watch. We’ve even gotten into doing and trying some of the crazy things that Shane and David do. We’re learning to knock before opening a door, and we also wave our hands up in the air when we’re upside down just like Shane and David. In a couple of years, hopefully he’ll have enough language skills to actually start making up stuff like they do and we’ll get even more creative in our games.

If you ever get the chance, check the show out. I know that more experienced shows like Sesame Street help teach kids things, but I’m not so sure that is as important as being creative.


Why must I write?

Hi Ravi,

I’m going to try and explain why I decided (with your Mom of course) to start and contribute to a blog. Why did I choose to write on a daily basis thoughts and opinions when I could just as easily talk about them with you and your mom? Granted, a blog allows you to keep a history of your thoughts over the years, but random musings rarely have a shelf life of more than 6 months. Also, I’ll be the first to admit not everything I think is important or colossal in nature. Sometimes, I just think of random stuff. The real reason I’ve chosen to write my thoughts down instead of just thinking or speaking them is that I’ve noticed, as an engineer, I’ve become a lazy thinker.

What is a lazy thinker? A lazy thinker is one that isn’t challenged in his thoughts. Ever since graduating from college (the first time), I’ve realized that I am a very capable and competent engineer. But engineers, in general, don’t have to think about complex and deep issues. As a senior engineer, I’m mostly concerned about quantifying technical issues and then solving them. My most important skill is to make sure I can correctly scope a technical issue so that either I solve it, or effectively communicate the issue so that I can get help to solve it. Since technical issues are relatively straightforward, either the device works as stated or it doesn’t, there aren’t a lot of subtle nuances in describing them. Also, engineers tend to work in shades of white and black; either the device works or it doesn’t. Rarely does our work involve grays. This makes our thought processes sloppy. We spend more time tinkering and troubleshooting than questioning and pondering.

This lack of flexible focused thinking was the single most concerning issue that I wanted to work on while in the MBA program. I want to be able to succinctly and effectively manage my thoughts so that they have the highest possible impact. To do this, you have to write. No other medium of exchange has the potential to make you a critical thinker as writing does. Writing not only allows you to collect and communicate an idea like speaking, debating, and thinking does, but it records your idea for you. It allows you to see where you started thinking and where you ended up. It concretely tracks every off track comment and random thought you had while you tried making your point. It also gives you the ability to rewrite and edit your thoughts. You can take a specific thought process, plainly see the starting point and ending point, and track how effective you were in getting there.

This approach gives you an unprecedented ability to help improve the effectiveness of your communication. Spending dozens upon dozens of words to express a thought that could be summarized within a single sentence is wasteful. Yet you won’t know this if you don’t write it out. You also won’t know why you aren’t an effective communicator if you don’t write. You may be like I am, with way too many thoughts all in random directions without the ability to pick the correct words to express them. If you ever want to fix this, you’ll have to write. I avoided writing a lot in high school and college (where I didn’t have to at all) and suffered for it. As your parent, with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t want you to have the same problems I did. I also want you to understand that as your father, I want you to learn by example not by hypocrisy. I have enrolled in school (again) for three years and am writing a blog to show you that I plan to practice exactly what I will be preaching to you for many years. You will have to practice writing and it will be tough. But from that tough process, you will grow. Hopefully, after reading blog posts like this and growing up, you’ll come to understand the value in writing.



How Not to Apologize

Have you ever been given an apology that made you feel unsatisfied? Even though all the proper components were there (“sorry”, “I am wrong”, “never again” …etc), something is not right and you can’t quit put a finger on it. Of course this excludes our significant others apologizing for forgetting important dates, or being an idiot as they often do, because… come on, they can’t help it! Somewhere up in those gigantic male neuron clouds, that preciously tiny sensitivity part is being unwillingly overpowered by all the other “more important” things in life… So we forgive them because we love them, and we consider these apologies sincere.

No. This post is dedicated to those sinister apologies that hits us when least expected.

I recently read an article by Chris Witt titled “How to Apologize Like a Celebrity.” In it he analyzed five types of apologies from people of higher popularity in our society, such as professional athletes, late night talk show hosts, financial gurus, corporate executives, celebrities, politicians, …etc. When I finished, things suddenly fall into place. Now I understand! Not all apologies are sincere. How naïve of me to believe in the words of the apology!

Apology type #1: Blame the other person. Person A to Person B: “I’m sorry that you were offended by what I did or said.” Person A starts with an apology, but then shifts the focus from himself to Person B, as if Person B is to blame for being overly sensitivity. How clever is that!

Apology type #2: Offer an Excuse. Blame it on things we have no control over. For example, late to meeting due to traffic on 405 FWY, not able to meet deadline because of computer virus. In this case, you might not even have to apologize at all, just state your excuse and shake your head. I heard this one all the time from co-workers.

Apology type #3: Use the Passive Voice. “Mistakes are made” instead of “I made the mistake”, makes it sound like it is not your fault at all. Haven’t we heard of this one from politicians? How stupid of me to think they were trying to be formal!

Apology type #4: Delay as Long as Possible. Wait and see how things play out. Maybe someone else has done something lot worse than you have, then your fault might be forgotten. Example: Toyota CEO’s reaction toward fly-by-wire fault recall.

Apology type #5: Hide Your Feelings. You might get away with it if people think you didn’t even realize. Poor thing, he has no clue! This can work so well in the engineering community!

The most sinister of motives is when someone intentionally uses these apologies to manipulate people and situation. This act is extremely disrespectful. Especially when it comes from someone with higher power (your superior), then it is not an apology at all but an insult. Even when the motive is unintentional, this act of apology is still insincere.

I consider myself a simple person, in the sense that my yes means yes, no means no; my promises are usually kept, and kindness shown to me are returned.  I don’t do anything complicated like back stab anybody or take advantage of the weak.  I just don’t have that much time and brain power to perform such complex calculations and plotting, nor do I care to.  Mario has talked about wanting to gain street smarts, and I hope this will help us both to be a step closer to our goals.


Street smarts vs. Book smarts

It is quite easy to quantify whether kids are developing academically. We have constant tests, there’s grades every semester, and homework to practice with. Developing “book smarts” or the ability to excel academically is easily measurable. Yet, time and again, many professionals can point to high school graduates/college graduates/Ph.D.s etc that, while very capable intellectually, have no ability whatsoever in determining when someone’s trying to trick them or take advantage of them. “Street smarts” or the ability to survive intellectually on the streets isn’t taught in classrooms. The ability to understand subtle nuances in voice, body language, and expressions, to determine informal power structures, and to network with clients, customers, and other professionals are all valuable skills. Street smart skills are sometimes as or more valuable than actual book smart skills.

I should know. I spent the better part of 20 years developing strong book smart skills while completely ignoring the soft skills necessary in life. My parents would refer to me as “Johnnie head in the air” and wonder on a regular basis what the heck was I thinking? My relational abilities were so weak, that I got taken advantage of on a regular basis. My parents packed me lunches instead of giving me money, because I would get conned out of it and end up with no lunch for the day. (In my defense, I think they exaggerate about the whole situation. I don’t think I was ever swindled more than once or twice…) Even when I started my first ever job I had some smart people saying that I should be getting $30 an hour but when the company offered $20 an hour I ended up dumbly accepting it. I didn’t do an ounce of negotiating nor a single counter offer. I got low-balled and accepted it. I know how much I ended up getting swindled when after a year the company was willing to offer me a 10% raise with very little resistance. Heck, I didn’t even create that big of an issue over the raise. That was when I realized, that I had gotten swindled and had basically left $10 an hour on the table. With a little bit of negotiation and “street smarts,” I could have saved myself nearly 10 years of raises and actually had that pay at the start of the job, not when I became an old man.

Towards that end, I really want to make sure that Ravi develops both types of abilities. I may not be capable enough in the “street smarts” category, but if I start early I can steer him towards activities that might actually give him a better chance to develop those skills. I’ve outlined what I think are necessary hard/book skills and soft/street skills any young child should be working on and developing to help them grow into a competent adult.

Hard/book skills:

Math (Algebra/Trigonometry/Calculus/Probability and Statistics)

Reading Comprehension/Qualitative Assessment

Writing (focused 3 page essays and excellent grammar)

Soft/Street skills:

Basic Financial Management Analysis (NPV, Annuity, Perpetuity, etc.)

Basic Economic Analysis (Supply vs. Demand, Profit)

Basic Accounting Skills (Debit/Credit, Checkbook Balancing, etc.)

Negotiating and Public Speaking Ability

Relational and Social Psychology

Leadership/Team Building skills

You’ll notice that there are more soft skills than there are hard skills. The hard skills are there to develop competency in multiple interfacing formats so that Ravi doesn’t have issues with context and can instead focus on substance. You’ll also might notice that in what I laid out in the soft skills section, there seems to be a bit of math or hard skills included. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that way. The first three skills don’t involve much more than basic algebra and are necessary to be a good judge of options. (Quick Question: would you take $5 million today renegotiate the contract in a year, or a fixed $22 million for four years? Answer: The $5 million). In fact, the first three skills are so basic that they used to be taught to high schoolers regularly. They would form part of a home econ class. Today, you might have to wait till college (or adult community college) to pick these skills up. The last three skills represent the crux of what people today consider soft skills- can I get along and lead others, can I maneuver within and into/out of an existing power structure, and can I figure out when someone is trying to cheat me?

These last three skills have very few academic opportunities to be trained in. One has to find alternate and informal methods of developing and acquiring these skills. I’m not positive yet what activities will lend to the development of them, but I will assess the value in engaging in extracurricular activities within this initial context. If the activity helps develop any of these skills, they’re probably a good choice. If not, it means I’ll need to find a better hobby for Ravi.