How to Strengthen Your Talents

Getting Past the Myths and Traps of Talent

At 5 years old, nearly everyone is an artist. At 10, nearly none of us is. What happened? And how can we become more talented at the things that interest us, so we can have richer, more successful lives?

Entrepreneur and business teacher Sean D’Souza of Psychotactics has thought a lot about talent — how to get it, and what keeps us from developing it.

In this 25-minute episode, I talk with Sean about:

  • The misunderstandings about talent that keeps us imprisoned in mediocrity
  • Why you don’t need 10,000 hours (or anything close to that) to develop a talent
  • What lemurs and human babies can tell us about our innate abilities
  • The role of “inborn talent” in business
  • Why 90% of talent depends on the teacher … not the student

The Show Notes

  • Psychotactics, Sean’s site on why customers buy (and why they don’t)
  • The Michel Thomas method — a language learning method based on improving confidence and breaking learning into manageable chunks. Thomas is an example of an effective teacher and methodology.
  • Joshua Foer, recommended by Sean — Joshua wrote a book called Moonwalking with Einstein about his yearlong quest to improve his memory, using the latest theories and techniques from neuroscience research.
  • Sean’s posts on Copyblogger Get more from Sean specifically on marketing, writing, and finding customers.
  • Authority Rainmaker — May, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. If you can fit it into your schedule, this live event will walk you through a complete strategy for getting and keeping customers. I’d love to connect with you there!

Share Your Questions!

If you’d like to ask Sonia a question about business, productivity, marketing, finding work/life balance, or some other topic, just drop it into the comments below! She’ll be addressing them regularly in future dedicated Q&A episodes.

How to Strengthen Your Talents

Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me yet, I am a co-founder and the Chief Content Officer for Copyblogger Media. I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business, or your career, exactly the way you think you should.

I wanted to let you know that the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer are brought to you by Authority Rainmaker. Authority Rainmaker is a live educational experience that presents a complete, effective online marketing strategy that immediately helps you accelerate your business.

Sean joined us last year and he’s going to be joining us again this year, which I am really looking forward to. So if you do want more details on that, you can head on over to

So Sean D’Souza is my guest today. He runs the website Psychotactics, which is an intriguing site. It’s and I encourage you to go and investigate that.

Sean, it’s great to have you here today.

Sean D’Souza: Well it’s great to be here. It’s nice to hear your voice.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, it’s good to hear your voice too. I haven’t really spoken to you other than in text, since we saw each other last May, so it’s good to talk with you.

Today, Sean and I are going to talk about the topic of talent, and Sean, I know you have been chewing this theme and this idea for a long time. I know you have a lot of thoughts on talent and I really wanted to start to draw at least a few of those out today.

How Sean Became Fascinated with the Idea of Talent

Sonia Simone: So do you want to start by talking about what got you so fascinated with this topic of talent?

Sean D’Souza: You probably know that I draw cartoons and often draw cartoons in public. As I’m sitting in a cafe and drawing a cartoon, people come up to me and say, “Oh, you are so talented.”

And at first it used to flatter me, but over time it started to irritate me. Because I would say, “Oh, you can do it too” and they go “No, no, no, I’m not that talented.”

And so the problem that I have, and I classify it as a problem, is that I am very good at dancing, cooking, drawing, writing and speaking. I can pretty much throw myself at anything, except putting up a picture on the wall, and I get talented at it.

And other people seem to think that they are not talented. That somehow they have to be born with that stuff. And that’s the part that started to irritate me, so what I had to do was, I couldn’t just go out there and say, “It’s easy to acquire a talent. It’s easy to get talented” because people would say, “No, no, no, you look at that guy in school, he was so much better than me in math.” Even Jim Collins, who wrote the book Good to Great, he talks about people who are kind of genetically encoded to doing better at math than he was.

So to me that was very frustrating and so the only way I could prove that was to say, “Okay, let’s go to a cafe, any cafe. You choose it. You pick 20 people from the room and in six months I will make them do something that I know that they can not do. And that one thing was cartooning.

I mean you can get people who are good at math, good at writing, good in lots of stuff, but you can go to any cafe and say to them, “How many of you can draw really good cartoons?” And no hands go up.

Sonia Simone: Right.

Sean D’Souza: So that’s what I started. That was one of the things that I thought, if I can teach people how to do something that almost everyone on the planet says they can not do, well now we can prove other things from there. That was the starting point.

The starting point was really my frustration with people calling me talented and believing that they didn’t have that talent.

Sonia Simone: You have a wonderful observation about children that I heard you share years and years ago, and I immediately forgot who I heard it from and have been repeating it ever since, but I love this observation. Do you want to share that with people?

Sean D’Souza: Yes. It’s like this. It’s when you go into a school, any school, anywhere on the planet, and I like these things which are universal rather than, “Okay, this only belongs to Virginia or this only belongs to Auckland.

But you can go to any school on the planet and if the kids are approximately five years old and you say, “How many of you can draw?” and almost across the planet you will find that all the hands go up. Everyone’s hands go up. And you ask the same people when they are ten, “How many of you are good at drawing?” and almost none of the kids in the class say they are good at drawing.

Now that’s only half the story. The next part of the story is even more interesting. If you went to that same class when they were five and said, “How many of you are good at English? How many of you are good at math? How many of you are good at geometry? And no hands go up. And then you go to the same class when they are ten and you’ll find quite a substantial number of hands going up.

So what happened? What happened from the age of five to ten? And that’s the question we have to ask ourselves. How did they get bad at drawing? How did they get better in math, English and geometry?

So what’s really happening between the age of five and ten is that you are actually learning stuff and you are learning it in a constructive way. You are learning it in a way that enables you to improve. And you have teachers, you have encouragement, you have people at home and what’s happening is, you are acquiring a talent. You are acquiring a language. Geometry is a language. English is a language and art is a language. And when that gets dropped, then the brain does what it’s supposed to do. It says, “This is not relevant to me” so it stops.

What Lemurs and Human Babies Can Tell Us About Our Innate Abilities

Sean D’Souza: If you look at lemurs — you know most of us don’t think of lemurs, but scientists have done tests on kids and lemurs. And a kid that is just a year old can spot one lemur from another one. Six month old kids. I mean they can’t say it, but what they do is measure the attention and as soon as the second lemur comes along, they go “Oh, that’s a different lemur, let me look at it. That’s a third lemur. Let me go and look at that.” But when the first lemur comes along they go, “Oh, I have seen that one before. Do you have anything new for me?”

So the attention span drops and you think, “Well, I don’t have that skill. I can’t tell one lemur from another.” But the skill isn’t lost. Certain skills are right there from the start and certain skills have to be learned. If you look at all the people who spot whales and dolphins and stuff, they can tell. They can say, “Hey, that dolphin. That’s the name for this dolphin.” And they know 300 dolphins. It’s a skill.

Sonia Simone: It’s a skill.

Sean D’Souza: Yeah. Certain skills are inherent in you. Photoshop is not one of those things, you know.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, although it feels that way to me, but I agree.

Sean D’Souza: Because in the big scheme of things, the brain uses up an enormous amount of energy, so you have to understand that, I think it’s 2% of your body mass and it uses up 25% of the energy.

So the brain is built to be lazy. The brain is built to be efficient. Anything that is difficult, the brain tries to drop. Anything that’s not usable, like lemur spotting, is not valid for the brain anymore so it drops it. And anything that you say, “Well, I have to learn how to ride this bicycle or I will not get to school” now it’s important for the brain, so it learns that. And that’s really what talent is all about. It’s about learning a language, learning a skill and like any language, there are enormous amounts of difficulties.

The Misunderstandings About Talent that Keep Us Imprisoned in Mediocrity

Sonia Simone: I know that you get frustrated about some of the misunderstandings that people have around talent. What are the misunderstandings and misapprehensions around talent that really make you sad for people, or angry, or frustrated?

Sean D’Souza: Well the first thing is definitely that it’s inborn. Most talents are based on the generation that you live in.

So for instance, most of us know how to use a computer. Well you go back 100 years or 50 years and people would not know how to use a computer. But today, every kid going to school knows how to use a computer.

So effectively, when you say, “Hang on, I learned how to use a computer but that’s not really a talent.” Effectively what we are saying is, “If everyone can do it, it’s not a talent.”

Sonia Simone: Right.

Sean D’Souza: If you can play music better than me, then you have a talent. But if everyone can play music, that’s not a talent.

So if you can speak English, that’s a talent. Of course it is a talent. To someone speaking Mandarin, “Wow, you can speak English? That’s amazing.” Right?

And this is the problem. The problem is that we believe that it has to be inborn. That we were born with an accent. We were born with a language. We know that’s not true.

Sonia Simone: Yeah and I have a real frustration with this in the realm of business. I hear people, typically people who don’t own businesses, or don’t run businesses, who say “Well you can’t learn marketing. You can’t learn business. You can’t learn selling. That’s just a gene. You either have that entrepreneurial gene or you don’t have it.”

I’d be interested to hear your take on that, because I’m suspecting you have a similar take to mine.

Sean D’Souza: Yep. When I grew up, I grew up in a business oriented family. My parents ran their own business. Most of my uncles and I have six of them, ran their own business. So here’s how I learned business.

I would go to my father’s institute, he used to run a secretarial college. And I would sit there and eat, drink, and read comics. And you think, what did you learn doing that?

The thing is when you are around people when they are talking, that stuff isn’t going over your head all the time. A lot of it is going into your head. So they do certain things, they act certain ways, they get into certain messes and they fail, and you learn from all of that stuff.

So if you take someone who has been in a job oriented, you know, their parents have been job oriented, they have been job oriented, it’s very difficult to break out of that. So what they haven’t learned is the language of business. And when you spend enough time in the business, you learn it.

Let me give you a simple example. When I ask my niece to paint a sky, it’s different from the sky that you would paint. If I asked what was the color of the sky, you would say it’s blue but that’s not true. The color of the sky is blue right at the top, it’s blue and yellow ochre in the middle and usually about yellow ochre or pink right at the bottom, depending on the time of day.

Now, if my niece were to paint a sky, some teacher would go up to her and say, “Wow, that’s a great sky. That is so different from everybody else’s sky. And where did you learn it?” And she has no recollection because she has learned it when she was seven years old and now she’s 11 and she has no recollection. And that’s what happens in business as well.

You pick up all these things along the way and then you don’t remember where you picked it up and then when everyone starts telling you “Hey, you are so talented,” you think, “Yeah, I must be.”

Sonia Simone: I love it. That’s awesome.

The Difference Between Personality and Talent

Sonia Simone: I know I’ve heard you talk about people confusing personality and talent, and I would love to hear you unpack that a little more and talk about what that means.

Sean D’Souza: When I first started trying to figure out why people get so stuck on talent, I was mixing up personality and talent. And personality is kind of inborn. I have seen this with my nieces. They have completely different personalities. As do all animals and humans. And one is driven to behave in a certain way.

My younger niece Kara is more likely to listen to something if there is lots of movement involved. And on the other hand with Marsha, you can sit there at the same table for three hours and it doesn’t bother her in the slightest. And the point is, they are trained to learn something. Everyone is kind of put into Marsha’s box, which is “Now you sit at the table, you sit at the desk and you learn the stuff. When you sit in school, you learn stuff.”

Now if you find that people are not responding to whatever you are doing, or whatever you are teaching them, it’s probably because you are not actually catering for their personality. Which is totally different from “Oh, this person is really stupid.” Because I don’t actually believe in bad students. I believe there are bad teachers and we’ll get into that. That’s the difference between personality and talent.

That talent can be acquired — if you switch it or cater it for that personality.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, I think that’s a really good observation.

Why You Don’t Need 10,000 Hours (or Anything Close to that) to Develop a Talent

Sonia Simone: Now a lot of people who talk about the difference between talent and practice, reference the 10,000 hours model. “You have to spend 10,000 hours to get really good at something.” Is that what you are talking about, when you talk about acquiring talent?

Sean D’Souza: 10,000 hours is a nice figure and that’s why people love it. I mean, two kinds of people like it.

Or rather two people refer to it: Ones who haven’t completed the 10,000 hours and the others who have. And the ones who have go, “Yeah, I did 10,000 hours.” Well you can go 10,000 hours in the wrong direction.

Sonia Simone: Right. Yes.

Sean D’Souza: So 10,000 hours doesn’t qualify at all.

So what’s really happening in the 10,000 hours? All the really good people, the ones you know of, they have done 10,000 hours. But also the bad people, who have gone nowhere, they’ve also done 10,000 hours. And so the first thing that we don’t see is this qualification.

Secondly, even if we were to examine someone like John Mayer, he’s really good on the guitar, and so is Eric Clapton or just about anyone that you consider to be talented. And you will find that this enormous number of hours was spent making mistakes and these are mistakes that people didn’t know they were making.

Sonia Simone: Right.

Sean D’Souza: So for instance, when I was learning to draw, one of my friends said, “Your drawings are all flat” and I’m going “What do you mean by flat?” And then I had to figure out that I was making this mistake.

Now I had been making this mistake for, I don’t know, 5,000 hours. So I didn’t know that, but if I knew the mistakes, then I could have fixed them. And this is why you can fly a plane in, I don’t know, I think you can fly a commercial aircraft in 1500 hours. You could go to an academy and learn. Now you wouldn’t get a job in 1500 hours, because no airline is going to hire you, but the point is, you can get on one of the jumbo jets, the Airbus, and you can fly them after 1500 hours.

So the thing that you have got to understand is that first of all, you don’t need the 10,000 hours if you are on a simulator. So the question is, how do we find this simulator? The reason why pilots can go from zero to flying a jet aircraft, which is extremely difficult, especially when you are taking off and landing, it’s extremely difficult. You know, sometimes in the movies they say, “Oh, we’ll get the control tower to guide you in.” No, you can’t land a plane. You crash it every time.

What’s really happening is, they are going on a simulator and the simulator is getting those mistakes out of the way. And really when you define talent, that’s what talent is. Talent is a reduction of errors.

So when you look at driving, you make all the errors and then when you get rid of most of the errors, you can drive.

When you are learning to ride a bicycle, you have balance issues, you have space issues, you have all kinds of issues. When you reduce the errors you can ride a bicycle.

Now some skills are not as simple as riding a bike or driving a car. And you may say, “What’s so difficult about driving a car?” Well it is not difficult in reality, but something like painting requires a lot of subjective stuff and so you’ve got to do a lot more. It’s more of a language than driving a car, where a lot of it is automated. And that’s the difference.

The difference is that you don’t know the mistakes you are making and if you don’t know the mistakes you are making, you can’t fix them quickly enough and you are stuck. You are basically wasting a lot of hours.

Now when you are young, that’s fine but when you are older that seems like a lot of time.

How to Avoid Getting Stuck

Sonia Simone: Yeah. Well how do people avoid getting stuck? How do they move ahead? You know, if they have something they want to do in life, maybe it’s to start a business or run their business better, or paint, or sing, or play basketball, how do they avoid getting stuck in some of these traps?

Sean D’Souza: Well the first thing is that you can not believe that talent is inborn because you know, you have terms like “white men can’t dance.” Well it’s not true. Say you want to learn the jive, a lot of the dancing is not in the feet, it’s in the hands. It’s in the way you get the grip. That’s where it is.

For instance, you learn to play badminton and a lot of it is not in the smashes but how you learn how to smash, so that the opponent goes back, instead of staying in front.

So a lot of it has nothing to do with what you think is important. The reason why people go off track is because they believe it’s inborn. And the first thing you have to do is you have to stop believing that talent is inborn, because it’s like a prison.

Supposing you only have two talents and I have ten talents. Well you are stuck for the rest of your life. You have those two and it’s like “No, I can’t do anything. So I might as well be a stupid person for the rest of my life.” That’s not much of a choice.

So stop believing, is the first step.

Why 90% of Talent Depends on the Teacher … Not the Student

Sonia Simone: Now I know you talked about that you don’t believe there are bad students, you believe there are bad teachers or teachers who are not skilful. Do you want to talk about that? Do you want to talk about that matching up of teachers and students?

Sean D’Souza: Right. A lot of students believe that they are not talented and I can show you for instance how to multiply any number by 11, in one second.

So supposing you were seven years old and you went to school and you stood up in front and said, “Okay, throw any double digit number at me and multiply it by 11.” It’s very simple actually. You just say 22 by 11, and you add the two and two, which is four and you put it in the middle, so it’s 242.

Sonia Simone: Nice.

Sean D’Souza: Now it’s a little hard when you first start but you can do any two digit number by 11 and people look at you like “Wow, you’re a genius at math.” But you are not. You are using a system.

So what happened was, someone deciphered that system. Someone rooted out the mistakes that you can make and that is a teacher. So when you get a teacher that has got rid of the mistakes, then everything is easy.

For instance, Photoshop is very hard. Well right now I’m doing a Photoshop course where I am teaching people how to color in Photoshop, and they’ve spent a year or more trying to learn to color. And after two weeks [in my course] you can not tell who has done the work. Me or them. In two weeks.

So effectively, and this is where I learned from this guy called Michel Thomas, he used to teach languages. He could teach you French in ten hours. The stuff you need in French.

His concept was that the responsibility lies with the teacher. There is no such thing as a bad student. And when you take that into consideration, what you have to do is then find the right teacher, who has the right system and then puts you in the right group.

Sonia Simone: And another one of those quotes that I heard from you early on, and then for a couple of years forgot it was you, is that proverb about groups. Do you want to share that?

Sean D’Souza: Yeah. It actually comes from Africa. The proverb goes like this:

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go with a group.

And a group is incredibly important when you are training someone and when you are learning. Right now we are doing an article writing course, and it’s the group that holds everyone together. The reason the group is so important is because of how we are wired as human beings. We don’t want to let the group down.

And that’s very important. So we show up every day. And when we show up every day, we acquire a little bit more of that talent and then a little bit more.

But the second thing that we see is that we are not alone with making mistakes.

So a lot of us think we are stupid, that we are not able to figure out stuff. And then when we see everyone making their own mistakes, we think “Wow, that’s amazing.” Now that’s not how school works. In school you sit down, you answer your test, it goes to the teacher and it comes back to you. No one sees your mistakes. So you don’t learn from the mistakes. So a critical part of talent is knowing the mistake.

Sonia Simone: I want to wrap this up today, just to keep things kind of short and sweet for now, but I want to encourage the audience, if this is a topic that interests you and you want to hear us talk more about talent, just drop us a comment in this episode [correction — send me a tweet @soniasimone] and we will put some more time on the schedule.

It’s a big topic and trust me, Sean has a lot of thoughts. He’s an opinionated person and I’m an opinionated person, I think that’s why I like him. He has a lot to share with you on this and I find it fascinating and I really like talking to Sean about it, because he’s just put in a lot of time thinking about this topic. A lot of practice.

The Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer have been brought to you today by Authority Rainmaker. Authority Rainmaker is a live educational experience and it presents a complete effective online marketing strategy that helps you immediately accelerate your business.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Dan Pink, Sally Hogshead, punk legend Henry Rollins and a lot of other super smart speakers live, including Sean, who’s going to be there. It’s going to be a real delight to see him again. Not to mention the secret sauce of it all, which is building real world relationships with the other attendees. And I personally would really love to connect with you there.

So you can grab the details on that at and we look forwarding to seeing you in Denver, Colorado this May. That’s Rainmaker.FM/event.

Sean, thank you so much. This was just such an interesting conversation that I love talking about with you.

Sean D’Souza: You’re welcome. It was a pleasure. It’s always a pleasure.

Sonia Simone: Really good talking with you. Thank you everybody and do send me a tweet if you want to hear more from Sean and I about this topic of talent and how to develop it and how to move further with it.

Thank you so much. These are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer.