What Shape is Your Talent?


Halloween-spiderwebyoroi Funnel

Spiderweb? Loop? Or Funnel?

Let me back up a second and start with a simple idea: Skills are really circuits in your brain.

I think this is a cool and useful idea, first because our brains are plastic and changeable. And second, because it leads us somewhere even cooler and more useful. Shapes.

All neural circuits have shapes. In fact, I’d like to assert that those shapes come in three basic types, into which pretty much every talent in the world can be sorted, and which might hold important lessons for us. Here’s why: if we know the shape of the circuit, we also can know the best way to grow that circuit to make it faster, stronger, and better.

(Note to science-minded readers: I’m not saying the circuits are literally structured in these shapes. Rather, that it’s useful to think of them this way.)


  • Examples: stock trading, quarterbacking, debating, social skills
  • Description: This circuit is all about pattern recognition and fast response. You perceive something (a set of stock prices, a blitzing linebacker, a smiling stranger) and you respond swiftly and accurately. It’s about perception, flexibility, and navigating a matrix by making quick, accurate choices.
  • How to Build It: Set up a grid of  if/then propositions. If Event A happens, you respond with B, C, or perhaps Z. The key is to take input, generate responses, and track their effectiveness.


  • Examples: playing a musical instrument, ice-skating, gymnastics, spelling
  • Description: This circuit is about precision. It isn’t trying to be flexible or responsive; rather, it’s trying to create (or re-create) an Ideal Performance; to achieve timing, speed, and power.
  • How to Build It: Break the task down to its elemental chunks, polish them, and piece them together in many different ways. You should play with time — slowing and speeding. Pay particular attention to the first repetitions, since they’ll be the tracks in which the rest of the circuit grows.


  • Examples: poetry, design, business innovation
  • Description: This circuit is about slow, creative thought; connecting ideas that were not previously connected.
  • How to Build It: Practice making unconventional connections; linking ideas that have never been linked into larger frameworks. Speed doesn’t matter (in fact, as this remarkable new study shows, creative thought happens more slowly). Find a container in which to collect ideas, the better to create a jostle of possibilities. (In her terrific book, The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp recommends a shoebox.)

Most talents involve a mix of shapes. For instance, when a jazz pianist plays a solo, he’s reacting to the music and the band (spiderweb), hitting precise notes (loop), and perhaps even noticing some new wrinkle to explore (funnel). When a comedian does her routine, she’s delivering precisely-worded jokes with timing (loop), tuning her delivery to that of the crowd (spiderweb), and trying to come up with new jokes (funnel).   And of course we are all familiar with people who are great at one part of the job but terrible at another (like those rocket-armed college quarterbacks who are marvelous at the loop-circuit skill of throwing while also being hopelessly bad at the spiderweb-circuit skill of reading NFL defenses).

The emerging lesson here is simple: the shape of the training should match the shape of the circuit. And that’s what I observed at the talent hotbeds like Meadowmount (where loops ruled), Brazilian futsal (home of fast, reactive spiderwebs), or the Bronte household (spiderwebs and funnels).

So in sum, if you want to build spiderweb circuits, train like this:


If you want to build loops, train like this:


And if you want to build funnels, train like this:


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2 Responses to “What Shape is Your Talent?”

  1. Jimmy Parker says:

    I like it! This is a very interesting and helpful model for tailoring the training to fit the environment and desired results. I am reminded of 2 works:
    – William Duggan’s insightful distinction between Expert Intuition and Strategic Intuition. Expert intuition is more like the Loop, where you get better at something by gaining experience & training in that precise activity where the environmental factors rarely change. Strategic Intuition is more like the Spiderweb & Funnel, where you get good at applying a skill or making connections in dynamic or seemingly disparate environments.
    – Kurt Wright’s use of the term “programmable” and “trainable” with respect to our intellectual and intuitive minds, respectively. In other words, our analytical/intellectual mind is “programmable” like a computer–if X, then Y–and extremely efficient anytime it encounters X but woefully inadequate if presented with a situation slight off from X or different altogether from its programming. But our intuitive mind is more “trainable” in that it can be adequately prepared to skillfully handle a variety of situations.

  2. Bill Lang says:

    Daniel – great analogies. I recently returned from an Inside Passage cruise and devoured your book (while docked at Jueno!) In working with adults and development of workplace leadership skills we have found “looping” in certain skill types (e.g. conducting a meeting, setting team goals) to be quite effective, yet when developing “coaching skills – working one on one with another adult” often calls for “Spiderwebbing”. Lao Tzu is believed to have said ” When the student is ready the teacher appears”. I would love to hear your thoughts on how managers can help ” students appear”. Best Bill Lang (Melbourne, Australia)

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