Stealing Talent: A Pickpocket’s Guide

Of all the strange and surprising patterns of talent distribution, few are stranger or more surprising than the phenomenon called the Michael Jackson Law. This is the rule that the most talented performer in a family musical group will be among the youngest children.

Consider:

  • The most talented Bee-Gee? Andy, the youngest.
  • The most talented Jonas brother? Nick, the youngest.
  • The most talented Hanson brother? Zac, the youngest.
  • The most talented Andrews Sister? Patty, the youngest.

The pattern isn’t exactly new. Mozart and JS Bach were also the babies of their families.

The question is, why? Why are the Tito Jacksons and Nannerl Mozarts of the world fated for obscurity?  Is it simply a coincidence? Or is there something deeper going on?

There’s plenty of interesting research on birth-order that seeks to explain these kinds of patterns. Most of it focuses on intra-family dynamics and unconscious motivational power of role models — and it’s fascinating stuff, no question. But I think it overlooks something more basic and, for us, more useful.

I think the younger kids are more talented because they have more opportunity to steal. That is, to spend lots of hours intensely watching their siblings, borrowing what works, and discarding what doesn’t. To use their siblings as a test kitchen for developing their own circuitry.

As a skill-building method, theft is historically underrated. While Picasso was a big proponent (as he put it, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal”), modern culture tends to take the Puritan view that it’s more virtuous to figure things out for yourself.

While I find this view admirable, I do not find it shared by many top performers I’ve encountered. In fact, the opposite. Most top performers tend to be incorrigible thieves, relentlessly on the prowl for new ideas, methods, and techniques. You might even say that stealing is their greatest talent.

Good examples of this include Bob Dylan (who never met a poet he couldn’t rip a lyric from), John Wooden (who spent each offseason intensively stealing ideas along a single topic — such as free-throw shooting), and the Green Berets of the 5th Special Forces Group, who recently started a program that sends their soldiers into the boardrooms of General Electric, in order to crib ideas they might employ on the battlefield.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas — stolen, naturally — that the rest of us might use.  The idea behind them is to recreate the same daily environment that Michael Jackson, Andy Gibb, and Nick Jonas profited from: a habit of constantly eyeing a group of performers, and seeking to pickpocket something shiny and useful.

  • 1. The YouTube Method: Spend 5 daily minutes watching a great performer. Reading an instruction book is fine — but actually watching a Ben Hogan golf swing or a Don Draper sales pitch — then watching it again — takes full advantage of our brain’s innate ability to learn by mimicry.
  • 2. Buy a notebook and try to steal one good idea each day. Write it down so you can keep track of what works and what doesn’t.
  • 3. Cast your net widely.  Find parallel worlds that employ the same skills you are seeking to learn. Aspiring rock guitarists can learn from by watching Yo-Yo Ma’s fingerwork.  Aspiring soccer players can learn by watching Roger Federer’s balance and footwork. Aspiring writers can learn by dissecting song lyrics.
  • 4. Ask. If you’re in a position to make a connection and ask someone about their methods and techniques, there’s never been an easier time to do it. People love to talk about their talents.
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