Stealing Talent: A Pickpocket’s Guide

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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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23 Responses to “Stealing Talent: A Pickpocket’s Guide”

  1. Rod says:

    Totally, totally awesome, Dan! What could be better than to steal-and improve on-something that obviously works. Thanks!

  2. Daniel: I’m a big fan of your work and this concept of mimicry is very real. I grew up in a house with an older brother who became a concert pianist. Without ever having taken lessons or mastering reading music, I can play some pretty advanced passages which I attribute strictly to copying what I’ve seen and heard.

    As a golfer trying to ingrain better movement patterns, I watch professional golf swings in slow motion all the time, it definitely helps ingrain images that can be accessed when playing. I’ve made reference to your book THE TALENT CODE in my videoblog episodes. Deep Practice is critical to changing a motor pattern like a golf swing.

  3. Daniel, I am new to your blog and book, which was refered to me by Ann Sieg.

    I feel like you have given me the missing key to the reason the past six months have brought me so much success and progress compared to the last several years combined. I have been somewhat afraid that I would fall backwards into the old patterns of stagnation, but your book (I have just started the Ignition section) and this post are erasing that fear.

    I have, unknowingly, been applying your youtube and notebook suggestions, interviewing industry leaders and reading their content and experimenting with their techniques in my business with the curiosity of a kid, just wanting to understand how marketing works.

    Thank you for teaching me what deep practice is. I now know what it feels like and what to do to get it.

    Greatfully,
    Heather Stephens

  4. Greg says:

    Interesting stuff. It is amazing to me how applicable this is across disciplines. I’ve been in a training coordinator position for the last year, and I’m constantly analyzing and borrowing from the style or others that I see working.

    This is a somewhat counterintuitive idea though. Our society seems to value being unique or individual, although Dweck might say this is a fixed mindset issue – If I use the ideas of others, it might mean I don’t have “it”.

  5. Walter says:

    I think in ordinary families perhaps the youngest is inclined to be the most talented. However on a level with elite Athletes let’s say that’s not always true. I think the “best to every play” have different skill sets maybe genetics, influence or something because they are a step above everyone else. The following atheletes were the best IMO EVER at their sports and none were the youngest. That indludes, Wayne Gretzy, Michael Jordan, and using soccer for an example one can say either Pele or Maradonna. Pele was an only child but Maradonna has a younger brother. So perhaps at the elite, elite level, there may be something more than order of birth?

  6. djcoyle says:

    That’s a good point, Walter. The construction of a Pele or a Jordan is an awesomely complex process, and practice/motivation are two parts of the equation (big parts, I’d argue, but still a part). Genes, luck, opportunity all play a role.

    Though in MJ’s case, it turns out he did have a couple older brothers.

    “As a youngster, Michael’s favorite pastime was to play catch with his father in the yard. Michael idolized his older brother, Larry. It was this sentiment that diverted Michael towards basketball. Destiny has its own way of functioning. The mere innocent desire of following his older brother’s footsteps brought Jordan to the threshold of basketball history.”

    http://www.famouspeoplebiographyguide.com/athlete/Michael-jordan/Brothers-And-Sisters-Of-Michael-Jordan.html

  7. Great article. I probably should be in jail because of how much I have stolen. :-)

    Regards,
    Steven

  8. Timoteo says:

    While I loved your book and your website and agree with many of your hypotheses, are you sure that your conclusions in this post can be backed up statistically? For the five or so examples you give to back up your claim, I could give 5 or more examples of the oldest child being the most talented. And besides, if there were an average of 4 children in a family, if all things were equal, the oldest would only be the most talented 25 percent of the time, right? However, your point is well taken about copying/stealing. Of course its much easier if you have older siblings, but I’m sure successful oldest children had their own inspirations/role models/ robbees (is that a word-as opposed to robbers) such as friends/uncles/aunts/cousins.

  9. Timothy says:

    Daniel,
    Have you read this book and/or listened to the authors discussion with Krista Tippett on “Being” on NPR?
    Has a lot of relevance to this area.

    Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan

  10. djcoyle says:

    You’re absolutely right. The sample size is tiny — not enough family supergroups in the world (sadly, the Partridges don’t count). Though we do see similar patterns with 100m sprinters and NFL running backs (both of which, if you look at the historical top 10, average 4th of 5 kids). This is clearly waiting for a large-scale study.
    And here’s an interesting pattern for older kids: http://larrycheng.com/2010/03/06/why-are-80-of-harvard-students-first-borns/

    Any study can only go so far, though. The goal, I think, is to find some principle underneath that we can steal — er, I mean utilize.

  11. djcoyle says:

    Haven’t heard of Tippett — thanks, Timothy. I’ll check it out. Best, Dan

  12. brophy says:

    does this really have any scientific evidence?

  13. Monyelle says:

    Talk about a light bulb moment!

    I too am the youngest, the only in my family with a Masters, running my own business, and setting up multiple income streams. My siblings are too “successful” but in the more traditional way. I had not thought about how I was able to see what worked and did not work for them and guide my life accordingly.

    Also, I am constantly looking for and connecting with people who I connect with on personal values who are also on a path of success that mimics what I am working towards. Wow. Stealing. Who knew?!

    Thank you!
    Monyelle

  14. djcoyle says:

    Good question, Brophy. Of course given the small # of family musical groups, there aren’t any studies (though if the Osmonds have more kids, maybe the population will be big enough. The point is not that younger kids always tend to be better musicians — sometimes they are; sometimes they’re not (as studies show).
    The point rather is that these extreme, unusual cases — tiny number though they may be — help shed light on the smaller everyday mechanisms that determine how people get good at stuff.
    So is there scientific evidence that mimicry/modeling/mentoring develop talent? Quite a bit: http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=mimicry+modeling+skill+development&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart

  15. brian says:

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this yet, but this video touches upon a lot of what you talk about in your book regarding influences and creativity.

    http://vimeo.com/kirbyferguson/everything-is-a-remix-part-2

    PS – Great blog, keep up the good work!

  16. Just bought your book. Looking forward to reading it. Being a passionate golfer, I enjoyed your video on Amazon doing the Tiger Woods imitation. Very well done. I’m looking forward to reading about the Russian tennis players.

  17. As I seem to have my head in things of old, I have an interesting book that might be related to this, Emile. Though Rousseau’s personal life was not a good example… he was very insightful on the raising of children. His prescription for Emile was to give him room to explore, let him be. Children are smarter and more resourceful than we believe. I suspect that parents subconsciously know this with their later born. They are less fear-ridden in caring and raising – and in being so… they give more room. The child is implanted with more confidence and independence by the grace of nature.

  18. sally says:

    But Michael Jackson wasnt the youngest… Randy and Janet came after him. Janet did pretty well for herself, but not as great as her brother and Randy never gets a mention cuz hes never really done anything.

  19. Chi Man Auyeung says:

    So if one day I decide to have few kids, would it be a good idea to have few years gap in between each children?

  20. Cara Pollard says:

    Daniel – thank you so much for your amazing book! I am currently working on some articles on trumpet performance based on your book and would like to possibly talk with you about some ideas. Is there any way to do that? Thank you for your time.
    Dr. Cara Pollard

  21. That was a great job! There are only two places where you can find thieves. In the prison and in Success.

    Most of those who utilize this talent piously and excellently become successful but those few who either notoriously or maybe accidentally fall victims of carelessness and ‘Over-exploitation’ land in jail.

    N. Kungu says that there are only four rich people in Kenya; Politicians, Pastors and Musicians. But they have one thing in common – they are all thieves. They are never authentic and they possess this rare talent- Thievery.

    Thanks.

  22. Dave says:

    A few people have commented about how it isn’t scientifically proven that the youngest is the most talented, I personally don’t think it could be proved. I also don’t think it was ever intended as a concrete fact, more an observation. I believe so many other factors come into play over a persons lifetime e.g. the positive/negative experience each individual goes through, the mentors they had etc.

    I am a coach at Brazilian Soccer Schools (one of the hot beds Daniel mentioned in ‘Talent Code’) and I see it time and time again where a younger sibling goes on to achieve more in football terms – though it should be noted it is not always the case, there’s one example that sticks in my mind in particular.

    A number of years ago we had a very talented player. He was just 5 when he started with us and his parents had just given birth to another boy. Both parents of the lad liked to come to the sessions, and because of this the baby came along to each session as well.

    I remember clearly seeing this new born growing up through his toddler years and now into his early teens. Originally, I got to know him not by coaching him but because he was ‘the boy would always watch us with curiosity’.

    At the time we didn’t have Socatots and though I am sure he would have played with his older brother when he was younger I am pretty convinced a big factor in his current success was how he got to see the training sessions and watch his brother and all of his friends play. In my opinion he would have seen these other very talented lads and thought that it would be realistic for him to achieve the same.

    I also think that because he was so young at the time, that he would have built up a burning desire to be able to play some day. It would have built up inside him so much that it would eventually become an obsession for him.

    Though many of us would deny it when we’re younger, it is quite common to try and fit in with your older brother and his older mates. Try and be ‘cool like him’ and I think this is where the imitation comes in.

    The older brother was ‘cool’ because of his football skills so the younger boy copied him. He tried to emulate the same skills. He started younger and as a result got better at a younger age and we all know that when you get better at something, you enjoy it more and when you enjoy it more you work at it more!!

    From this the younger player will have ‘learnt’ how to successfully imitate and therefore if he were to watch a youtube video, I’m sure he would pick it up quicker than most. He knows what he should look for and consciously, or subconsciously, decodes the movement and pieces it together in his own way.

    The older lad was in and out of academies as a youngster but was never more than a fringe player, while the younger sibling is currently at one of the one of the top football academies in the country. He is one of the most highly sought after players in his age band and regularly plays a year or two above himself.

    There’s loads of other factors to take into consideration but this is a first hand observation I have made and I’m sure many others on the discussion board will have similar ones.

    Thanks for the great book Dan!

    Dave
    Brazilian Soccer Schools, South Staffs, England

  23. You could definitely see your skills within the work you write. The world hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. At all times go after your heart.

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