Raising Successful Children: An Interview with Anthony Spadafore on Nature vs Nurture

We are going to talk about a very important topic. A topic that is also highly debatable: natural talents.

To help you shed some light and remove any confusion you have on this topic, we have a very special guest in this exclusive interview.

He is none other than Anthony A. Spadafore. Anthony is the Director of Pathfinders, a Senior Career Coach, author, and career columnist. The Alexandria, VA based coach has helped countless people to identify their natural talents and learn what careers fit them best.

Anthony SpadaforeNote that this interview is long and detailed (A big thank you to Anthony for his effort). If you’re in a hurry, we have highlighted main points of this interview in BOLD for easy browsing.

However, we advice you to read it in full as Anthony shares some very interesting personal stories that you can learn from.

Enjoy the interview!

Is there such a thing as inborn talent?

The classic nurture versus nature debate has recently tilted toward nature, or you might say the debate has given the nature side more of an equal footing. There is a growing body of research that shows that we are born with a unique set of talents and personality traits.  The most noted studies look at identical twins separated at birth, raised in different home environments and who never met each until they were adults.  These twins were shown to have very similar style preferences, values, traits and talents, even though they grew up in completely different “nurture” settings.  The idea that we humans are largely a “blank slate” that is imprinted by our environment is losing its grip; there is too much anecdotal evidence in every day life that shows how unique we are.  At last, the science is catching up to what we all instinctively know about human nature.

For instance, my brother has five kids.  He told me after the third was born, “I can’t believe how different they are.  We are raising them exactly the same, but they have their own quirky ways and attitudes about everything.  Why does my daughter write poetry while my son likes to play with machines?  We didn’t encourage any of this, they just do it.”

What’s the best way to guide and bring out the best in children so that they can be on the right career path later in life?

All kids want to be seen and understood for who they are.  Unfortunately, they are too young to understand what makes them tick, they can’t advocate for their own talents.  It is mom and dad’s challenge to pay close attention to each child to see what is blossoming uniquely in them.

Interestingly, the most common thing I see with my adult career change clients is a lack of confidence in their ability.  Most can’t name or define their natural talents, and the majority doesn’t think they have any at all.  They were taught by well intentioned parents to work hard at everything they do, even in areas where they have little or no natural inclinations.  Contrary to popular wisdom, the mantra to “excel at everything you do” doesn’t boost their confidence; and in most cases will have the opposite effect.  Trying to train a duck to be a squirrel is pretty much what I see happening to most kids (and adults).  They grow up with no real sense of what they are best at.

Perhaps the best way to guide them is to keep reinforcing their natural strengths and help them find ways to hone them. My niece realized by age 7 that she is a gifted writer.  Her parents don’t have talents anything like this; they thought she was an alien in their midst.  Believe it or not, she had to convince her parents to see this as her gift, they weren’t tuned into it.  Once they realized that she is naturally gifted with a strong imagination they let go of the idea that she had to excel in math too.  She hates math, it just doesn’t click.  So, her dad helps her to learn “just what she needs” to get through the math classes, and acknowledges that this will likely not turn out to be a strong point in her life.

Her brother on the other hand is a math wiz, and has little to no talent for using language in a figurative way.  He’s more black and white in how he sees the world (interesting statistic: 70% of people measure as Sensors on personality tests.  More people see the world factually, versus see the underlying meaning in situations).

Why is discovering talents important to someone’s life?

Imagine that a duck was raised from birth to think it was a squirrel.  It would be encouraged to do what squirrels do and go to college to major in a squirrel’s career path.  The duck would work really hard trying to excel at doing a squirrel’s tasks, but would likely feel like it was average in comparison.  Let’s say this duck will live its whole life trying to be a squirrel and even get advanced education in the university of squirrel sciences.  It will grow up to make a great living, and have lots of comfort and security.  However, what are the chances this duck will live a life of quiet desperation, unable to say or explain what’s missing in its life?

Of course, this would never happen in the animal kingdom, animals simply follow their instincts.  However, this dilemma happens all the time in the human kingdom.  Most people go through their whole lives without knowing what their natural abilities are.  The concept of natural ability is not part of our educational system at any level, including college.  Statistically, 70% of all college grads are mismatched with their career, but don’t know why. They don’t have the “natural ability” distinction in their model of life to even name why they are not happy with their life and work.  So, they go on living with sort of a blurry self-image, and little by little many become resigned and eventually give up trying to find their sweet spot.  Most of my adult clients say they have defaulted to gaining all their pleasure in small ways outside of their career by doing hobbies and raising a family.  Their career becomes a “means” or necessary evil to other more fulfilling ends.  Most people seeking career change advice are over 40 years old, and this is the age they are finally getting to know who they really are—talent-wise.

I have two sons, 3 and 1 year old respectively. Their likes and dislikes vary as they are at the stage of exploring this big world. When can I start to pick up their real interest and talents and how do I do that? If I do spot them, how do I nurture them?

See the book Nurture by Nature by Tieger and Barron-Tieger for a good tool on how to begin observing your children’s personality traits and natural tendencies.  This book is a very small part of the picture, but it’s a good start in the right direction.

I know there is one product where they take a child’s fingerprint and analyze what talents each child possesses. Parents are supposed to nurture their child according the fingerprint report, so their ability will be nurtured from young. My question is: Is each person’s talent ‘written’ on their fingerprint? Can we read their talent and ability in any way besides spotting them?

I haven’t heard of this “fingerprint” method, or least not in a literal way.  At the moment there is very sophisticated aptitude testing for teens at age 16 and up.  I don’t know of such testing for children.  As I said earlier, the concept of natural ability is has not become a mainstream topic of discussion yet.  Interestingly, there are well established “puppy aptitude tests” used by dog breeders who specialize in selecting seeing-eye dogs, etc.  We seem to know more about the natural talents of dogs than we do of human beings.

As far as I know professional aptitude testing is only available for young adults and career changers.  Since I don’t work with children, I am not aware of what’s out there for kids.  In my field of helping young adults and mid-career people, it is recommended to wait until the later teenage years to get an accurate take on the full profile of natural abilities. In young people the brain is still forming, so formal measurement is considerate to be premature.  A recent study shows that parts of the brain are forming well into the early twenties (especially the parts that have to do with complex decision-making).  However, it is possible to see signs of natural talents and traits in young people; you just have to know what to look for.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much out there to help parents to formally “measure” the talents in their children.  The lack of written information and tools here is a symptom of the larger issue mentioned above.  Our educational system largely still thinks of kids as a ball of clay that can be molded into anything. The people who do write about talents are viewed as mavericks, as you all know as parents, questioning the status quo is often heavily shunned when it comes to disagreements with conventional wisdom on raising children.  That doesn’t mean that you should ignore these new views, you just have to be clever and resourceful and seek out ways to educate yourself in this area.  Keep in mind that there is an entrenched model of human intelligence in the current school system that is resistant to the idea that people have “innate” abilities.  The powers that be are stuck on the idea that we have to view all kids as “equal”.  See the book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, by Steven Pinker to learn more about how our paradigm of understanding human nature got started centuries ago.  He’s an evolutionary psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist at MIT.

For some introductory reading, I highly recommend the work of Howard Gardner, a renowned Harvard psychology researcher.  His book Frames of Mind was one of the first to propose that the idea that we human’s have more than one kind of “intelligence”.  The gist is that our minds are comprised of many abilities (rather than a single “IQ”).  All of us are born with some high abilities, some moderate, some low. Think of your kid’s profile of abilities like 16-channel sound mixing board in a recording studio.  Each talent is like one channel with its respective “volume knob”.  We are all born with the knobs preset, and as far as the research has shown it appears that we can’t change the settings by much.  At birth we come with a genetic endowment that hardwires our combination of abilities uniquely.

There has been research to see whether it is possible to enhance natural abilities while the brain is still forming, but the ability has to be relatively strong to begin with.  For instance, even with lots of good tutoring, my poetry writing niece has not been able to drastically change her ability to do math, but her creative writing ability has continued to get stronger.

Parents today send their children to as many classes as possible.  What do you think of this?  How to avoid being caught up in the race?

I don’t have a strong opinion either way on the variety of classes.  Based on what I see in human behavior at the adult level, it’s clear that some people are “generalists” by nature and do fairly well in a wide variety of subjects and activities. On the other side, our statistics show that about 25% of people are born with highly specialized abilities; in a sense they are wired to excel at a narrower range of subjects and activities.  For example, children who appear to be “geeky” or “bookish” is one instance where people seem to fit this less common pattern of aptitudes; they often grow up to be scientists and fine artists, among many other things.

I’ve talked with parents who have children who display these “specialist” behaviors at a very early age.  Some try to “balance” their child by exposing them to many different things to try and “pull them out of their shell”.  Of course, the kid doesn’t know why they are doing what they do and may develop a low self-image because they pick up they are not like the other “normal” kids.  It’s a fine line to walk as a parent.  Perhaps a wise approach would be to honor the child’s tendencies and strengths, and at the same time be very thoughtful to how they respond to a variety of activities. For example, if the child is a strong introvert with a specialist demeanor it may be a good idea to help them practice socializing and build up some “skill” at it.  I emphasize skill, rather than talent or ability, because a strong introverted person is wired that way.  They can learn some skill to be a little more outgoing, but it will feel a bit awkward and likely always be a secondary form of communication for them.

My wife, Patti, is an independent social history scholar (she taught herself how to do it).   Growing up her mother discouraged her from all the reading and writing she loved to do.  She thought Patti was too withdrawn and uninterested in playing with kids her age.  So, she essentially pushed Patti to take ballet classes, piano lessons, all the sports, etc.  Patti hated all of it, but did it because she was expected to please her parents.  To spite her mother, Patti cleverly recorded herself playing the piano and would replay the tape in her bedroom so her mother would be fooled into thinking she was actually practicing!  I’ve heard hundreds of stories like this from my adult clients, many who felt misunderstood, or even “wrong” for trying to be who they are.

What’s the difference between talents, skills, and intelligence? Can all of these be nurtured and learned? Or is it in the gene?

Aptitudes are inborn; skills are learned. For instance, a duck has a natural ability for swimming in water. One of the duck’s strongest inborn aptitudes is its webbed feet; another natural strength would be its down feathers. You might be able to teach a duck “skills” in tree climbing, but it won’t come very naturally. You may even find a duck that is “interested” in climbing trees, but it will likely burnout at mid-career trying to excel at a squirrel’s job.

So it goes for us humans. We are born with a profile aptitudes and abilities that don’t change with practice. We might as well do what we’re best at; why bother with struggling at things that don’t fit? A good rule of thumb, if you’re child is struggling to learn, bored or not excelling in an area, chances are the child is trying to do something that doesn’t suit his or her best talents and abilities.

The term “intelligence” is used to describe people as having a single IQ.  If you will, it’s like having a sound-mixing board with just one channel with only one volume knob set on either “very smart”, “moderately smart” or “not so smart”.  This model of brain has been heavily debunked and challenged; it appears to be a dying idea.  There are many kinds of “smarts”.

How many types of talents are there?

There is quite a handful, here’s the profile of aptitudes that I measure in adults:

Tribal/Maestro - Social Orientation
Extrovert/Introvert - Personality Characteristic
Spatial/Non-spatial - 3D/Tangible/Conceptual Orientation
Diagnostic Reasoning - Problem solving
Analytical/Logical Reasoning - Problem solving
Rate of Idea Flow – Speed of idea generation and concentration
Visualizing Possibilities – Forethought
Visual Dexterity – Eye for detail
Associative Memory – Language Memory
Number Memory – All-purpose Memory
Design Memory – Visual Memory
Manual Speed/Accuracy - Finger and hand agility (musicians, surgeons, dentists, etc
Personality Type Indicator – ENFP, INFP, INTP, INTJ, etc

As well, see the books by Howard Gardner.  Also see articles on-line:  http://www.pathfinderscareerdesign.com/salon.html

What’s the best way to identify talents?  What about children who have no apparent talents?

Given that there may not be much in the way of formally measuring natural abilities in young children, the first thing to do is to educate yourself on what the abilities are.  See the list above.  I highly recommend the forthcoming book that I co-authored with Nicholas Lore.  It is tentatively titled: Now What?  A Young Person’s Guide to Choosing A Career You Love.  The book is scheduled to hit the book stores in May 2008.

Once you have an introductory understanding of the concept of natural talents and abilities, begin observing your child to look for what stands out.  Keep it simple.  Notice where they “go into the zone” and get lost in time.  A fairly good indicator of where strengths lie is in noticing what comes easy and naturally. This is counter to conventional thinking, but, if something is difficult it’s likely because there is a less natural ability in that area of activity or subject matter.  Rather than push to “improve the weakness”, take note, and then keep looking for where things come easily and naturally.

Every one has all the abilities or aptitudes, all of our brains come with a stock package (recall the sound-mixing board mentioned earlier).  What is more important to be curious about is just how high or low the abilities are set relative to each other, as well as how the abilities combine into a comprehensive talent and personality profile.

What are the top three mistakes most parents do when bring up their children, in relation to talents and skills?

I would say the biggest thing is not really a “mistake”, but a lack of awareness about the underpinnings of human behavior.  To be aware that your child is born with a unique set of abilities is the key; kids are not a ball of clay that can be molded into something. Sure, they can be taught good manners, and how to be kind to others, etc, but these are social skills, not talents.  Kids are born with their own toolkit of talents and they will have them for a lifetime.

Another thing is to be very thoughtful about comparing your children to each other, or to other kids at school, etc.  They each will likely be strong, moderate or weak in different areas, find ways to honor them as individuals.  Emphasize the development of their strengths, help them put their weaknesses in perspective.

The third thing is to recognize as a parent that you are also a unique person, and that your perspective and view of the world is filtered through your own lens. Many of my adult clients tell stories of how their parents tried to “mold” them into little replica’s of mom or dad.  Once my clients have their aptitudes measured, they suddenly understand what part of the misunderstanding was—their parents usually have very different talents and personalities than they do, and different expectations about what “success” means.  For some parents it can be disappointing that their child is so different, it’s could feel like you are raising an alien child.  You never know what you’re going to get, it’s a roll of the dice . . . and the genes.

Will by listening to classical music or watching children development TV programs or taking certain diet increase a child’s intelligence?

I’ve heard of these studies, but don’t know much about their effectiveness.

Personally, what’s the biggest lesson you learned out of your experience as a career coach?

I feel incredibly fortunate to do the work I do.  As a kid I was intensely curious about other people and wondered about their thoughts and actions. My mother tells me that I’d come home from grade school and talk about the other kid’s feelings, as if I could read their minds.  Of course, I wasn’t very conscious of this “talent” in myself, I was just being.  Upon graduation from high school I decided to go off to college and major in electrical engineering.  As you might surmise, it was not a good choice for me.  Within a few years on the job I developed ulcers, depression, and a general sense of being completely lost.  It wasn’t until I was almost 30 years old that I began to recognize my own talents.  Fortunately I had a few good mentors who were able to nudge me in the right direction, and I’ve been on an incredible ride for the last 15 years mastering my field of expertise.

It didn’t take long into my new career as a career consultant to realize that my haphazard journey as a teenager and young adult was not a rare case.  I began to meet highly educated, directionless people so regularly that it hit me like a brick—very few people have the slightest clue about their natural gifts. This theory of mine continued to gather evidence in favor, especially after having coached thousands of highly educated adults, many from the best universities in the world.  I can say without hesitation that even the brightest people well into mid-career don’t quite know what they are cut out for.

My conclusion is this: We human beings were not “designed” (in evolutionary terms) to consciously know what makes us tick. Just like the rest of the animal kingdom, we simply “do” without much need to know “why”.  In terms of a survival advantage, why would the brain need to understand its inner workings?  We’ve made this far as a species without much “awareness” of these inborn abilities, and we did just fine.  The problem is, we are now living in a complex world and have to make decisions that will impact our health, happiness and well being over a very long life span.  It makes good sense to make our decisions with as much self-knowledge as possible.  Otherwise, it’s basically a stab in the dark, which is the reality of how most of us are taught to navigate life—“Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out later, when you grow up.”  As you see, most people never figure it out, and college is not designed to help us figure it out what we are best at (but wouldn’t it be great if it was?).

Scientists who study sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have begun to unlock the mysteries to human behavior, and even though it still politically incorrect to say it, the scientific community is pretty well convinced that we humans are born with a lot of our talents and traits already programmed in. Don’t get me wrong, we are amazing “learning beings” too, but we might as well learn and practice at what comes naturally.  Yes, if you put your mind to something you can learn just about anything . . . but if it doesn’t suit your natural talents, it won’t be much fun. (There is plenty of literature written about highly successful people, most of who say that their secret to excellence is doing what comes naturally, and sticking with it for the long haul).

Unfortunately, not much of this academic knowledge has trickled into everyday life yet.  For instance, our schools are not having this “natural ability” conversation and in my experience seem to be unwilling to go there.  Given how much we know about human behavior I think it’s a crime that our schools don’t use this knowledge. Interestingly, we all have seen in each other growing up the various expressions of different talents.  Why are some kids natural athletes, others are gifted and tinkering with broken gadgets around the house, while some can master a musical instrument fairly quickly?  Through the lens of the old paradigm, the answer would be dogmatically stated, “The harder you work the better you become.”  In my opinion, this bit of wisdom is misleading people. It usually is offered with the best of intentions and love, such as, “You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it.”  I would revise this statement, to “With hard work and dedication you can excel at things that come naturally to you.  If you’re working hard with little progress, you’re probably on the wrong track.”

Looking through the lens of natural talents and abilities, there is going to be a very different answer to the question of what it takes to have a successful life and career.  Of course, hard work is a part of the equation.  All successful people work hard.  But, it’s important to swim with the stream rather than against.  Working smart, by harnessing your natural abilities to solve a problem you find meaningful will take you a lot farther than the age old “nose to the grindstone” philosophy of life.

When is this tipping point going to come?  Well, maybe it’s up to parents!  Until we request (or demand) that our educational system integrate this new science of the mind, which may require starting a revolution, it will keep on doing what it’s comfortable with.  If things stay the same, chances are your kids will join the ranks of highly educated professionals (like all the doctors, lawyers and scientists I meet every day) who are “successful” and quite comfortable, yet still wondering what they really want to be doing with their life.

It was a pleasure to share this with you at Parent Wonder.  But I have to go now; my 9-month old Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Rosie, is begging me to go swimming.  The doggie parents at the park often ask me, “How did she learn how to swim so well?”  With a big smile I say—she’s a natural.

See also:
Interviews with other personalities and authors

Help Your Kids Find Their Own Identity

The Secret To Developing Your Child’s Genius And Talents