Active Thinking Topic 50 -  Natural and Unnatural Abilities

Monday 4 February 2022, 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm

Any replies to the organizer -

Venue: 44 Waymouth St, Adelaide CBD, South Australia

Talking Points

1. When has it been worthwhile for you to struggle with something for which you don't seem to have much natural talent?

2. How much of an advantage is there in being 'naturally talented' at something? When can that talent also cost in other ways? Real life examples?

3. How useful, or not, are psychological tools for measuring talent? e.g. IQ tests, aptitude tests, personality tests ... etc.

4. In every occupation a small number of people (say 15%) are superbly capable. The bulk of individuals get by and hold down a job but are uninspired. Another small group (say 15%) are incompetent to the point of being a menace to everyone around them, as well as to themselves. Why have these ratios never been really changed? Examples from your experience?

5. If someone has well above average talent in some area, they will often be resented (especially in Australia) and even socially excluded. How can they manage this situation? Play dumb? Seek out the company of like minds and limit contact with the rest?

6. Higher degrees, or membership of some culture or country (ref. American or Chinese exceptionalism), or even skin colour is enough to persuade many of those so certified that they are indeed special and superior to the rest of the human species. This is absurd when you look at it, but drives all kinds of outcomes from jobs to wars to marriage. What are some cures for delusions of exceptionalism?

7. Every culture, present and historical, has had some members who claimed to have unnatural abilities. These people may be shamans or priests or fortune tellers. They may be astrologers or financial advisors. They might salesmen or teachers or They might even be Youtube or Tiktok influencers. Who, if any of these characters have you been inclined to listen to? Why do they continue to hold such appeal to so many people?

8. How should we relate to people to people of obviously low intelligence (which is after all not their fault)? Like everyone else they will make judgements based on what they understand, so may not understand some of your attitudes or actions .. [IQ tests are a poor predictor of success in any field, or in the great game of life generally. However those with a measured IQ 80 or less (below the 9th percentile) do generally struggle (a bit like those with exceptionally high IQs) to get by comfortably in communities of average ability (IQ 100 +/- 20)].

9. There has been an endless argument since the beginning of mass education in the 19th Century about whether children should be streamed into ability groups, or learn to adapt to mixed ability classes. What are your feelings about this?

10. The Monkey King, Sun Wu Kong 孙悟空 , in Chinese mythology was an individual of extraordinary abilities. However he used these abilities in a destructive way at first, so the gods chained him under a mountain for 500 years. Upon release, a golden band was placed around his head. This band would tighten painfully if he got erratic. Wu Kong was then able to do great good. How would you apply this parable to the 21st Century? [... Elon Musk?]. Does great talent have to be constrained?


Extra Reading

Lisa Christensen, Jake Gittleson, and Matt Smith (August 7, 2020) "The most fundamental skill: Intentional learning and the career advantage". McKinsey & Company @  [Quote: "Formal learning opportunities account for only a small percentage of the learning a professional needs over the course of a career. Everyday experiences and interactions offer tremendous learning opportunities, but only if you intentionally treat every moment as a learning opportunity"].

Mind Tools Content Team (n.d.) "Learning Styles
The Models, Myths and Misconceptions – and What They Mean for Your Learning". Mindtools @ 

Tom Vanderbilt (7 January 2021) "The joys of being an absolute beginner – for life". The Guardian @  [Quote: "The phrase ‘adult beginner’ can sound patronising. It implies you are learning something you should have mastered as a child. But learning is not just for the young"]

Kevin Rawlinson (24 January) "British boy who taught himself to read aged two joins Mensa - Teddy Hobbs has taught himself how to read and count while playing on his tablet". The Guardian @ 

Lory Hough (Winter 2015) "What's Worth Learning in School?" Harvard Ed.School @  [Quote: "Professor David Perkins likes to tell this story: Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi was getting on a train. One of his sandals slipped off and fell to the ground. The train was moving, and there was no time to go back. Without hesitation, Gandhi took off his second sandal and threw it toward the first. Asked by his colleague why he did that, he said one sandal wouldn’t do him any good, but two would certainly help someone else. As Perkins writes in his new book, Future Wise, “People cherish the story as a marvelous example of a charitable act. And so it is, on a small scale, seizing a singular moment.” But as he also points out, and as he told an audience at the Future of Learning institute held this past summer at the Ed School, it was more than that: It was also a knowledgeable act. By throwing that sandal, Gandhi had two important insights: He knew what people in the world needed, and he knew what to let go of".]

Michael J. Sandel ( Sept. 2, 2020) "Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice. It’s having a corrosive effect on American life — and hurting the Democratic Party". New York Times @  [Quote: "Joe Biden has a secret weapon in his bid for the presidency: He is the first Democratic nominee in 36 years without a degree from an Ivy League university. This is a potential strength. One of the sources of Donald Trump’s political appeal has been his ability to tap into resentment against meritocratic elites". ]

Better Than Yesterday (10 March 2022) "Comfort Will Ruin Your Life" Youtube @

Emily Kitazawa (Jan 14, 2023) "How the Social Divide in Education Is Fueled by Jobs". Shortform website @  [Quote: "David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs describes how jobs that serve no purpose in society create deep social divides. According to him, pointless jobs foster resentment between college-educated “white-collar” workers and non-college-educated “blue-collar” workers." ]

Thor May (2014) "The Purpose of Education - a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy? .. Is education most commonly treated purely as an instrumental tool (e.g. to get a job), or as a path to self-development, or both? How can a balance between objectives be achieved in public education? " The Passionate Skeptic website @ 

Thor May (2015) "The Unexpected Power of Stupidity". The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "It turns out that stupidity is complicated. Your stupid act or mine may be boringly simple, but the whole mass of human stupidity acted out on a daily basis is a Gordian knot which may be beyond human comprehension let alone resolution, even as it strangles the life out of the planet. In fact I know it is insoluble because your simple minded stupidity, and yours, and yours … is beyond my comprehension. If we all understood each other perfectly 100% of the time, our judgements of other people’s stupidity would probably reduce by about 95%. We never understand each other perfectly, even after long acquaintance, and there is no prospect that we ever will understand each other perfectly (life would be extremely boring if we did). Therefore the best we can do with the stupidity monster is to sort out some of its more common disguises."]


Natural and Unnatural Abilities (c) Thor May 2023

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