Scott Galloway does not understand talent

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Reason vs. sampling

Steve Jobs says "Always follow your passion".

Scott Galloway's notorious advice is not to follow one's passions, but to rather follow one's talent. Allegedly, most kids will waste their time trying to become YouTubers or replicate successes of Ronaldo or Taylor Swift. In healthy development, children outgrow their unproductive passions and keep exploring new pathways until they find one that maximizes their productivity. This process is called sampling and is driven by reward in productivity (and solid learning outcomes).

Most authoritarian parents, however, have no patience for child's passion. This is where Galloway's advice can inflict actual harm on children.

Passions are the best guide in optimum adaptation to the environment

Incremental transformations

Not only is Galloways advice invalid from the point of view of neuroscience. It is also unworkable. Passions are a product of a valuation system in the brain. They cannot be extinguished by means other than a slow process of natural incremental learning, or much faster redirection with the use of coercion. Scott's advice would be a first step towards coercion and an unhealthy brain. The advice is also likely to fall on deaf ears or even evoke reactance thus magnifying the "unwanted" passions. The advice is only likely to work on people who are in the process of revaluation, e.g. due to their disappointment with lack of success which is the only healthy way to undermine old passions and let new passions grow.

In conditions of perfect freedom, revaluations are continuous and non-disruptive. Old passions may wane while new are born. The proverbial 10,000 hours will work only if they are powered by the energy of passion. From there talents emerge. The only people who believe in Galloway's claim are those who had to make themselves unhappy through rational revaluations and who accomplished major success as a result. The scar of self-discipline may never heal, but those people live their lives in conviction they made a good choice, and others should make that choice too.

Great people are passionate

Galloway admits that the root of his reasoning comes from the difficulty to imagine how some forms of success might stem from passion. All passionate people can explain the roots of their passion. It is enough to ask. A Finnish lady found passion in cleaning toilets, and her videos perfectly explain the reasons. I cannot stomach well-schooled paragraphs of Polish education law, and still found a great passion for getting rid of that trash driven by the vision of a simple education reform. Human brain will discover passionate pathways to all productive activities in existence. The vision of a clean toilet or a clean law are sufficient to build the necessary network of ground knowledge. As much as it is true about schooling, voluntary progress driven by the rewards of productivity is needed to avoid jumping semantic distances that cannot be bridged with an instant sense of satisfaction.

Without passion there is no greatness

Trap of self-coercion

Passion and talent coexist in positive feedback. There is also a rich and complex feedback network between coercive self-discipline and the unhappy state of mind. The latter feedback network tends to be chaotic. On one hand, more coercion requires more coercion. On the other, the penalty of coercion drives in the direction of freedom. A person who tries to unhappily self-discipline herself into productivity may end up depressed. She may also end up freed by the realization of futility of unhappy efforts. Most often, a well-schooled human drifts through life torn by temptations and periods of self-disciplined reform.

The escape from destructive self-coercion is made possible by the natural tendency of the brain to go for happy productivity. However, the earlier one goes for the exit the better the chance for natural adaptation.

Freedom throughout childhood is the best formula for passion and great talents

How do you find your talent?

How can you find your talent by following Galloway's advice? Few talents are inborn. If you are very tall, you can think you got some attributes of a great basketballer. Other than that, talent emerges via learning and the greater the passion the greater the learning.

Galloway is right that if you point a finger to your talent, there are ways to get to love it. However, the optimum trajectory towards love is based on maximum love.

Galloway says that nobody chooses to be a great accountant. I doubt it, but if most people become accountants against their preferences, they apparently follow Galloway's advice, which is not as unpopular as the media paint it. Great people tell you "Follow your passions". Your granny may disagree and say: "hard work is the way". If there ever was a shortage of accountants, the passionate accountant would help create computer games that infect kids with love of the job.

Galloway says you will learn to cherish your ability to take care of your family. This sounds like stating the obvious: with a bit of effort, even a prison can be loved. Why not then any job? However, it is simpler to just pick a job you love in the first place.

Jobs are boring primarily because they are not transformed by people with passions. Passionate people instantly see ways to improve procedures. They eliminate the boring (e.g. with automation) and focus on the fascinating.

Talents emerge in a spiral synergy feedback between passions and productive effort

The Age Factor

Bruce Feiler crisscrossed America to study people stories in the light of work and work satisfaction. This makes him incredibly knowledgeable in the subject. However, knowledge did not prevent Feiler from producing a horrible diagnosis that needs to be falsified with facts of brain science (source):

Follow your passion is one of the worst pieces of career advice [...] The idea of locking into a passion early is a preposterously bad piece of advice

Feiler adds:

I asked everybody, did you follow your passion? Did you discover your passion or make your passion? Nine out of 10 people did not follow their passion

The logic is equivalent to asking an average marathoner if he respects his sleep. Most of marathoners don't, and this contributes to their not winning. Instead, one should ask Steve Jobs. Ask winners for their formula! If you ask Wozniak, you will hear "All my waking days I followed my passions, and this is my formula for a happy life".

Feiler may be excused by seeking what works for adults. Most people are unhappy with their job, but if we ask only those who are happy, we may come closer to a universal prescription. Asking Jobs or Musk may suffer from the survivorship bias. Asking people who are contented with their life is most sensible. A mom fresh out of prison may be delighted with just being a good sober parent. The kid is the passion.

Most of all, the error in Feiler's reasoning is rooted in discounting childhood and the impact of compulsory schooling. If a 50-year-old thinks of career change, simple "follow your passions" advice might be 45 years late. Here Feiler justly suggests "digging". Instead of "climbing" on a career ladder, a middle-aged explorer is asked to dig deep into his needs, his life story, his family and his life context. I insist that this is nothing else but digging for those scraps of passion that survived undamaged.

A 4-year-old with no constraints should follow her passion. No doubt. It is only natural that she would start from dreaming about being an actress, or a singer, or a YouTuber, or a footballer. As Feiler observes, passions mutate, and this serves adaptation. From gaming one may quicky evolve to become an engineer, graphic artist, or a programmer. The advantage of youth is that (1) passions are not polluted by coercion or the trauma of failure, and (2) that youth is free to explore without the pressure of time. A middle-aged explorer may have a long history of trauma, and history of working against his own inclinations. His passions might be largely extinct. Most of all, there is a pressure of time, or circumstances (e.g. financial pressures). The equation is different. Pure advice "follow your passion" may indeed be unworkable. There might be a frog to swallow at the start of the new journey.

Follow your passions! The older you are, the harder the start!

For balance: Feiler presented his great story in this absolutely lovely TED Talk.


To follow your talent, you first need to identify it and develop it passionately. If you follow your passions, your talent will emerge. It may happen at thirty! This long germination period makes people impatient and fall for Galloway's advice. Fortunately, free people are passionate enough never to worry about their own greatness. They need no patience. They enjoy every minute of their journey. See: Passion and memory

Greatness requires freedom and lots of time

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru