The Too Many Aptitudes Problem

(Condensed from Danger: High Voltage)

Hank Pfeffer
[Out of date contact information omitted.]

Talent is a force, not a tool. Talent is neither good nor bad. Being multi-talented is a very mixed blessing. For some people, it is a curse.

Ability or performance is the result of complex interaction between various parts of the mind/body system. Some parts of ability are due to "nurture." The most important of these environmental factors is knowledge in one form or another. Nature is the basis of talent.

We all know, understand, and operate on more levels than just the conscious. Talents or aptitudes are unlearned abilities--gut-level and non-conscious ways of operating. Some people call them knacks. Aptitudes have a major impact not just on performance, but on our individual and unique states of being. They are a big part of the reason "One man's meat is another man's poison."

Most people know far more than they realize about knacks and talents. People usually know if they are mechanical, have a sense of direction, pick up languages, enjoy puzzles or are good with their hands. Anyone who has managed or trained people has seen the clear impact of unlearned abilities. In any area, some folks take to it like ducks to water. Once trained, they stay ahead of the crowd. Others sweat to keep up, or fail miserably.

Strong talents do not equal high performance. Having the right knacks or talents provides a head start and ongoing advantage. They are not very useful without knowledge and motivation. Aptitudes have to be trained in order to be used well. Peak performance occurs when one has the right combination of talents, knowledge, motivation, opportunity, courage, luck, tools and the X factors.

About two dozen different and independent aptitudes are pretty well known, with another couple dozen possibles and probables (see attached list). These talents are simple things: types of memory, ways of processing information, levels of perception. They are building blocks for more complex ways of operating. They operate in a systemic way and are important factors in long-term performance and behavior.

Everyone seems to have each aptitude to some degree--high, mid-range or low. These seem to be genetic in origin, though a case can be made for the influence of early childhood stimulation. It is a moot question for adults. By the time someone passes puberty, the aptitudes are roughly stable (when performance on aptitude tests is compared to others in the same age group).

Talents can be consciously directed into constructive channels. However, they seem to work at a pre-conscious level--the gut level. They are always operating--continuous forces that cannot be turned off. This is very important under stress, when people tend to forget their training and revert to gut-level functioning. People with the right aptitudes/talents/knacks for a task don't fatigue as quickly and are less or not at all stressed by it.

Though most of the research has focused on their functional aspects, talents impact on people in ways both obvious and subtle. Aptitudes are not simply tools to be used at will. They are ongoing forces within the mind/body system. In a way, talents are vectors affecting behavior in predictable ways. You don't just do things with talent--it does things to you. Aptitudes--high and low--have an extremely strong psychological, social and even philosophical impact.

Aptitudes have an important impact on motivation. It feels good to use a high aptitude, thus reinforcing operating that way. Feeling good about using yourself in a particular way is almost certainly related to the production of endorphins. Not only pain killers, endorphins are also known to be mood regulators. Several kinds of endorphins have been isolated. There are probably as many endorphin types as there are aptitudes.

Some of the feelings associated with strong talents are negative. An unused aptitude is a source of frustration and restlessness. A talent is also a need. Ongoing in its functioning, an unused aptitude must either be stifled or ignored. It takes energy to stifle a part of yourself and to neutralize or ignore a natural and ongoing tendency. It also doesn't feel good. This takes its toll in the long run. Motivational energy seems to be finite--the extra effort needed to stifle a part of yourself is an important factor in burnout.

Low aptitudes are also important. Almost anyone can learn to do a task or pass a class by rote, but if the gut level "knowing" is lacking, performance is inferior to those who have the knack (other factors being equal). Without that deep level of knowing or understanding, self-confidence is lower. If people don't have a gut-level feel for a situation, they are never really comfortable there. It is anxiety producing and energy draining to operate in low-talent areas. Without the inherent rewards associated with high aptitude, motivation is lower. It isn't impossible to get motivated--just harder.

Low-aptitude people make more errors and achieve less in that area--or work a lot harder to achieve the same results. This can lead to burnout, accidents, and a high level of stress-related illness. It is possible to learn to be better at anything, whatever the level of aptitude. However, with the same effort, people with the right talents for that activity stay ahead--and enjoy what they're doing. For them, operating in a particular way is cost-effective on many levels.

Most jobs and tasks are best performed by folks with certain high and low aptitude combinations (plus other things like training, of course). High aptitudes beyond job needs cause problems. The optimum combination for any given job or task resembles a recipe--a lot of some things, some of this, a bit of this, and none of that.

Just one wrong high aptitude can make a job intolerable for a person--like onions in a chocolate cake. A person with a strong knack for working with others might hate solitary work and quit, but be tremendously productive and satisfied as part of a team. Whether a high or low aptitude is good or bad depends on the context. Anything can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on the situation. Talent is no exception.

Most people have about four or five strong talents out of the roughly two dozen independent aptitudes known to exist. Most jobs require about four or five. As many as 10% of the population has double that number of aptitudes--and that is a problem for them and their employers. The Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation, the oldest aptitude-testing organization in the country, has statistical evidence that people with too many aptitudes (TMAs) are less likely to obtain advanced education and/or succeed in a career than those with an average number of talents.

Being a TMA is a very mixed blessing. Strong talents are extremely powerful internal forces. One of the most important implications of my aptitude research is the strong possibility that emotional intensity is directly correlated with the intensity of a talent. Someone operating at a high-intensity level of talent (including reasoning) will also be operating at a high-intensity level of emotion. Every thought, memory or perception is directly connected to emotion--a wholistic phenomenon.

It is quite possible that TMAs are continually operating in a hypersensitive manner. People hypersensitive to external and internal data in many forms and operating at a high emotional intensity level might very well become overstimulated. Ongoing overstimulation could explain the paralysis felt by some TMAs. They are so overwhelmed by perceptions, memories, thoughts and feelings that they can't commit themselves to anything. Many of them need a lot of time alone to regenerate. Yet, this same turbulence can also lead to great insight and creativity.

The existence of a powerful force implies difficulty in learning to harness that force. Having a lot of strong talents is a bit like dealing with high voltage. You can do a lot of things with high voltage. However, it can also fry you. It takes a lot more knowledge and more safety precautions to work with high voltage rather than low. A lot of that voltage for TMAs is emotional. Few people know how to handle normal emotion, let alone powerful, ongoing emotion.

Among the clearest psychological effects of having many talents are problems of focus. TMAs are drawn in many different and conflicting directions. It is like being an engineer, a lawyer, a cook, a teacher and a musician--all at once, with all of them demanding their share of time and energy. Self-structuring thus becomes a major problem for TMAs. Unable to use themselves well, they usually end up as employees--and resent it.

TMAs often become job hoppers, instinctively trying to satisfy their diverse needs. Job hopping rarely leads to financial success. It also doesn't lead to the consistent building of knowledge, expertise and reputation that is necessary for significant success in any area.

TMAs often don't fit in well with organizations or groups. They are rarely willing to give up their perceptual and decision-making independence for the sake of group membership. Basically, they are saying "I will join only on my own terms," which is unacceptable to most groups.

Pecking orders exist in any human activity. TMAs often cause problems to the hierarchy. Most TMAs aren't really motivated (or all that impressed) by money or power. They feel that they are anyone's equal and want to be treated as such--a state of mind that is often seen as a direct challenge to authority and the authority structure.

Hyper-critical and often irreverent, TMAs cannot act as if the boss were always right. They notice the Naked Emperor and comment, or expend a lot of energy stifling themselves. Consistently commenting on imperial nudity is seen by others--especially bosses--as aggressive.

TMAs usually have high reasoning aptitudes. Folks like this don't like applying pat answers to routine problems--it doesn't use their reasoning ability. They need to work things out by themselves, need to solve real problems. This can be a strength or a weakness (ever wonder why some people won't read instructions?). At work they often feel they are operating in low gear and tend to gravitate to fringe or trouble areas. Without problems, TMAs will often find some or make some.

TMAs are powerful people. They are competent in many ways. They tend to be either domineering or overwhelming in relationships with others--only strong people aren't threatened by them. TMAs often develop considerable informal power at work or in groups. At work a strong manager is thus likely to require more submission gestures from a TMA than from others. That invites covert (or overt) retaliation and TMAs often find themselves in conflict with authority.

Rarely identifying with group norms, and sometimes challenging the basic assumptions of the group, TMAs are often resented and feared by peers and subordinates as much as by authority figures. Clearly perceived by others as powerful, they are also seen as dangerous and unpredictable and therefore untrustworthy.

Thus, TMAs often don't receive the rewards and protection offered by the group. They recognize this. Their alienation leads directly to the idea that "The system and the rules don't work for me, so I've got to do something else." This can mean crime or creativity, or both. It also seems to mean internal conflict, self-esteem problems and confusion.

These problems are usually not apparent at first glance. At any given time the TMA appears to be functioning very well. Often, the TMA will be brilliant in many aspects of work and life. It is only over time that the pattern of difficulties begins to emerge. It often leads to destructive self-criticism or self-hatred--TMAs seem to have a rather high suicide rate.

The worst-off TMAs seem to be the ones who try to be normal. This includes using normal definitions of success. TMAs often find it personally destructive to try to fit into normal molds. They aren't normal. Not better, not worse. Different, and with different needs.

TMA is not something that can be ignored or cured. It is something that has to be worked with. For most multi-talented people, it is likely to cause problems at one stage of life or another. Many TMAs never learn to use themselves well. Usually their worst problems are associated with lack of financial or professional success. Though there are no easy answers, there are better or worse ways to work with TMA.

Not all TMAs are unsuccessful. TMAs seem to function best at frontiers--intellectual, social or physical. These are the places where learning and doing are the same thing. They can operate well at interfaces between different parts of society--liaison and translation. They often do well as troubleshooters, innovators or problem solvers, in research or investigation, and in product or method development. They also seem to do quite well in situations like the Alamo, fighting long odds and staving off the inevitable.

TMAs are most likely to be happiest with work that provides a lot of variety, challenge and opportunity for use of diverse talents--usually multi-disciplinary areas. Even then, many TMAs feel that they are underachieving, that they could do great things. And they are usually right. The only thing that can motivate the TMA to focus enough for really high achievement is a value judgment.

TMAs are usually hypercritical, a side effect of high reasoning aptitudes. They notice flaws and loopholes, errors and inconsistencies. They notice that 90% of almost anything is bullshit. They are usually good arguers and can tear just about anything to shreds--including themselves.

TMAs will sometimes set goals, prove to themselves that these goals are worthless, and then repeat the entire cycle. Each decision can be challenged, each goal can be laughed at--and thus nothing is worth doing. This destroys personal motivation and energy.

Money, power and self-aggrandizement don't really motivate TMAs. Only finding something worth doing--by their own high standards--can motivate TMAs to focus enough for sustained very high achievement. Then and only then can the powerful forces of the diverse aptitudes be channeled.

TMA is a broader category than high IQ. Most members of high-IQ groups will be TMAs, but there is a bias in favor of people with high Near Point Visual Efficiency, which makes them more likely to be prolific readers, have more formal education and do better on computerized tests. Many TMAs don't walk the intellectual path. Mensa claims to be the top 2%. I think there are a lot more TMAs than that.

List of Apparently Independent and Unlearned Aptitudes

A. Category: Reasoning/Processing

1. Systems reasoning: an information organizing aptitude that takes data and puts it into a system, or takes data and organizes it into a system. Often the basis of an interest in history. Analyzing things. Useful for programmers, editors, process planners.

2. Flash reasoning: condition of (mostly) accurately jumping to conclusions, quickly seeing discrepancies and errors, with a need to be critical and answer questions. Natural debaters, they take strong partisan positions. Therapists, troubleshooters, detectives, lawyers.

3. Cause/effect reasoning: seeing extended parallel cause and effect sequences. This awareness of the long term makes it easier to conceptualize and achieve long-term goals in diverse areas.

4. Numerical reasoning: a feel for the patterns and rhythms in numbers. Arithmetical type activities.

5. Logical reasoning: naturally processing data in the form of syllogisms. Programmers, logicians.

B. Category: States of Being

1. Mechanical/spatial: an aptitude for things and 3D space. Mostly found together, the mechanical and spatial can exist separately. Engineers, air traffic controllers, doctors, truckers.

2. Semantic equivalence: aptitude/need for group functioning, including people politics and the ability to identify with others, read vibes well. High: sales, management. Low: useful for specialists, artists and independent decision makers.

3. Idea production: rate at which ideas are produced (independent of idea quality). High: communicators of various types. Low: useful in high concentration areas like accounting, surgery.

4. Sensory discrimination: making fine sensory discriminations. Winemakers, coffee buyers, decorators.

C. Category: Memory/Perceptual Sensitivity

1. Observation: aptitude for looking at things, recognizing and remembering them.

2. Number (visual): remembering, noticing numbers.

3. Design: sensitivity to and memory for designs.

4. Word (visual): memory for and sensitivity to written words.

5. Color: memory for and sensitivity to color.

6. Tone: memory for and sensitivity to tones.

7. Rhythm: memory for and sensitivity to rhythm and timing.

8. Number (audible): memory and sensitivity to spoken numbers.

9. Word (audible): memory and sensitivity to spoken words.

D. Miscellaneous

1. Near Point Visual Efficiency: close-in visual scanning as in paperwork, CRT screens.

2. Finger dexterity: good hands.

3. Small tool dexterity: tweezers, eyebrow pencils.

Possible aptitudes:

Hands-on task-organizing ability, spatial orientation, sensory threshold/overload point, body memory, common sense, green thumb, competitiveness, auditory identi/fication, day/night alertness, intuition, synesthesia, healing, affinity for animals, seeing auras.

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