Coded gray.

Thursday 4 October 2007

Screenshot City of Heroes

Pic of the day: Superheroes everywhere? Unfortunately this picture is from the online game City of Heroes rather than my own Kristiansand. And I doubt this will change anytime soon.

Talents and self-help books

Have you noticed the enormous amount of self-help books available these days? You can learn to speed read and remember everything instantly. You can learn to overcome shyness, laziness, lack of concentration, or insomnia. You can learn to attract the opposite sex and create lasting, intimate relationships with spectacular physical, emotional and even spiritual effects. You can heal yourself from any illness and live a long, healthy life. And you can acquire any skill you may want, easily, and keep it for life. All with the help of an affordable book or at worst a course.

I might be excused for expecting to meekly make my way through a crowd of superhumans, each with almost godlike abilities (or at least competing favorably with the Greek demigods of yore). Just today I saw someone offer a course that gives you ESP and the ability to heal others… much like the Lightwielders of my fiction, only in a week of easy reading and short practices, rather than decades of constant preoccupation. Yet the actual number of superhumans I meet is disappointingly low. While a few may think they qualify, their coworkers certainly don't think so. (Neither do mine, probably, although they would not say it to my face.)


I don't know if our talents are decided before birth, but I am convinced that they are set in stone by the end of toddlerhood at the latest. After this, a talent may forever remain hidden, if you don't live in a culture where people are aware of it. But no new ones can be added.

This neatly explains the people who write "super memory" books and such. Let's say this guy has a talent for remembering facts by visualizing them. He can do this at amazing speed and remember them virtually for life. But nobody teaches this in school, and he doesn't discover it until he is an adult, when some random circumstance causes him to associate some data points with an image. Suddenly he is able to learn more in a week than he used to learn in a year. He becomes a super genius, and decides to share his secret with the world (for a reasonable fee, of course) by writing a book and selling it. All other people with the same talent who read the book will be able to use it to some degree, while the rest of us will just see some babble.

I have a talent for learning words from context. When I see a new word used, my brain attempts to determine its meaning from the words around it. (Toddlers do this automatically, but it fades dramatically in most people as they grow up.) When I left high school, I knew only a few thousand English words. This remained so for the next decade or so, until I happened upon the novels of Piers Anthony. I would not be surprised if these alone doubled my vocabulary. I went on to read other English novels and non-fiction, now within my capacity, and rapidly added another 100 000 or so words. But not all people can do that. Some have to memorize lists of words, or use them repeatedly in exercises, or have them demonstrated on video. The means vary. It depends on what exactly your language talent is (if any).

Conversely, I cannot draw. I started to study engineering at one point in my youth, but gave it up because at the time engineers had to draw by hand rather than on computes. I could not copy a simple line drawing. I still cannot. My mind is copying, but my hand is not. For comparison, you may want to try drawing with your foot, or with a pencil held with your teeth. Not too easy, is it? "It is just a matter of training", sure, but most of us don't have enough lifetime for that kind of training. Thus my motto: "If at first you don't succeed, find something you have a talent for instead."

It may well be that you find your talent in a self-help book or video, but in that case you could probably have found it by simply being told to try this or that without going through a whole book. Conversely, the vast majority of the books and courses are likely to have no effect, or minimal, on most people.


There is also the very real possibility that some of the "self-help" literally only helps the author, namely to earn money from gullible people. It is hard to say for sure how many are snake-oil salesman. We know that this profession in various forms has been with us through the ages. As a rule of thumb, I would guess that the more outrageous the claims, the most likely none of them are true. Getting godlike powers over the weekend may make for a great fantasy novel, but obviously you'd notice if people around you really underwent such a change.

And despite decades of activity, most people are unhappy with their lot and hard pressed to rise to even everyday occasions. True, there is some progress in the human race, most notably the so-called Flynn Effect, by which each generation is measurably more intelligent than the previous. (Incidentally, this seems to have tapered off in the most advanced countries, but less developed countries and ethnic groups are still catching up.) Perhaps people are becoming more aware of their talents, rather than having their basic capacities extended? I don't know, but I know that the improvement can be measured in children, who rarely have read a self-help book. Most of them would probably be well served to continue that way.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: One relative less
Two years ago: Fast forward
Three years ago: Elderly Sims
Four years ago: The examined life
Five years ago: Be(a)st game ever?
Six years ago: "Unbreakable" laws
Seven years ago: Ethically impressed
Eight years ago: Philosophical reflections

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