Are you one in a million? Knowledge vs. Experience vs. Talent

You only have to open any Sunday job paper to realize that in all job offers the most valued thing is experience, followed by the qualification, i.e. the “base” knowledge of the candidate. At the same time, and according to the OECD, in some countries almost a half of university graduates have a job that falls one tier below their level of education.

Some have already been predicting for a while that knowledge is becoming a mere product. And I think they have a point. Information is becoming more and more available to anyone who wants to learn, so it’s no more a differentiating asset. You need more…


Well, it’s obvious that experience is very important, since it causes us to make lots of mistakes and learn from them. I learn a lot year after year from all the mistakes I make. Unfortunately, this experience always comes, by definition, late — when we’ve already messed up. As a proverb (I think it’s Belgian) says:

Experience is a comb that live gives you when you’re already bald


But, since in life you have to do similar things many times, I welcome mistakes.

You learn more from mistakes than from successes, and several years making them are a one of the best schools. But precisely because of that not all experiences are the same. Some people say they have 10 years of experience when really what they have is just the experience of a year repeated 10 times. And that doesn’t count. Not anymore.

What you really need to bring is…


I’m convinced that all of us have at least one natural talent for something. But unfortunately our education system doesn’t work with us so that everyone takes advantage of it. On this point, I must strongly recommend viewing the (already a classic) motivational speech of Sir Ken Robinson at TED on February 2010: Bring on the Learning Revolution!.

It’s a terrible thing to be dedicated to something you have no talent for and you don’t enjoy.

Of course, this is nothing new. Cicero, in the first century B.C., already said:

Natural ability without education has more often raised man to glory and virtue than education without natural ability

And that was more than 2000 years ago, but it seems it’s not yet clear for most of us.

But… what is talent?

Talent is something that is difficult to identify in others. It’s something innate that each of us knows how to identify within when we do honest introspection.

In order to try to explain it in general terms, I’m going to give you an example…

Let’s say you don’t know how to solve rebuses, the typical pictogram puzzles of Sunday papers, and that I’m going to teach you how to solve the following one:

Pay attention

The answer is easy: “Listen”.

The rule to solve it would be:

See if something in the picture is repeated and try to combine what’s repeated with the number of times it happens.

I’ve just given you knowledge, on how to solve this specific type of rebus.

Now, with that knowledge, look at the following riddle:

Multiple birth

The answer in this case is slightly different but it still draws upon the knowledge provided by the previous rule to solve it: “Triplets” (triple TS).

What I just gave you is experience.

If you now solve another 8 similar to these, in my opinion you won’t have 10 rebuses’ experience, but just the same experience 10 times. See where I’m going here?

To demonstrate it, now I’m going to give you a third rebus:

Trendy dwellings

Ok. This one’s just a bit different to the others. It has 8 Ts, so if we follow our previous knowledge and use our “experience” of having solved another 10 similar rebuses, we could be going over and over “T” and “eight”, but we wouldn’t get any further towards solving it based only on our knowledge and experience.

Here we need to think outside the box (lateral thinking) and give it an extra twist to arrive at the solution, which is “lofts” (L of Ts) :-)

In order to solve this last rebus, what we need is a talent to solve rebuses.

What this example shows in a very sui generis way is that a personal quality — a talent — can take us where knowledge and experience couldn’t.

Then, what?

I, for example, have the knowledge to use a graphic design program, but am hopeless at composition and I don’t have good taste for colors, i.e. I have no talent for design. That’s something that nobody can teach me. If I attend a good course, practice enough and watch those who are good at it, I could — probably — become an effective designer. But to be a real portent at this you need the three things.

What we should be aiming to develop is our natural talent(s), yet indeed together with knowledge (which is basically experience accumulated by others) and our own experience.

But beware! This sentence — which I once read, love and quote whenever possible — is quite eye-opening, I think:

Are you one in a million? Well… in China there are 1,300 others like you.

Talent on its own is not enough. However, in today’s globalized world where knowledge is a commodity and brutal specialization (tailored experiences), it will be what really makes the difference between people and, consequently, between companies and between countries.

Traditional education combined with social conventions (“You must study a degree, you must look for a good job…”) force us since childhood to act in ways that may not correspond with our true potential, our talent. And the long-term effect is a disenchanted generation, uncompetitive businesses and countries with a dwindled potential.

But, certainly, not everything can be blamed on society and the educating system. But that’s for another story…