The Secret of Top Talent is not what you think

At High Flyers Agency, we are always challenging ourselves to redefine what makes “Top Talent”.


We meet people with strong track records, usually with international exposure, awesome experiences, and a great mindset.


However, it is really hard to define the actual patterns that help us expand our perception of Talent.


To help us,  we read a lot of books. Clearly, French literature is quite poor regarding the “Talent Question”, while the American literature is very extensive (I could write a long article to unveil the cultural and sociological reasons of this difference, but it is not my point today).


On Saturday, I read « The Talent Code », by Daniel Coyle. It was a very interesting read. Let me share some insights with you.


Ignition: where top talent start


“When you ask incredible people about the source of their passion, the question struck most of them as faintly ridiculous. The universal response is to shrug and say something like “I dunno, I’ve just always felt that way!”


It seems that Talent is a gift that you either have or you do not. However, in many cases, it is possible to pinpoint the instant that ignited such passion.


Per Daniel Coyle, ignition comes from a distinct signal, from something in your family, your home, or the set of images and people you encountered in your short life.


That signal sparkled an intense, nearly unconscious response that manifested itself as an idea: “I want to be like them” or “I want to do that”. It is not necessarily a logical, since perhaps the idea came about purely by accident. But accidents have consequences, and the consequence of this one was that they started out, ignited, and that made all the difference.


This ignition leads to indefectible motivation. And this motivation is strong enough to overcome any failure or mistake.


“Being highly motivated, when you think about it, is a slightly irrational state. One forgoes comfort now in order to work toward some bigger prospective benefit later on. It’s not as simple as saying ” I want X “. It’s saying something far more complicated: ” I want X later, so I better do Y like crazy right now”.


What are the signals of ignition? Primal Cues

Ignition often relies on primal cues.


“If we are in a nice, easy, pleasant environment, we naturally shutoff effort. Why work? ” But if people get the signal that it’s rough, they get motivated.


As a matter of fact, here are 2 cases that are worth studying :


Do orphans rule the world?


In the 1970s, Martin Eisenstadt, a clinical psychologist from Long Island tracked the parental histories of every person who was eminent enough to have earned a half-page-long entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica.


Here is a short extract :


Political leaders who lost a parent at an early age :

  • Julius Caesar – Father, 15
  • Napoleon – Father, 15
  • Washington – Father, 11
  • Jefferson – Father, 14
  • Lincoln – Mother, 9
  • Lenin – Father, 15
  • Hitler – Father, 13
  • Gandhi – Father, 15
  • Stalin – Father, 11
  • Bill Clinton – Father, infant
  • 11 Prime Ministers of England


Scientists and artists:

  • Copernicus – Father, 10
  • Newton – Father, Before birth
  • Darwin – Mother, 8
  • Dante – Mother, 6
  • Michelangelo – Mother, 6
  • Bach – Father & Mother, 9
  • Handel – Father, 11
  • Dostoyevsky – 15
  • Keats – Father, 8, Mother, 14
  • Byron – Father, 3
  • Emerson – Father, 8
  • Melville – Father, 12
  • Nietzsche – Father, 4
  • Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë – Mother, 5, 3, and 1 respectively
  • Woolf – Mother, 13
  • Twain – Father, 11



  • 50 Cent – Mother, 18
  • Aretha Franklin – Mother, 9
  • Jimi Hendrix – Mother, 16
  • Madonna – Mother, 5
  • Paul McCartney – Mother, 14
  • John Lennon – Mother, 17
  • Bono – Mother, 14


Movies :

  • Cate Blanchett – Father, 10
  • Orlando Bloom – Father, 4
  • Jane Fonda – Mother, 13
  • Robert Redford – Mother, 18
  • Julia Roberts – Father, 10
  • Charlize Theron – Father, 16
  • Benicio Del Toro – Mother, 9


The parental loss club is quite astonishing. On average, the eminent group lost their first parent at an average age of 13.9.


This is an elegant demonstration of the relationship between motivation and primal cues: the genetic explanation for world-class achievement is useless, because the people on this list are linked by shared life events that have nothing to do with chromosomes.


When we look at parental loss as a signal hitting a motivational trigger, the connection becomes clearer.


Losing a parent is a primal cue: You are not safe. This generates a massive outpouring of energy.


Other examples:


Here are the birth order ranks of the world-record progression in the 100-meter dash, with the most recent set world record first, the previous world record second, etc.

  • Usain Bolt: 2nd of 3 children
  • Asafa Powell: 6th of 6 children
  • Justin Gatlin: 4th of 4 children
  • Maurice Greene: 4th of 4 children
  • Donovan Bailey: 3rd of 3 children
  • Leroy Burrell: 4th of 5 children
  • Carl Lewis: 3rd of 4 children
  • Burrell: 4th of 5 children
  • Lewis: 3rd of 4 children
  • Calvin Smith: 6th of 8 children


The pattern is clear. None of them were firstborn. In all, history’s fastest runners were born, on average, 4th in families of 4.6 children.


Speed looks like a gift. It feels like a gift. And yet….in this case, the primal cue is: ” You are fast! Keep up! “


Of course, being born late into a big family will not make you Usain Bolt. Or losing a parent does not mean you’ll become Prime Minister of England or Julia Roberts.


It does not always lead to talent or achievement. However, it is a trigger that can generate opportunity, means, and motivation.


It does say that being fast or overachieving in your life involves a confluence of factors that go beyond genes and that are directly related to the intense, subconscious reaction to motivational signals that provide the energy to practice deeply.


Top talent and Deep Practice


Everyone knows that practice is a key to success.


Deep Practice is a specific type of practice:


” It is a strange concept that relies on events that we normally strive to avoid – namely, mistakes – and turns them into skills.”


“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter “.


” Experiences where you are forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them end up making you swift and graceful without you realizing it”.


Deep Practice can increase skills up to ten times faster than conventional practice.


Daniel Coyle summed up the « Secret of Talent » as follows:

  • Talent requires Deep Practice
  • Deep practice requires vast amounts of energy
  • Ignition – aka Primal cues – triggers huge outpourings of energy.


Not convinced (yet) by this theory?


Feel free to read (again) the speeches below, and connect the dots 🙂


Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”


J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech

“What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

(…) So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. “


” You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default. “


” Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies. “


Can you spot the experiences that ignited you or someone you know to become a Top Talent?






Most of the analysis in this article comes from « The Talent Code », written by Daniel Coyle.


You’re a top talent? Join our community here

Find this and more points of view on our Medium, High Flyers.

Hungry for more?

Check out all our stories!

Subscribe for fresh updates!

We promise not to span you with useless info.