Talents do not always transfer to other areas

February 15, 2009
Peter J. McDonnell, MD

He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

Everyone is given a special talent, which, if developed, can allow them to perform their talent really well. This explains why there are great singers, superb artists or musicians, and gifted mechanics, to name a few professions. Those talents often are limited to that particular setting, however; they are not always transferable into another area.

Key Points

"For example, he said, "take the 1921 Miss America. She stood 5 feet 1 inch tall, weighed 108 pounds, and had measurements of 30-25-32." How do you think she'd do in today's version of the contest?"

The class fell silent for a moment. Then one student piped up, "Not very well.""Why is that?" asked the professor."For one thing," the student said, "she'd be way too old."1

At a get-together recently, my neighbor's niece, who had read and admired these books, announced that she would one day become a contestant for the crown of Miss America.

"That's wonderful," said the former Miss America, "and have you decided what your talent will be?"

"Oh, yes," said the young niece. "My talent will be swimming."

My friend finds this story charming. She loves the image of a Miss America contestant rolling a large vat of water onto the stage during the talent competition. She loves the confidence, excitement, and optimism of the young girl. And she loves the girl's matter-of-fact assumption that, since she has this talent, it will of course be appropriately displayed in any situation.

We all possess special talents. If we are very fortunate, we have a chance to exercise them every day and make a living doing so. But talents often are limited to a particular setting; they are not always transferrable.

This story reminds me of the comments of a former LASIK patient of mine. She was a nurse who worked with a world-famous cardiac surgeon. He also was being asked to take on more and more administrative duties.

One day she said to me: "Every minute he is not in the operating room is a terrible waste." What she meant was that because he was such an incredibly gifted surgeon, it was a shame that his time was diverted to other tasks.

It's my belief that all of us are given certain talents that, if developed, allow us to do certain things remarkably well. Some of us are great singers, others are superb artists or musicians, and some are gifted mechanics.

In medical school and residency, some learn that they "have great hands" and can develop into stellar surgeons. Others discover that they have the ability to take a history and gather data, then quickly synthesize all the information and arrive at the correct diagnosis when others have failed; they become the great diagnosticians. Others have a flair for taking difficult concepts and organizing and presenting these in a manner that allows others to quickly learn, and these people become our outstanding educators. Similarly, others find they are talented in the lab, designing experiments that shed light on disease pathogenesis or potential new therapies. When people find they have a certain gift or gifts, it usually is very rewarding to use it/them.

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