José Antonio Marina






In which it is made clear why I have written yet another book when there are so many already in the bookshops.


‘Talent’ is in fashion. The number of books about it grows continuously. Surprisingly, these do not tend to be works of psychology, but rather books about management. Psychologists tend to abandon the concept because they don’t think it rigorous enough. At best they connect it with being ‘gifted’ or possessed of ‘special abilities’, which doesn’t throw enough light on the subject at all. Several years ago, The Economist mentioned that the world of business was using the word ‘talent’ a great deal, but did not know how to define it. They didn’t want to know about it, simply to use it.[1] You must admit that it is difficult to manage something without really knowing what it is. It’s like saying that you organise ghosts, sell auras, or think about smoke.

Recibe antes que nadie historias como ésta

In spite of these difficulties, I believe that we need to use the concept of ‘talent’, whether we call it as such or by a different name, because the term ‘intelligence’ is now both insufficient and static. We talk about it as though it were a faculty we were born with and which all we can do is administer as best we can. Science tells us otherwise. Intelligence brings us into a world which is constantly redesigning itself, building itself up or breaking itself down. Human intelligence is transformed into talent once it widens its horizons, once it begins to enact its creative project on itself, once it starts to grow. This is the story I want to tell in this book.

Simultaneously, I need to tell you a part of the story of contemporary psychology, which has, with various advances and retreats, explored this complicated territory. For centuries psychologists connected intelligence and knowledge. This is what ‘cognitive psychology’ or even ‘Artificial Intelligence’ are still doing today. ‘Reason’ (in its broadest sense) and science are the archetypes for this kind of thinking. It is an attitude that has pushed the worlds of motivation and emotion to one side, seeing them as a hindrance to intelligence, rather than some of its fundamental components. But it is easy to see that emotion without reason is blind, and reason without emotion is paralysed. This is something that Hume knew, but it was actually proved by the Portuguese neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. People who, after an accident or surgery, have the neuronal links severed between the cognitive and emotional areas of their brain are perfectly capable of reason, but they are unable to take decisions.[2] It is as though they lacked the energy to take the final step towards action. The idea of ‘emotional intelligence’ tried to fill this gap, but it was not able to provide an integrated vision of the human mind. Now we know that we can only create such a picture if we consider that the function of intelligence—the function of the brain itself—is not to know things, or to feel, but to direct our actions. And everything else revolves around this objective.

Action—rather than knowledge—is the unifying element of psychology. Robert Sternberg, a great psychologist, edited a book called Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid.[3] And it is true: an extremely intelligent person can behave in ways that are particularly unintelligent. And in such a case, how should we label this individual? This was a question which interested me so much that I wrote a book, La inteligencia fracasada (Failed Intelligence: The Theory and Practice of Stupidity), in an attempt to explain it to myself and to interested readers.[4] What remained after this was to study the other side of the coin: La inteligencia triunfante (Intelligence Triumphant), by which I meant the kind of intelligence that does not limit itself to understanding and processing information, and managing emotions, but rather takes the best decisions it can and puts them effectively into practice. The main axis of psychology is the movement from knowledge into action, which is the definitive test of its processes. What this shows is that, beyond cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence, the new model which is emerging and which combines everything else is that of executive intelligence,[5] intelligence in action and geared towards action. We do not think in order to gain knowledge. We think in order to act. And talent is intelligence, acting in a way that is suitable, brilliant, efficient. This is a concept that combines both activity and the assessment of that activity. And so, alongside the idea of studying how intelligence functions, we should also create a practical science aimed at developing talent. This is a major idea of the day. Thomas Homer-Dixon, from the University of Toronto, asks in alarm: ‘Are we going to be capable of generating the talent we need to resolve the colossal problems that now face us?’[6] There is a universal interest in improving the methods employed to create talent, and this book wants to be a contribution to this act of creation.

In order to begin putting things in order, we need to know how intelligence can transform itself into talent, because this is a question of vital importance. How can we think better, feel better, take better decisions, carry them out more effectively? We are starting to understand the untiring and unseen looms where our desires, ideas, projects and feelings are woven. And this is the journey we will make in this book. We will discover the surprising truth that an understanding of how the human subject is structured allows us better to understand how organizations, companies, even society, all function. But we should not be surprised, because the brain, as Marvin Minsky shows in The Society of Mind, is a society, the most complex society we know, composed of one hundred billion active members (the neurons), which organises itself in the most efficient of ways.

And it does this via a particular activity which we carry out so easily and spontaneously that we find it hard to see how important it is: learning. The brain, an organism which is very similar in all humans, continuously modifies itself on the basis of experience, to the extent that apparent identity—one brain looks very like another—can in fact conceal completely different worlds. Saint Francis does not live in the same mental world as Jack the Ripper. This capacity for learning draws us ever further away from our animal ancestors. The beasts all have some capacity for memory, but our memory is wider, more flexible and above all, it has become a tool which we have learned how to manage and utilise.

Human evolution—like evolution in general—is determined by the blind game of mutations and natural selection. But also, by our capacity for learning, which is the third evolutionary force. This force is made powerful by a single decisive factor: Not only are we able to learn more than other animals, but we can decide what it is we want to learn. In physiological terms, what this means is that we can redesign our brains. We can turn the intelligence we are born with into talent, and we know how to manage our memory. Perhaps it will be strange for you to hear me say this, because our idea of memory is slightly condescending and false. False, because, as I am going to show you in detail, memory is not the bureaucratic filing cabinet or the tedious photocopier which we tend to envision, but rather it is the origin of our creativity, our capacity for progress, our freedom. It is the great transformer, the absolute condition for creativity. It can be conservative, but also revolutionary. One title I was thinking of for this book was In Praise of Memory. The capacity for memory in the great creators of the past is proverbial. Mozart was capable of playing a complex piece of music from memory after hearing it only once. We have known for a long time about the memory capacity that the greatest chess-players have. The same thing happens in the world of business. Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric, widely considered one of the best executives of the past century, could remember every single detail of one of the largest companies in the world. Harold Geneen of ITT Corporation was famous for having the same ability. Steve Ross, the founder of Warner Communications, thought that the ability to carry out mental calculations was a great advantage. ‘I hate calculators; they make everyone equal,’ he said. Apparently Warren Buffet has the same kind of ability.

This is an optimistic book. Not optimistic with the slightly flaccid optimism of self-help books that promise us all that we can become instant millionaires[7], but optimistic because it describes how neuroscience shows our capacities to be even greater than previously thought. My job in this book is the organisation of a huge amount of scientific information from various sources, all of which I’ve indicated in the notes. The notes are the true biography of the book and of me at the same time, and so I’ve put them at the end, in a section with what is perhaps a strange title: Autobio(biblio)graphy. The biography of a research project is inextricably intertwined with the books that the author experienced during his journey. The structure of the book is as follows:

Part one: Defining talent

Part two: Generating individual talent

Part three: Generating talent in organisations



Additional Warning

This book, which deals with human beings and their intelligence, could also have been called A Treatise on Prodigious Machines. Is this because I believe that human beings are machines? No. I use the word ‘machine’ in a poetical sense, like the modernist poets did. ‘Man, from birth to death, is a machine for making toys’, wrote a delicate, occasionally sentimental poet called Amado Nervo.

What I understand by the term ‘machine’ is a collection of elements capable of automatically carrying out processes which produce an object, whether mental or physical. A famous Austrian physicist, Heinz von Förster, said that there were trivial machines, in which an input always produces the same output, and non-trivial machines in which the output changes.[8] The great sociologist Niklas Luhmann believes that humans and societies are non-trivial machines.[9] I mention these two figures simply in order to give a certain degree of scientific support to my personal belief.

Before starting the book, I would like to suggest a Universal catalogue of machines.

Type 1. Physical machines. They transform energy into work. They are trivial.

Type 2. Physical machines which can learn. They are sophisticated mechanisms which change depending on the effects they produce. Computers are hybrids: both trivial and non-trivial.

Type 3. Biological machines. They are organic systems which automatically carry out organic functions. For example, chlorophyll. They are trivial.

Type 4. Biological machines which can learn. The same as Type 2, but more easily tired. They are both trivial and non-trivial machines.

Type 5. Prodigious machines. These are non-trivial machines which produce non-physical creations, which can intentionally regulate their functioning. For the time being we are only aware of two kinds: human beings and societies.

I want to make a confession. What I want to do in this book is emphasise what is admirable about human intelligence, capable of transforming extremely simple mechanisms, basic operations, into the source of marvellous creations. This is not, then, an attempt to reduce the human being to a mechanism, but to emphasise his capacity to overcome his humble origins. It is a hymn to the greatness of humankind.


Defining talent



Why is Talent Important?



In which it is explained why we have entered the age of talent

without being entirely sure of what it is, and also how the

author defines this theme and plots it on a map.

1. The new wealth of nations

Two of the most influential books in the whole of European culture were written because their authors were bored. First, the Discours de la méthode. On his return from a military campaign, René Descartes found himself trapped by the snow alone in a room with a stove. Without anything else to do, he started to think about what he knew and what he did not know. Secondly, The Wealth of Nations. Adam Smith, the Duke of Buccleuch’s tutor, was spending a season with his ward in Toulouse. He didn’t know French and was bored. ‘I’ve started to write a book to pass the time,’ is how he puts it in a letter to his friend David Hume. This book was the point from which all modern economics develops. Now we need to write another one called The New Wealth of Nations, to which the current text might serve as prologue. There is a universal consensus that we are now living in a knowledge economy, and that the prime wealth of nations is not raw material, agricultural production, demographics or financial capital, but rather, talent. It is not surprising that in certain countries scientific research and universities are now dependent on the finance ministries of their respective governments.

In 1997, a study carried out by the consultancy McKinsey launched the slogan ‘the war for talent’, which as a phrase had large repercussions.[1] It is well known that there are points at which ‘magic words’ appear which seem to explain everything. And now, lots of studies are published which measure the talent contained in organisations, countries, even entire economies, but always, in my opinion, with an error in their approach.[2] In all these studies, talent is mentioned as though it were a rare and valuable gem that needs to be fought for. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about the world of business or that of football: the important thing is to sign the best. International surveys—for example, the one carried out by the Corporate Executive Board—show that for three quarters of the directors of human resources state that their chief activity is to discover and retain talent. This has led to a spectacular increase in the values of contracts signed with individuals, to the extent that a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review asked whether the talent economy might not be ‘overvalued’.[3]

Handbooks on talent also ask the question of how talent might be managed and maintained, always giving the impression that talent is a finite, even rare, resource.[4] This idea is a part of an understanding of the world that is static and, in my opinion, old-fashioned. Its idea is that there is a determined quantity of a particular resource—a cake—and that the only thing to do is to share it out properly, getting as large a piece as possible. This is the antithesis to a creative vision of intelligence, a capacity which is capable of invention and of amplifying our possibilities, our wealth, our talent. Although the metaphor is a little odd, human intelligence is a veritable cake factory.

2. Introduction to talent theory

Given that the economy has been our starting point, I’m going to use an economic simile as an introduction to the theory of talent. Current economic theory uses a great number of different definitions of the term capital—monetary, human, cultural, intellectual, emotional, relational, communal and so on; but all of them have something in common: Capital is a set of accumulated resources which increases the chance of action or production for an individual, a group, a company or a society. In order to clarify the concept a little, and also because it is the way I have been trained, I’m going to break this definition down.

Resources are things, people, possessions or capacities which can be used to help resolve situations. The earth, fisheries, people, infrastructures, technology and tools are all resources. That is to say, sources of solutions or necessary instruments for the realisation of a particular project. A person with many resources is one who has a large available repertory of solutions, goods, capabilities or ideas.[5] Marvin Minsky, whom I’ve already mentioned, thinks of the brain as a collection of mental resources.[6] In this, he shows himself to be at the cutting edge.

Accumulated. Capital is a deposit of resources. Intellectual capital is as well. It is a collection of knowledge, skills and abilities. To take a metaphor from physics, it is ‘potential energy’, like that of the water in a pond. It only turns into ‘kinetic energy’ when it starts to flow. Intelligence, in this model, is potential energy, and talent is kinetic energy.

Increases the chance of action or production. I want to keep the idea of ‘chance’ or ‘possibility’ in my definition, as it is an essential element for understanding human beings. The way our intelligence interacts with reality is by viewing possibilities, anticipating the future, building plans. We change reality using invented unrealities. Mathematical calculus enables us to build a bridge or put a plane in the air. The possible is that which is not yet real but which might yet become so. ‘Possible’ and ‘power’ both come originally from the same root, the Latin word posse. In Spanish one might say of a rich man that ‘He has a lot of possibilities’ (tiene muchos posibilidades). Capital is constituted to permit possibilities that otherwise would not exist.

We can define intelligence as mental capital, measurable, as are all forms of capital. But, if we go back to the economic origins of the metaphor, what has traditionally been said about capital is that it is an asset which has two characteristics: it is the result of investment (in the case of intelligence, the investment is in education) and that it generates income over time (this is measurable by achievements, CVs). But in order to achieve this income, capital has to be properly invested. In such a case, capital, instead of being spent, increases. The same thing happens with intelligence. The act of investing intelligence wisely is talent. We can perhaps go into a little more detail, give a hint of things to come. The way in which capital is accumulated is via apprenticeship, and capital (a collection of resources) is formed from habits of various kinds: intellectual, personal, creative, executive. Investment is action. If the action is successful, then it not only achieves one’s aims, but also increases the initial capital: intelligence. This is the schema as it is described in this book:


Talent is capital (intelligence) + good investment (good use of intelligence).

3. A strange etymology

The history of words is a source of surprise and information, because it tells us about secular experience. For example, the Spanish word ‘timbre’, meaning ‘stamp’ or ‘official paper’, comes from ‘tripa’, the word for ‘guts’. Guts were used in the past to make drums, drums appeared on noble coats-of-arms, the coats-of-arms appeared on seals that were used to authenticate documents, and so the second meaning followed the first. The stories of etymologies combine reason with the ...