On Talent and Curiosity

I’ve thought about this a while before writing it. There were many jumbled thoughts and the shapes of certain truths, and I’ve done my best to sculpt them into something tangible.

So I had a lovely dinner with Vic Gundotra at his home. I actually wasn’t going to mention it at all until he did first. I don’t know what to do in these situations since there doesn’t seem to be any protocol, and I didn’t want to see internet-gauche. And so, here I am, after the seal has been broken, telling you some interesting things about our dinner.

We talked about everything from aesthetics to technology to time dilation to sociology to string theory to channeling emotions into creative output. Along these lines, I found out many things I never would have suspected, and it made me think more deeply about these notions of talent and curiosity.

Vic sat on the couch (after sending his well-trained son to the wine-cellar!) with some cheese and crackers, and vest and wry smile, and began to tell me something I never knew. It turns out that he has taken years and years of guitar lessons. He’s even had a private instructor come over to his home time and time again. He played proficiently, but one day after a straightforward question, his teacher gave him the bad news. Vic shifted in his seat and looked forlorn when he said, defeated, “I have no talent for it.”

And then later, towards the end of dinner, he told me about all the camera equipment he carries with him when he travels. He has more lenses than a Nat Geo crew jammed into his backpack, which means he is well beyond a “serious enthusiast.” Again, there is a tiny sadness in him that he can’t quite create the kind of images he really wants. There’s no doubt he’s got many winner-shots of his family in there, but I can tell there is more he wants to do with all that equipment. He has been unable to achieve the excellence he wants. Then, the topic turns to me, and he finds out that I’ve been at this for only a short time, and he chalks this up to the ever-intangible “talent.”

The conversation meanders naturally from subject to subject as we travel down various paths. He talks about time and people and the internet and the tendrils that connect them all. It’s more of a poem than a technical dissertation. He puts ideas into the shape of a cloud, shapes them with his hands, and then floats them across the room, only to offer up another.

His son comes down and Vic starts sharing some of my photos with him. He tells his son, with eyebrows high, “Trey has only been doing this for five years.” His son’s eyes get big, but I do my best to dismiss this by saying, “You can do a lot in five years if you’re curious enough.”

And then Vic goes back to talking about the connections between all of us, and how he and the team want to, essentially, enhance the humanness and connectivity of everything. He jumps between metaphors that bind together the theoretical and the practical. While he speaks with placid erudition, I can see glowing lines connecting the words and ideas that stretch into the future.

And while he shapes thoughts, I feel the edge of an idea. He has, in essence, a “talent” — but certainly not one with which anyone would be born, as talent is normally assumed to be divinely implanted. No one would ever be born with a “talent” for building social networks; there is no inborn talent to naturally work with a team to re-organize the web from pages to people. But certainly, one could say, that Vic has a talent for it. And maybe this is where curiosity comes into play.

Curiosity may be another word for “playful work.” I think all of us kind of stumble through life until we find something that resonates. And then, maybe, if you’re lucky, the curiosity will kick in and let you create what has never been created. The curiosity can help you find disparate parts of a whole and re-synthesize them into something that’s unique, unexpected, and wonderful.

So, Vic is “interested” in playing the guitar and photography, but he hasn’t let his curiosity run wild there yet. Over the past few years, his curiosity has been using up all his brain cycles over in the human-connection tech space. But a curious mind will wander, and maybe someday he’ll be able to release and explore other areas. The curiosity does require letting go and becoming one with the flow of the universe. I don’t mean to sound too Zen or anything, but you do have to let go of existing structured thought in order to let the curiosity blossom into something new. And I imagine this is exactly what he and the team have done with Google+ — in that they have let their minds go wild with every possible universe. And when you can see many universes in your future, you get to choose the one you want to be inside.

So I left his home later that evening and had a long ride home, thinking about everything. I can’t help but get excited like a little kid at these sorts of things. I’m not ashamed to say it. To me, these are the greatest conversations of all – those that deal within the spheres and magisterium of ideas. The notion of Vic’s mind running wild with the possibilities of what can happen when people are connected is like a waking dream.

I think about his family with him just before I left him for the night. It occurs to me that the root of all these people is that little network he holds most dear — his family as they buzz around him with ideas and thoughts and voices of their own.

And there, just inside the warm home, I see this family move about here and there, and I come to understand him even more. I feel why he is happy and curious. His wife’s smile shapes his day and his gentle kids set his mind to the dreaming realms.

A Great Day at the Google HQ! Wow that was a cool experience.  Those guys and gals over there are super-nice.  You never know...  I guess maybe Google seems somewhat intimidating from the outside, but after I met guys like Cliff, Brian, and Chip -- I felt right at home.I gave an hour-long talk in one of their theaters there.  It was super-packed and people were standing all around because seats were gone.  We were graced with the presence of one Sara Jane Todd from @Peachpit to help out selling books - and we sold out!  Also, my Brazilian friend Fabio, the editor of Abduzeedo was there too, so it was great to see him.The Authors@Google (video link) program has a neat deal where they subsidize books, so Googlers don't have to pay full price.  I saw all kinds of cool stuff and took a lot of pics.  I have to get most cleared with Google Corp Comms before I can release... but I nabbed shots of a spaceship, a new pseudo-holodeck, and more mysteries await!  We even got to eat lunch there in the Google cafeteria, which had some of the most excellent food I've ever had in such a setting... they even have a small organic farm on the campus... well, I could go on and on...  but I was very impressed and happy to meet so many enthusiastic people!The video should be done in the next 2-3 weeks or so.  We've got good-man Brian at Google slaving away on editing the whole thing together!- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

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