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.

  • Awesome post Trey. Sounds like it was a great conversation. Thanks for sharing such a moment. 😉

  • Great stories about Vic and his family! He is talented – anyone who sparks our minds with curiosity like he does is super talented! Well written Trey! I will follow him on g+!!

  • Anonymous

    This is by far your best post. I love the pictures and anecdotes about your travels, but this goes quite a bit deeper to the core questions of our purpose, competency and creativity. We can let ourselves become paralyzed with the seemingly limitless choices and possibilities in our modern world. The beauty lies in letting go, taking chances and seeing what becomes revealed to us. Easier said than done, no?

  • Sounds like Vic made an unfortunate choice in guitar instructors.

  • Anonymous

    I can relate to owning more equipment that a Nat Geo team. But I have always said that great photographers have the eye. It may be an esthetic, or it might be talent. But some people see things differently. I have been fortunate to take pictures alongside Life magazine photo winners, NASA photo people and very talented photographers. Somehow, their pictures are different enough to be great. That has never stopped me from trying to take “that one more shot” that will make me overjoyed. I still love taking pics and hopefully, one day, I too will create that piece of art that frees me to see things like those amazing photographers who “have the eye”.

  • Trey Ratcliff

    Thank you 🙂

  • I am more and more amazed with the humanity you have and that you share on this blog.  Your insight into the human condition and the way people learn and grow, in their curiosity and lives, sometimes takes my breath away and makes me shake my head in awe and wonder.  Thank you Trey for your child like attributes and shaman like sensitivities. Your soul seems to be much older that your are. For that we are all grateful. Every now and then you soar like an eagle in the way you “voice” your experiences in the world.  Keep soaring, my friend, and we all will watch and learn from you.  

  • This is one of my favs the colors are fantastic!  

  • Casper van Zyl

    Hi Trey,nice pic,you have humbled your self yet again but let us not forget where these inbuilt talents come from.We all of us have talents of different sorts its inbuilt in us and we have to discover them and then work on them.Many have become great at what they have done and many have destroyed them selves at what they have achieved. The problem is that many don’t have the solution to there problem in giving thanks to the very person who has implanted this talent with in there sole.                                                                                                                                                               Our loving Father Jehovah is the one that gives us all things,we have to just work on it.We ,that is all of us must not put ourselves on pedestals and when we discover our talent or talents we give him the thanks for God is the deserving one. The morale of the story here is not how educated or how illiterate you are its to whom you give the credit to for what you are given as in talent. Every one in life,is different some have the ability to build houses ,some are mathematicians, some judges,we are not all the same we have to fined these talents within and when we do give the praise and thank to whom you received it from. as you will notice no high fluted words are used for this was how I was educated only a year 7. The  rest I had to find out through life what I liked and did not like.Had 14 years in an orphanage with no family served in the military and survived.I am now going on 70 years and life has taught me one thing that is love your neighbour and humble yourself and give thanks. Second enjoy the blog that Trey has opened for the world ot see thanks.

  • Anonymous

    That was a most excellent piece of prose Trey.
    You have a “gift” for penning things in a fanciful fashion that moves the reader from the mundane to the whimsical.

    I will tell you what I think about “talent” but first I have to move backwards a bit and reveal something to you that helps explain many things about me.  And that is this – I do believe in a God.  I believe the universe is far to complex and infinity connected to have come about by chance.  The Fibonacci sequence all by itself forces me to see divince will and design and thus, by extension, purpose.
    I also believe that this divine entity, I will call him Jehovah, having put so much careful thought into this amazing machine we call the universe, of which we are a part, could not, or would not, have done so without a plan, a purpose.  And what then is our purpose, as part of this construct?  To grow old and die?  Of what purpose would that be?  There must be more.  Were we created simply to live, work, and one day pass away, often after unfulfilled years? Or worse, at birth, with no chance to have a chance?
    No.  There must be more.
    And this has what to do with “talent”?
    My thought is this, what talent we manifest while in this short lived mortal coil is more than likely due to chance.  What our parents liked.  What country we were born in.  What state the world was in when we were born.  What was put in front of us as children.  These things almost force a certain talent upon us.  We more than likely have MANY talents, but time and circumstance do not allow us to reveal or work them out in this short time we call life.
    I have always wanted to be a writer.  I have tried to write stories.  I have tried to write songs.  I have tried to write poems.
    Alas, I know that I have, at present, no talent for this.
    But I have hope that one day I will.
    And that hope leaves me smiling when I close my eyes at night.

  • Jasse Chan

    What a great post.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts . . .

  • Trey — this is one of the most well-written posts I’ve ever read from you. A great, thought-provoking read.  The travel-photography master takes us on a masterful word trip that transports us to the couch with you guys, exploring this curious realm of talent.

  • Anonymous

    Beautifully written, and a pleasure to read!  Thank you.

  • Keith Moyer

    I love your images…they sparked my initial visits to your site and pushed me to a different place with my own photography.

    But, what keeps me returning are posts like this one.  The peaks into your world, especially with reference to the conversations you have are really inspiring.  It feels like a renaissance of sorts.  Where art and ideas and the digital world all swirl around and we wait to see which ones connect to form new compounds (ideas). 

    Thanks and please keep sharing these conversations with the amazing people you meet.

  • Stephen Clarke

    Wow Trey…
    Wow what a wonderful post!  That is some of the most beautiful writing I have seen in quite some time.  I think I’ll just refer to you from now on as the ‘Bard’.

  • Brilliant and eloquent post here Trey! You truly have become an artist with words 🙂

  • Great essay, Trey.

    In defense of talent:

    However, with regard to musical talent, there it is clear to those of us with some musical talent that there simply are some others that can’t hear pitch and/or don’t have the coordination to play certain instruments. Others simply have hands too small for the piano or lips the wrong shape for the flute and/or french horn. Some just lack the coordination required to make the instrument do what they want it to do. However, with the possible exceptions of Motzart and Gunther Schuler, great talent honing is required to do great things.

    In photography, the physical limitations are clearly not nearly as exacting. Similarly, because in most photographic disciplines, one has the luxury of several seconds to think each time, the mental talent isn’t as critical either. However, it is similarly clear that you have an extraordinary eye for color. Yes you have honed it, but most men are simply more color blind than you are. (Women are less color blind because they have to genes, but your one gene is a winner.) There are other things that go into your talent. But in travel photography, hard work and perseverance can make up for a lack of talent.

    When I look at Vic’s photos on G+, I see him violating basic rules of composition, not getting down low when he should, and other simple photographic work that I’m sure he could change if he bothered to think about it. (Which seems odd if he’s lugging 30 pounds of photo equipment, but maybe he’s more preoccupied with being present to his family than being a great photographer.)

    Trey, you are an incredibly hard-working photographer, and your curiosity fuels that desire to work hard in this discipline. But I promise you that you wouldn’t have had the success you had if your mind didn’t see the world just a little differently and just a little more vibrantly than most of the rest of us do.

    Now its time for me to find something that I enjoy applying my curiosity to…

  • Lots of good thought and insight in this piece.
    The most interesting and though provoking   paragraph and something I will bring into my mind set is this:

    “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.”

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