Talent is What Annoys You

Insights from the FirstMark Design Driven Series, a monthly event that brings
together design, UX and product leaders to share new ideas.

Are you annoyed? Good! You're hired!

Because annoyance is talent, according to Paul Ford.

You likely know Ford from his writing, like “What is Code,” a 38,000-word dive into software engineering published by Bloomberg Businessweek. Or, you may know him as @ftrain, a pseudonym he adopted years ago that serves as the title of his website and other web handles.

Ford’s most recent endeavor is Postlight, a New York-based digital product shop. He’s currently in the process of building out the team and has scoured the web looking to answer “What is talent?”
He consulted the Oxford dictionary definition.

tal·ent
Power or ability of mind or body viewed as something divinely entrusted to a person for use and improvement: considered either as one organic whole or as consisting of a number of distinct faculties.

He reviewed the 10,000 Hour Rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, which holds that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed to become world-class in any field.

He searched for a corporate definition and found a slew of 9-box grids that rate “potential” on the Y, or vertical axis, and “performance” on the X, or horizontal axis. The vertical columns of the grid identify an individual employee’s growth potential within the organization, and the horizontal rows identify whether the employee is below, meeting or exceeding performance expectations.

Not surprisingly, blogging platform Medium is full of opinions on the topic of talent. Titles include: “Entrepreneurs: Follow the Talent,” “The One Skill That Beats Talent Every Time,” and “Learn to be Talented.”

A Google Image search surfaced “squares with inspirational crap in them.” Ford particularly likes “If you’ve got a talent, protect it,” attributed to actor Jim Carrey.  

This all led Ford to write his own definition:

Talent is the demonstrated ability of an individual, when they perceive errors of form, to take specific actions to correct those errors.

Or more simply… 

Talent is what annoys you.

“Have you ever talked to talented people, watched their hands shaking...there’s a set of nervous reactions that we have when we’re faced with sub-standard work,” Ford said.

Ford says talent is related to issues of form, which he defines as “a well-understood set of constraints.” There are countless reference works that define forms and how to be good - The Elements of Style, for example, which aims to prescribe proper writing form. Ford said these reference works tell us how to be annoyed with things. “They tell us what to worry about, what to freak out about, how to make things good,” he said.

Those who follow form closely are also likely to be annoyed with a lack of adherence to form - sub-standard work in their eyes. They are compelled to say, “This can be better.”

“When I’m hiring writers, I’m looking for people who are pissed off about bad paragraphs or lazy endings. When I’m talking to engineers, I’m looking for them to be upset that [code is] running slow or that the code is poorly structured,” Ford said.

Similarly, under Ford's rubric, the absolute best designers are the kind that zoom in on every design to find flaws in spacing, color or shape. Those who obsess with the placement of every last pixel. The kind of person who can identify when two blues are just a shade apart, or when element spacing is inconsistent by a single pixel.

The beauty of this definition of talent is its ability to drive actions, whether you're looking to build a team, or searching for your own calling in this world.

As a manager, you can choose to interview for annoyance. What happens when you present a developer with an inefficient algorithm, or poorly documented code? What happens if you show a designer a clunky and poorly-designed page? Based on the substance and intensity of her reaction, you can judge for yourself whether what annoys her-- what she instantly gravitates toward fixing -- is what will make a difference in your organization.

As an individual, asking "What annoys me?" represents an opportunity for self-reflection and self-discovery. Those who are searching for their professional calling may find their answer simply by focusing on what annoys them most in this world. And even those who have settled into a career path may discover renewed inspiration or an opportunity for focus, specialization, and advancement by scratching the itches that annoy.

Discovering what gets on your nerves could mean discovering your superpower, or finding superpowers in others. And that idea has the potential to be transformative.

So, just as Paul would, we have to ask...

What annoys you?