A story about a kid with no talent…

We were doing a project—teams working away, except for two kids. One was playing video games in the corner because everyone knows teachers can’t see or hear you when you hide in the corner. The other wasn’t hiding so much as not working.

Both were clear violations of the “everyone gets 100%” rule.  “All you have to do is work. Automatic 100%,” I said.

The objective: to build something “for real” without the threat of a grade (more on “do it for real” and “everyone gets 100%” later).

I knew most of the projects wouldn’t see the light of day. That wasn’t the point. The point was to *believe* in them and work as if the Earth’s very existence depended on them and to use everyone’s talents and skills to do so.

That’s what happens in the real world—someone gets a crazy idea, convinces others to join in, and BAM, you’ve got a company, organization, startup doing things no one thought were possible… putting little computers in our pockets, curing cancer, sending space ships to Mars.

No one ever cured cancer or sent a spaceship to Mars sitting in my class—or yours—doing worksheets.

“You’re not working,” I said to the kid who wasn’t playing games. Let’s call him “Styles” because that’s his name.

(Warning: never befriend, confide in, fart in front of, or otherwise open up to an author, filmmaker, or comedian. You’ll end up in a book, speech, post, movie, or newsletter. If you’re lucky, they’ll change your name but everyone will know it’s you anyway, so best to just cut such people out of your life entirely…)

Styles said this: “I don’t have any talent.”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that line. Kids say it all the time. I ask them about their greatest gifts and skills, and that’s usually what they say.

  • “I’m boring.”
  • “I don’t have any talent.”
  • “There’s nothing special about me.”

It’s a universal theme of life.  When you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, you don’t see the supermodel staring back. You only see the zit.

“What do you mean you have no talent?” Styles is an amazing artist. None of the groups were doing art projects, though, so he didn’t find a team. Groups were tackling community problems, building products they thought the world needed, and a few were working on science things in need of breakthroughs.

So, Styles sat in the corner.


Usually when a kid says they have no talents, skills, or are boring, I say this: “So sorry you’re boring. Do you have any friends? It can be tough to find friends when you’re this boring.” I already know they have friends because I pay attention to such things.

“Did she just say I have no friends?” they’re thinking. “How RUDE!”

“Yes!! I have friends!”

“Thank God,” I’ll say. “Who’s your best friend?” Again, I already know the answer, but I make them say it out loud. That’s the key. Say it out loud, declare it, put it out there for real.

They give up a name or two.

“Ask her what she thinks your biggest talents and gifts are. Right now. Why is she friends with you? Report back immediately.”

Thanks to the magic of class cutting, hall passes, fake trips to the lab, texting, or video chat, I generally get an answer back pretty quickly—a laundry list of amazing traits, talents, and skills everyone else already knew about that kid.

“Is all this true?” I ask.

“I guess so…”

It’d be nice to get a confident “Hell YEAH!” but I don’t, usually. We’re programmed to see the best in others while we put ourselves down. Everyone who overhears the conversation (I make sure it’s overheard) agrees and adds to the pile of compliments.

“Great. So, you’re not boring, you have talents, and there’s a lot of good things about you. Here’s how you can put those things to good use.”   

Schools grade math, science, and Shakespeare, but there are a whole lot of things they don’t measure. Things like customer service, kindness, people and animal skills, sports and fitness, humor, organization, creativity… those are money skills, too. Once you call them out and believe in them… it’s easy to match them up with some action verbs that align with success, not “standards.”

Not just “okay-level” success, either—top-of-the-mountain success.


Back to Styles. “What would you do every day of your life if you didn’t have to go to school?”  He said video games, computers, programming…

“Listen up!” I interrupted the teams.  “Styles here says he has ‘no talent.’ But it seems he can design and build a website. Who wants Styles?”

There was a bidding war for Styles, now the most valuable kid in class.

Today, he’s amazing graphic artist and web designer.


I have a few questions for you.

The first is this: How many other kids are sitting in the corner waiting to become the most valuable kid in class?

The second:  How many adults are waiting, too?

Look for the square peg, the creative, the “older” “traditional” teacher who uses (gasp!) paper, the coach, the para, the lunch staff, the officer, the IT person, the nurse, the person who teaches those non-mainstream classes that don’t have a standardized test…

Who’s sitting on the bench waiting to be the MVP?

And finally…. What about you? When someone asks you about your talents and skills, do you “Hell yeah, or shrug? When you look in the mirror, what do you see? The supermodel… or the zit?

Just a few things to think about this week.

[Thanks to the person who inspired this. She responded to a Broke Teacher Facebook post with an open heart, thanking her teacher for believing in her. But, she said more than once she has no talent or skills. I bet she does. It breaks my heart when students–and adults–don’t see how special they are… not even a little.

And in many ways… schools do that. They label the smart kids. They call some kids leaders and other kids with the same traits “helpful.” There are awards for math but not compassion. Not that everyone needs a trophy, mind you. Everyone does need a high-five for their gifts, and to know they, too, have value. Even… and especially… the adults. ]