For starters. there is no such law. However, there exists a belief in most people’s minds that everyone is equally talented, and it is only that talent in different people is spread across different dimensions.
It starts when you are in school. If you are not good at maths, people tell you that you must be good at something else – arts perhaps. At that age it is perhaps not a bad thing – to be told when you are a child that you have no talent no way helps you in growing up. You are encouraged at that age to try different things, to find the thing that you’re good at.
And then you grow up. And you grow up with this entrenched belief of the “law of conservation of talent”. When you see someone good at something, you will assume that that is the only thing that they are good at. When you see that someone is bad at something you assume there is something else that they are good at. When you see someone good at more than the average number of things, you think they cannot be real, or that it is unfair, or perhaps that they are just faking it.
I once heard this story of a mother arguing with a schoolteacher that her son did not need remedial classes in maths. When told that the kid was indeed poor at maths, the mother responded “so what? He might be good at art. Why does he have to pass his maths exam for that?” (not sure I’ve paraphrased accurately but this is broadly the picture). While it might be a good idea to tell the kid that there is perhaps something else that he is good at, the mother strongly believing in the same thing is simply not done.
Back in business school, there was this set of people who claimed to have a deep passion for marketing. Now, these people belonged to two classes. The first were actually passionate about marketing – there was something about marketing that gave them a kick and they wanted to pursue a career that would allow them to generate such kicks. From my conversations with them I know the passion was real, and most of them are doing rather well now in their marketing careers.
And then there was the second type. This was the class of people who had found that they were no good at mathematics and accounting and economics, and thus figured that they had no hope of a career in anything related to any of these fields, and thus found refuge in marketing. Of course they wouldn’t admit that – they would also claim a deep passion in marketing. While that was okay – perhaps marketing gave them their best chance of pursuing a successful career, and thus I don’t grudge their choice – what got my goat was that these people would claim that because they were no good at the “hard sciences” (mathematics, accounting, etc.) they were “creative”. Who says that mathematics and accounting and economics are not creative subjects? And why does anyone who is not good at these subjects (it is impossible, for example, to excel at mathematics unless you are creative) automatically become “creative”? It is the law of conservation of talent, simple.
For people who are good at more than one thing, law of conservation of talent can bite you in more than one way. Actually there is more to do with this than just law of conservation of talent – people like to analyze other people by putting them in easily understood silos, or categories. And law of conservation of talent helps assign sets of talents to these silos.
Over the last two years, by hook or by crook, I’ve built my reputation to be a great quant. I consult with companies helping them with their quant and data stuff, I write a quant blog and I write a series in Mint on quant in elections. While it is all good and I’m glad that I’ve built a reputation as a quant, the downside is that people refuse to look beyond this and recognize my other skills.
For example, I think I’m rather good at economic reasoning, and I believe that my prowess in that combined with my prowess in working with numbers can deliver massive value to my potential clients. However, when people see me as a quant, it is hard for them to digest that I could also be good with economic reasoning, or behavioural sciences, for example. Thus, when I take on a mandate to do something beyond quant, people find it extremely hard to accept that I dole out non-quant advice too. I blame the law of conservation of talent for this – when people think you are good at quant, they exclude all other skills you might possibly have.
I’ll end this post with another anecdote from business school. A few months in, things were going well and I had (even back then) built a reputation as someone who was good at quant and mathematics and accounting and economics (in business school, all these fell on the same side of the fence, so the law of conservation of talent allowed you to be good at all these at once). Quizzing was a related activity, so I was “allowed” to be good at that. If I remember right, what perhaps upset people’s calculations was when I represented my class in the inter sectional basketball tournament and didn’t perform badly – based on reactions after the game I think people were a bit thrown off that I could be good at basketball too (especially given that I’ve never looked remotely athletic, and have always been a slow mover). Law of conservation of talent again!