Is talent overrated?


All right, I’ll elaborate. First of all, when I’m talking about talent, I’m referring to the so called “innate talent” - something that certain people seem to be born with, that makes them “special” so that they don’t have to work so hard towards achieving excellence as the rest of you mortals.. I mean, the rest of US mortals.. ;) I’m talking about the wunderkinds, the naturals, the gifted ones, the prodigies, the Mozarts of different fields, who stand out and amaze us with what they can do and how they can do it.

People want to believe in magic (and why wouldn’t we?) and that not everything has to abide by the boring rules of the real world, so they also want to believe that some people are simply born with an incredible ability that doesn’t require hard work or discipline to develop. People also tend to look for the easy way out in most situations, and what’s easier than saying “I just don’t have the talent for this” or “I just don’t have the right genes for this”? As good an excuse as any, I guess. But still just an excuse.

If you’ve read Anders Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise, then you know what I’m talking about. An excellent book that scientifically underlines what I’ve been trying to tell you guys all this time: you can achieve anything in life, if only you put in the work. Because there IS A WAY to excellence, but there is NO EASY WAY or magic shortcut. This article is basically a summary of the most important things I’ve learned from the book, so if you want more details and examples and descriptions of scientific studies, I encourage you to read the book, it’s great.

No such thing as "innate talent"

So, back to the “I don’t have the genes” BS.. Guess what? There is no such thing as a “football gene” or a “runner gene” or even a “music gene”. So far science has not found a case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense extended practice. By asking two simple questions: a) what is the exact nature of the ability? and b) what kind of training made it possible? seemingly magical skills become much more believable.

So, was Mozart really a wunderkind? Depends on how you look at it. There is no question about his astonishing accomplishments as a young child. But was he born with this talent? No. He was born to a father who was a composer and a music teacher and who began Mozart’s musical education before he even turned four. Some skills, including some musical skills such as the perfect pitch, are best developed at a young age. But everyone can develop them, with the right amount and type of practice. And the same is true for sports. Yes, there are cases where some people do have a genetic advantage in a certain sport. But these only include physical factors such as height. Clearly someone who’s five feet tall will have less advantage in playing basketball than his mate who’s twice his size. But height itself without the hours devoted to practice will not be enough to get him into the NBA.

So far, no one has ever found a gene that predicts superior performance in a given field. It is possible though that some genetically based differences do exist between people, influencing how well they perform. However, if there really are such differences, they are not something that affects the relevant skill directly (like a “music gene”), but are most likely to manifest themselves through the practice and effort necessary for developing that skill. This means that they might influence how likely someone is to engage in practice or how effective that practice is likely to be. For example, some people are naturally able to focus intently for longer periods of time. Since effective practice is dependent on the ability to focus in this way, these people are naturally able to practice more effectively than others. So while they do seem to have a little advantage here, this does not mean that they can achieve excellence without putting in the work, simply by being talented. The amount and quality of practice is the single most important factor that determines a person’s ultimate achievement.

The self-fulfilling prophecy

When people assume that talent plays a major, even determining, role in how accomplished a person can become, that assumption points him toward certain decisions and actions. Here’s what happens: we assume that people who are not innately gifted are never going to be good at something. Based on this, the children who don’t excel at something right away are encouraged to try something else. And so they stop practising, abandon the skill and the prediction comes true, just as a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, the children who get more attention and praise from their teachers and coaches for being “gifted” and more support and encouragement from their parents do end up developing their abilities to a much greater degree than the ones who were told never to try – thus convincing everyone that their initial appraisals were correct. Again, self-fulfilling.

The best way to avoid this is to recognize the potential in everyone and work to find ways to develop it. People don’t stop learning and improving because they have reached some innate limits of their performance. They stop learning and improving because, for whatever reasons, they stopped practising or never started.

How not to practice

Just doing the same thing over and over again without any focused step-by-step plan for improvement is not going to get you far. This approach is called naive practice and it is the approach most people take when learning a new skill. And while this is good enough to achieve a level of acceptable performance, it will not lead to further improvements unless you change your game. And that’s where purposeful and deliberate practice come to play. I will talk about deliberate practice more in detail in my next article (as it is the key to all expert performance), but the idea is this: you do something you cannot do – this will take you out of your comfort zone – you practice it over and over again, focusing on how exactly you’re doing it, where your weaknesses are and where you can get better – you try different methods until you find the one that works for you.

Everything starts with mindset

If you’ve ever read some of my previous articles or trained with me in the past, you should know how much emphasis I put on mindset. You do not come to my class with an “I can’t” attitude. (If you need a reminder, read this article). This applies as much to sports as it does to any other aspect of life. If you want expert performance, the first thing you gotta do is get your mindset right. And this includes letting go of these three common myths:

1. that a person’s abilities are limited by his genetically prescribed characteristics (this includes all the “I can’t” and “I’m not” statements);

2. that if you do something for long enough, you’re bound to get better at it (this refers to naive practice – doing something over and over in exactly the same way is a recipe for stagnation and not improvement);

3. that all it takes to improve is effort - thinking that if you just try hard enough, you’ll get better (yes you will have to try hard, but only by using practice techniques specifically designed to improve a particular skill will you be able to make real progress).

Once you abandon these beliefs, here’s what you’re left with: anyone can improve, but it requires the right approach. If you’re not improving, it’s not because you lack innate talent, it’s because you’re not practising the right way. Once you understand this, improvement becomes a matter of figuring out what the right way is.

Next week I am going to go more into detail about deliberate practice and the importance of mental representations for expert performance. So you have about a week to get your mindset right, erase all the “I can’t” and “I’m not” phrases from your vocabulary and start believing that with the right approach and a lot of practice, you can achieve anything in life.

"Deliberate practice is for everyone who dreams. It’s for all those people who want to take control of their lives and create their own potential and not buy into the idea that this, right here, right now, is as good as it gets" - Anders Ericsson

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