Scott H Young

The Myth of Talent


Talent is a myth. At some point in your life you noticed that some people were unusually good at certain things. The brainiac who aced all his exams. The star jock who scored both on and off the court. The person who oozed charisma and everyone loved. Why were they successful? Some people probably told you it was because they had talent, a natural affinity for greatness. I think they are full of crap.

This lie of talent, of gifted-ness has to be one of the most poisonous lies people have deceived themselves into believing. The belief that certain people, maybe even us, were born with abilities that you lack the power to replicate. Unfortunately, if you tell a big enough lie enough times, people start to believe it.

Long ago people use to believe that the earth was flat, the sun revolved around us and lightning was hurled from the top of a mountain by a guy who gave birth to one of his daughters from his forehead. Just because something can explain an observation, doesn’t mean it is correct. The same is true for the myth of talent.

With researchers like Dr. K. Anders Ericsson beginning to say that talents are developed from huge amounts of conscious training, rather than gift, we are starting to see more scientific evidence toppling this myth. Michael Jordan may have been born slightly better suited for basketball, but without all the years of training, nobody would take a second look at his ‘talent’.

Discrepancy of Skill

Genetic factors between human beings are minor fluctuations. I would argue that if you are of at least normal intelligence, almost nobody in the population would be more than twice as smart as you are, maybe even less than that, depending on how you measure it. Yet, there are people that earn hundreds of times more money than you, have effectiveness in skills hundreds of times greater than you.

Inborn talent isn’t enough to explain this vast discrepancy of skill. Bill Gates might only be 5% smarter than you (or even less), but his paycheck is considerably more than 5% of yours. If that doesn’t explain success then what does?

I believe at some point every person who develops a high degree of skill stumbles onto the right formula for success. Inborn talent might be able to explain small differences in skill, but it can hardly account for the huge differences present in society.

Conscious Practice

The process of developing a skill seems to be largely the same, no matter what area you look at. That’s the process of practice followed by reliable feedback. If you want to get better at something fast, practice it lots and practice it right.

A few weeks ago I decided to take up some Latin dancing classes on a whim. But I was accidentally enrolled in the intermediate class. By focusing carefully on everything the instructor said and by getting immediate feedback from a helpful dance partner I was able to keep up with the class and had about ten hours worth of learning compressed into just one.

I made huge leaps in my public speaking skills because after each speech I did, I was evaluated and used those evaluations to pick out points of improvement. This iterative process meant that with just an hour of investment each week for a few months and I’ve had a few people think I had been practicing for years.

In my public speaking skills, I have had people tell me I was a natural. But looking back at my younger days I don’t really believe this to be the case. I improved fast because I practiced a lot (I believe I’ve missed fewer meetings and done more speeches then anyone in our club) and when I did practice I focused ruthlessly on making iterative improvements each time.

Let go of the belief that others have a talent you can’t learn. Success is a skill. Skills come from an intention to work and the formula for doing so. Don’t fall into believing the myth of talent.


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29 Responses to “The Myth of Talent”

  1. Inspiring and interesting article. And I agree (although I don´t know how much genetics matter for a guy like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, but I´d say it´s a lot less than commonly believed).

    I think that really successful people stumble upon a passion in life. Finding that allows them to train for hours and hours one day. And then do it next day again and still think it´s fun and so on. Although I don´t think it´s always that fun to train your put or free-throw for hours on end.

    But the genetics-myth is really ingrained through social programming. I thought it was the truth for many years.

  2. Yogi Sharma says:

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for a nice article. I almost agree with what you say, but the picture is not as black and white as you have painted it. Your points apply more or less, unless it comes to some exeptions (called Child Prodigies), especially in the area of basic sciences and mathematics. I could enlist some of them, like Paul Erdos, Terence Tao, Brian Greene (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_child_prodigies if you want to read about them).

    I do think that making money and building relationships can be done with “practice makes perfect” approach, but making a five-year old multiply 30-digit numbers, that requires something more than that.

    Therefore, the theory is not as clean as you have sketched it. This in no way means that your theory is unacceptable, but it just means that there are some excpetions, as it is the case with most theories.

    Thanks again for a nice article,
    Yogi

  3. Yogi Sharma says:

    By the way, thanks for the navigation links you have added (may be on my request a couple months back), they are very helpful.

    Thanks,
    Yogi

  4. Scott Young says:

    Henrik,

    I absolutely agree that passion is essential.

    Yogi,

    People who are geniuses simply have discovered a pattern of thinking that is highly effective. If you take a look at something like the peg or link for memory techniques, you can start to see this. I feel the reason genius is so seldom replicated is because few people really understand what those patterns are, even the geniuses themselves.

    I know I can’t multiply 30 digit numbers in my head, heck I probably can’t even multiply 3 digit numbers in my head without errors. Does this mean Brian Greene, at five, is ten times as smart as me? No, I just think he discovered a process for doing so that I don’t use. Much of his process might be subconscious, so he doesn’t even know why it works.

  5. David says:

    While a person’s education and experience certainly contribute to their “talent” in a certain field, there is absolutely a biological component to all of this. Within your DNA are instructions that guide the formation of your brain. These genes are mutated just like any other gene, and we see birth defects and developmental abnormalities that result. Some children, regardless of how good their teachers or how educational and nuturing their environment is, will never develop “talents” that everyone else will take for granted. If our genes allow our brains to underperform, why presume that the same processes can’t allow it to overperform?

    When you say a savant that can multiply 30 digit numbers in their head has simply discovered a “process” for doing that, perhaps they are simply taking advantage of an innate property of their brain that you do not possess? Bear in mind that many of these “gifted” children exhibit their gifts very early in life, sometimes before they’ve been given any significant education. You can’t reasonably suggest that talent isn’t innate in these individuals, and if it’s innate in some people, why presume that some degrees of talent (and “anti-talent”) aren’t in all of us?

    Nature vs. Nurture, right? It’s usually a combination of the two, not one or the other.

  6. Wulfen says:

    My contribution to this thread is this link:

    http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~djtaylor/genius.htm

    Here it is explained based on studies, than to achieve a world-elite level of competence you need to train at something intensively for around 10 years.

    I myself am not, and have never been, a fan of becoming highly skilled in something in particular. I prefer to learn a wide variety of skills because variety is fun. So I’m not in a hurry to excel at anything in particular, I usually prefer to find synergies and take advantage of them (example: computer skills + PUA skills = cool PUA website).

    But I don’t always do it to synergize. One of the things I want to learn is to play guitar (at this point I know the basics). It’s completely different from what I already know, and can’t be combined with anything else. But it’s cool so I’ll learn it ;)

    Rock Hard, Ride Free,

    Wulfen

  7. Dan says:

    Hi Scott

    I agree with you with all my heart :-)
    Please read our blog, discussing exactly those issues, an example of dealing with TALENT – http://www.opherbrayer.com/my-research.html

    Best regards,
    Dan.

  8. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comments David, Dan and Wulfen.

    David,

    My argument basically breaks down to (1) Natural, unconscious talent doesn’t explain the huge variety of skill levels and (2) Just because something may or may not have a genetic bias doesn’t mean it is impossible to learn and train those abilities into yourself.

    Genetic factors do have an influence, but for most skills they get washed out when compared with conscious practice and developing the right strategy for thinking/learning. Just because something has a genetic factor doesn’t logically preclude it from being learned (just that some people are more inclined to learn it naturally).

    Yes I’m generalizing and there will be some small exceptions, but there aren’t any universal truths in anything anyone has ever written down, just some relative ones of varying strengths.

  9. David says:

    Hi Scott,

    I completely agree with most of your last comment. In my eyes, however, “talent” is a person taking advantage of skills that they are predisposed to master. Lots of people without that predisposition can become masters of the same skill, but this isn’t what talent is. Most definitions of talent involve an innate quality, which I equate to a “utilized predisposition”.

  10. Pamela says:

    I agree. Everyone can do it if put our mind and some time into it. As what everybody’s been saying that passion is a tool.

  11. Alex Shalman says:

    I wonder what Douglas over at talentdevelopment has to say about this =)

  12. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comments David, Pamela and Alex.

  13. […] The Myth of Talent – Productive personal development-blogger Scott H Young delivers a great, and somewhat controversial, post. […]

  14. […] And this is just pretty much like when you do anything in life. I don´t really know how important talent is. But I do know it´s not all talent. Success comes to a large degree from a lot of work and practise, as fellow personal development blogger Scott H. Young writes in The Myth of Talent. […]

  15. Thanks for that, I’m going to tell all my athletes and clients that! Great summary!

  16. I believe there is more to genetics and natural abilities than you state, but most all of us can achieve greatness by working really hard and following through with our plans. All the success in my life has came through hard work, vision, planning, and actually doing what I set out to do.
    Tiger Woods is an example of a person that worked really hard to become a great golfer, but there are those in sports that I have trouble believing they worked very hard. They are naturally strong and fast and have made it because of those genetic abilities.

  17. Scott Young says:

    Scott,

    Do genetics matter? Of course they do. But until we get sophisticated genetic sequencing and unlock the secrets of the genetic code, it is mostly a mystery. In this sense, genetics are almost worth discounting because you can’t know in advance how they will influence your results.

    My advice is simply not to limit yourself into a box of what you are programmed to be talented at, but instead use your drives and ambitions as the limiting factor. There might be some extreme cases where genetics will severely disadvantage you, e.g. if you want to be a 4’5″ NBA player. But most the time this isn’t the case, so don’t use innate talent as part of your decision making.

    I’ve excelled at a lot of things people told me I wasn’t suited for. I use my ambitions and interests as a deciding factor of what I want to master.

  18. […] A few months ago, I ran across an article that nagged at me. Scott Young argues that there is no such thing as talent, and that with enough perseverance, anyone can develop skills, regardless of talent. […]

  19. […] In his blog post The Myth of Talent, Scott Young writes, “This lie of talent, of gifted-ness has to be one of the most poisonous lies people have deceived themselves into believing. The belief that certain people, maybe even us, were born with abilities that you lack the power to replicate.” […]

  20. mark stanley says:

    No, no, no..you people have it all wrong. I am a prodigy..and I have known first hand how I acquired it. It was through random events in my childhood that just ‘happened’ to make the correct ‘formula’ for learning. It was luck…but this ‘formula’ can be learned. It just means that I ‘found’ it by chance. You can find it…and once you do, you will have the same ability. Its like, if a thousand balls are thrown in one direction, the chances one will fall through a hole in the woods is high. Its the same with children…its not anything to do with genes…the person just ‘happened’…through chance, to get the right process. However, since you are older, you will require a lot more concious effort to acheive what I acheived by chance at a young age. Your thought process is already formed…ways of thinking are already habit. It will take effort to find and re-create a thought pattern that is more efficient.

    Its harder for you, but its not impossible. Once you have this insight and discipline. You can do it. People just often do not have the time to spend on little steps. This makes the world relatively not improove. Maybe the day where we can read minds to minds this mass ailment can be remedied and the most efficient thought processes will prevail.

  21. Facility Thurgood says:

    But what of the talent of motivation?
    Some are genetically predisposed to work harder and focus for longer, so whatever they’ve achieved has been a result of their genetics as well.
    How one handles a situation is at the very lowest level due to genetics, and so true motivation can’t be fabricated if one lacks it.

  22. I agree 100%!

    There were people when I was growing up who considered me a musical genius, and IQ-wise, I tested as a genius (145).

    The more I live and the more I read, the more I consider this to be bullshit.

    I am currently an elementary music teacher. And I HATE the word talent! There is not a SINGLE student of the 400 I have, who is more capable than any others of understanding music. This includes those in the gifted class and those in the special education class. If these kids have the right experiences and exposure when they are young, their potential is infinite, which is why I teach elementary and not junior high or high school. Research indicates that age 9 is the approximate point when musical aptitude is determined. What happens before this age has a profound effect on what can happen afterward. And guess what — genetics are determined long before age 9!

    I also believe that this philosophy applies to any academic pursuit, not just music. Some people, based on their experience or physical makeup, may find some things easier. But all are capable. A child who grows up listening to music that is more advanced, but still tonal, will be more apt at melody than a child who grows up listening to rap, or to very little music outside TV shows. However, all can learn. This is the basis for my life and my career. I heard a great choir director say, “I could teach a doorknob to sing.” That’s the bottom line.

    The most important thing, though, is that the idea of talent is DANGEROUS! It is an excuse for children to fail to learn. “I’m just not good at math.” “I’m tone deaf.” (tone deaf-ness does not exist, by the way — if you think you are tone-deaf, you have believed what some uneducated people have told you — change your thinking, and you will change your singing).

    All it does is encourage children to fail. As a teacher, I encourage children to succeed, and I insist that every one of my students (all 400 of them!) does succeed. The idea of talent is directly against this goal.

    TALENT IS FALSE. Natural inclinations exist, mostly based on experiences, but any deficiency that these create can (and should) easily be overcome with a little effort.

  23. […] Don’t worry about talent. […]

  24. ian says:

    What about people who can sing several octaves? Are the variations in their vocal chords learned too?

  25. Scott Young says:

    Ian,

    Likely no. But I have friends that are classically trained singers, and if you ask them whether singing requires natural talent or practice, and they’ll let you know.

    Like most of my articles, the principle is a relative one, not an absolute one. Talent exists in the extremes, I write because most people live in the middle.

    -Scott

  26. amy says:

    Wow! Thanks for making me feel better. Basically, you’re telling us to believe in ourselves and what we’re capable of.

  27. Mike Garrido says:

    Is talent a myth?Absolutely not.You can study or practice all you want but there will always be those who distinguish themselves amongst there peers because they have a talent for there endeavors.I myself
    have several talents so I will try to give you some insight into how and what is at work.First a few of my talents:Art-I decided I wanted to try oil painting.I got a few books about painting,started doing
    it,entered a juried art show and placed first place in competition with many professional artists and this was only my sixth painting and 4 months of self study.Music-since I was a kid I could pick up just
    about anything and figure out how to play better than others within a shorter period of time.Mechanical things-I have always been able to step into a room where several people (trained or not)are trying to
    solve a mechanical problem, with no success, and see the solution in an instant.Why is it that I have always been this way?Because of talent! I can pour every facet of my being into what moves me.For me I
    become one with the paint brush,one with the musical instrument,one with the mechanical device.Now there are a great many things in which I could not for the life of me do this.Talent is a certain
    “openness”to certain maybe specialized things that no one without talent can ever know.You don’t have to be smarter and you don’t have to have a certain cellular structure and you DON’T have to study
    harder.Talent is the ability to truly lose yourself with a great amount of intensity into some particular endeavor.It is this ability to “hook up”that opens the minds eye to the elegance and beauty of a
    thing and allows us to see important little idiosyncrasies overlooked by others and causes us become outstanding masters of what we do.If you cannot do this then you will only “learn” it, and mediocrity will
    always be your friend.

  28. Dave Hill says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article and its message. My experiences in life have led me to change from someone with a fixed talent based perspective to one of a growth effort and practice based nature.

    I have written an easy to read and hopefully entertaining book on the subject which I would welcome comment upon. Its online and can be found by Googling Dave Hill Seesaw.

    Any comments welcome

    Thanks Dave

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