Scott H Young

Rethinking Talent


I like a good model. A model is a simplification—taking the complexities of life and describing it in one or two broad generalizations. Even if a model is imperfect, it can still be incredibly useful in thinking about how to live life.

One area of life I’ve been hunting for a good model is talent. If I’m going to invest years trying to get good, I don’t want that effort wasted. A good model of talent could tell you which skills are worth building, and by how much.

Largely, I’ve seen two models of talent discussed:

  1. Talent as Practice. Based on the research of K. Anders Ericsson, this is the theory that skill is mostly a matter of large amounts of deliberate practice. Books like The Talent Myth and Outliers have helped popularize this model.
  2. Talent as Strengths. This model suggests we have innate dispositions for skill. Therefore, we should invest in our natural aptitudes. Books like Now, Discover Your Strengths reflect this model.

Both of these models are good, but they have drawbacks.

The obvious drawback of the talent-as-practice model is that it completely ignores innate ability. Take any two people who have never learned a skill before, and they won’t learn at an identical pace, even controlling for conditions of practice. Talent may not be rigid, but it doesn’t have infinite plasticity either.

The downside of the talent-as-strengths model is that it suggests fixing your weaknesses is either useless or impossible. As I’ve written before, ignoring every weakness could be a bad idea. You can’t outsource your social skills for example, so refusing to improve them could negatively impact your entire life.

Ingredients of a Good Theory of Talent

A better model of talent would need to:

  1. Recognize that practice is key.
  2. Admit we have dispositions, either in gifts or motivation, to become better at certain things faster than others.
  3. Suggest specializing when other skills can be safely outsourced or ignored.
  4. Recommend being “good enough” when the skill can’t be avoided.

A good theory wouldn’t demand the unrealistic optimism of talent-as-practice. Admitting we have dispositions means that if you fail to become world-class at something it isn’t simply a result of laziness.

It also wouldn’t enforce the pessimism of talent-as-strengths. Since some skills are unavoidable, you could reach a passable ability in those areas so it doesn’t detract from your life. Current weaknesses don’t imply permanent disabilities.

Excellent or Adequate?

A different, third model I’ve been considering is talent-as-excellence. It combines the insights of talent-as-strengths and talent-as-practice, but without the faulty conclusions.

The idea of talent-as-excellence is that there are two types of skills we can have, those that we could become excellent at, and those that we could become adequate in.

Practice is still all-important. The two categories merely modulate the speed limit for progress. Excellences can be learned quickly, either because of innate aptitude or because you enjoy working on them a lot more. Adequacies can be learned, but it’s slower—again, either due to less natural ability or desire.

Thinking of talent as excellence reframes the problem. Any skill can be improved, but the speed limit won’t always be the same.

Conclusions of Talent as Excellence

Whenever I’m working on a skill I like to ask myself whether it’s something I could become world-class in, or merely above average. With enough practice and dedication, I’m confident I could become excellent at many different areas. The obsessive dedication needed is the biggest limitation.

However, there are many areas where it would be hard for me to become the best. I could probably become adequate at basketball, with practice, but I lack the stature and drive to play in the NBA.

I see this when deciding where to invest time in my career. I feel my speed limit in improving my writing is fairly high. With enough dedication, I could become good in a decade or two. In contrast, my speed limit with improving my networking abilities is considerably lower than many of my peers.

Being able to make professional contacts is an unavoidable skill. Even if I may not be a spectacular connector, I need an adequate ability so it doesn’t detract from my strengths. I can work on it, and improve (possibly with no limit), but growth takes more effort than improving my writing, so it makes more sense to focus on writing.

Dynamics of Talent

Beyond reaching nice conclusions, I feel the talent-as-excellence has intuitive appeal as a theory. The reason for the distinction between excellences and adequacies is that they are different realms of competition.

With world-class skills, everyone you compete against is motivated, disciplined and likely has natural ability. Slackers and slow learners generally don’t make it up to the highest tiers of success in a competitive field.

Because of the intense selective pressure, it’s not enough to devote considerable practice time (everyone will do that). You also need an innate push, even if that’s as simple as having some early-childhood advantages that cultivated an extra enjoyment or training edge.

However, if you remove this competitive pressure, because you’re merely trying to become adequate, those same restrictions don’t hold. I could become a decent connector in my professional life (rather than the best) because competing for adequacy is mostly about putting in the effort to improve.

In the end talent-as-excellence still isn’t a perfect model. Models are simplifications, so there will probably be fields where it draws the wrong conclusions. But knowing that the map is not the territory doesn’t mean maps are useless.

What are your thoughts on the three models? It’s still a new idea, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the potential benefits and drawbacks.


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15 Responses to “Rethinking Talent”

  1. n.roberts says:

    Hi
    I liked the style and content a lot.
    The Sixties i read Power of Posotive Thinking (U.S)
    Word -thought control i believe..
    Its good to add your phases 3?
    Retentive memory – you have all going for a base/pilot.I will look out for further equations from you.
    Thank You!

    Nige

  2. Helgi says:

    Hello Scott,
    Excellent post. I´ve been having much the same thoughts, for me I somehow just drew the obvious conclusion about the “talent as practice” vs. the “talent as strenghts”. I´ve referred to this as “talent” being basically a compass, it draws you in directions you have some innate ability or interest in, and away from areas where there is little innate ability or interest. One additional model I came across and have used to explain in my trainings is the “dreyfuss model of skill aquisition”. My theory is, you can get competent in a lot of things, and fairly quickly (weeks or months), however to move to be proficient or excellent in something takes an investment of serious hours of practice. So what I´ve shared with people is… a lot of things (you refer to social skills) are something you need to become at least competent in. However, everyone really should find the 2-3 talents they have (at most, perhaps only one) and invest the practice to become very very good at that.

    With your permission, I´d like to use your title “talent as excellence”, as I think its the best “model” I´ve found so far to both help myself, and when I explain stuff in my trainings and seminars. :-)

    Reg. Helgi.

  3. salas says:

    All these models are flawed in the same way, in that they ignore society’s role in creating talent. Given the same level of deliberate practice and innate ability, you’re going to end up a lot more skilled if you have access to great teachers to train you, qualified peers to keep you motivated and rivals to compete with. Maybe this model can be called “Talent as Opportunity”.

  4. Sam says:

    Hi Scott,

    I was wondering if you’d consider yet another model of talent. I’ve been thinking for a few years that along with certain innate physical characteristics(such as height for the NBA, digestive system for competitive eaters, or vision for fighter pilots), that the appreciation and imagination for potential is the key aspect of practice. What I mean by that is, the ability to imagine what is possible in a given field is almost, if not more important than your actual physical disposition.

    Let me give an example: let’s say you and I begin learning guitar at the same time and let’s say your ears are substantially better than mine. I would hold that, besides having a marginally better ability to assess your playing while practicing, you would also have a much greater and deeper appreciation for what you could do with the guitar. You would hear how your tone changed depending on how you fretted the notes, you could more easily assemble chords in your head, and most importantly you would have a much stronger grasp on what is possible with a guitar. Rather than practicing, you would be exploring and having fun. As a result, I would suppose that if you didn’t just practice far more than I did, your practice would at least be much more easily focused and directed. Even a small advantage like that could have compounded affects over the course of your 10,000 hours.

    There’s a thought that in every activity and skill, no matter how mundane, there exists an entire world. What if Talent had more to do with your natural ability to perceive those worlds, rather than your physical abilities to explore them.

  5. Nicky Spur says:

    I like this — I feel it’s almost novel worthy

  6. Hi Scott

    I recently came across your site and think it’s awesome! Well done.

    I’ve always really liked the talent-as-practice model because it gives me hope. No matter how crap I think I am at doing research or writing, if I stick at it and put in the work, I am bound to get better. I’m not aiming to be the best in the world either, so good enough is fine by me!

    I have been reading the work of researcher Angela Duckworth on the psychological concept “Grit” (perserverance and passion for long term goals) which I think feeds very nicely into a talent model. What her research has found is that people who are “grittier” than others (willing to stick at one thing for longer periods of time) attain higher levels of education than less gritty people. She also found that grittier students earn higher GPAs and spelling bee champions aren’t any more intelligent than other contestants but they are certainly “grittier”.

    In her journal article “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology she states “achievement is the product of talent and effort, the latter a function of intensity, direction and duration of one’s exertions toward a goal”.

    Her research essentially shows that it’s not just about working harder but also working longer without switching tasks/objectives. So you can have two people who are matched in their ability to sing in terms of talent and their willingness to work hard but they can totally differ in grit. And if that’s the case, the person who keeps changing singing styles (from jazz, to opera, etc) isn’t going to excel as much as the person who focuses on developing themselves as an opera singer.

  7. Paul Burton says:

    Consider this idea, which is one I’ve long held to:

    Skills are something trained and talent is something refined. It’s essentially an amalgamation od the first two theories. People can learn and become very competent at skills, such as driving. However, only people who have a talent for racing can refine that talent into a championship reaultnn

  8. Timothy says:

    Nice post. I’m sure many people are thinking this given the attention paid to it in the last decade, but it is great to have someone try to articulate it.

    I’m not sure you are summarizing the two models faithfully. I won’t put it all in one big comment but will just start with what might be the most relevant. I think the strengths model, at least as described in the Buckingham book you reference, generally assumes you are part of a team. Instead of working on improving in an area you don’t like and that drains you, work on what you like doing (and by doing so get even better through practice you enjoy) and find someone else who can complement you. In business, this is usually possible.

    But in things you have to do alone, the calculation changes. Sometimes you can overcome weaknesses by being so strong somewhere else that it doesn’t matter, but that is rare. I think the key here is to think creatively about what you can do as a team versus what you have to do alone. In areas without fixed rules, you can usually piggyback even if it doesn’t seem that way at first. In your example, find a buddy who is a great social networker. Take advantage of his/her network, and maybe pick up some skills along the way.

    If you truly are on your own, suck it up and find ways to practice deliberatively. The interplay with strengths here, as others have mentioned, is that your feedback loops may not be as refined (
    get a good coach) and you may not have the drive of someone who likes it, but take heart from the practice reasearch that you will improve.

    Finally, becoming excellent and becoming the best are two different things. The practice hypothesis doesn’t say 10,000+ hours of deliberate practice will make you the best. It says no one becomes the best in an established, competitive field without 10,000+ hours of deliberate practice.

  9. Jose says:

    HI,

    Great Post Scott, I am following you for a long time and this is the first time I write a comment.
    During the last year I am reading a lot and thinking and taking action about the idea of talent as a practice.
    Sometimes I stuck with some ideas, and it is difficult to apply them. Now you give a point to start rethinking these ideas.

    I like the part of your post when you say that in some skills we dont have to be excellent, and in some areas we cannot avoid to improve ( like social skills).

    Again, great post.

    Thanks

    Jose

  10. Jonathan says:

    I like the way this article is organized, and I think talent-as-excellence is a good model to consider as one hones the skills both necessary to function in life, and those that could with effort become world-class. One thing though, excellences aren’t necessarily knowable before much of the significant discovery work is done. For instance, Steve Jobs took a calligraphy course when he dropped out of college during his “self-discovery” period. The knowledge he attained allowed him to conceptualize the computer in an elegant way that made Apple, well, Apple. He was grafting a bigger vision of life and beauty where the parts of what he was picking up along the way weren’t possible to puzzle together at the time they were attained. It was an intuitive grab bag. Whereas Steve Wozniak, the apple programming engineer, was mostly narrow focused in one technical sphere where modeling talent-as-excellence would readily apply. So, I think the model of talent-as-excellence, as you mention, has limits to its user relative to the goal. Visionary thinkers have intuitive compasses which don’t model very well, and there is, of course, the nature of fate which marbles all men’s well laid plans. Thanks for the article, Scott – Jonathan

  11. Jay Godse says:

    This article was food for thought.

    I think talent is biased towards talent as practice. If you practice and improve, not only do you improve, but the rate at which you are able to improve goes up too. At that point, it becomes hard to differentiate from innate ability.

    As for slow learners, I’m of the opinion that often they never learned a pre-requisite skills for the level at which they are performing. Learning often speeds up when the pre-requisite skills line up.

  12. Stefan says:

    When I look at myself, I have a talent-as-excellence for a lot of things, but when I look even closer I would have to say I have a talent for picking things up real quick. I can quickly see processes, how they work and what can be improved.

    Therefor, I can improve in a lot of things to ‘above-mediocre’, but to become excellent in something?

    I think this model is pretty sufficient Scott! When thinking of improving the model, I think there should be something in it for fast-learners and slow-learners, as that is a big part of growing in a skill!

  13. Tim Carlson says:

    I think your list of four is pretty on-the-money, and I really like the idea of recognizing that for some of the non-innate skills one should at least become adequate. I think some things in this sublist include social skills, physical fitness, and appearance (the US has become a nation of slobs, one should at least put enough time into finding a wardrobe so that aren’t in a cool wine bar wearing white tennis shoes and a sports jersey)

    But I think the other commenter might have stumbled onto something in the comment about opportunity. I remember reading about how “Los Lonely Boys” grew up playing backup for their musician father. Now they might have inherited some good music genes, but maybe being in a musical environment was a bigger factor.

  14. Tammy says:

    Scott,

    You really come across like you are better than everyone else. You may have a lot of education, but that doesn’t make you smart at all. You are nothing but a loser with low self-esteem that needs to insult everyone else to make yourself feel good.

    Get off your high horse loser.

  15. […] fall into unconsciousness. You have to stay open and cultivate a discipline of constant, continual, deliberate development. You have to learn to focus on the long term, the legacy, not the short term, the […]

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