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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  • Jonah

    Someone has a fractured ego…

    If I were to pick apart your brain and see your natural process, and how you go about your works, I could easily copy it and be just as good as you are at all of these things, hell, I could be even better since I’m training and learning rather than letting the “talent” flow from me.

    Hard work beats natural ability, just give it time…

  • Jonah

    Well I’ve certainly never heard of you…

  • mike4ty4

    Yes, so Bill Gates may not be a good example. He’s an extreme, which would mean that a significant portion of his success could indeed be due to talent. Hard work may make the difference between someone making $20,000 a year and $200,000, maybe even $2,000,000 — but the next 3 orders of magnitude, we’re getting into a very tiny — EXTREME — end of the population and thus that means talent may matter and matter a lot, since the difference between $2,000,000 a year and $2,000,000,000 a year is immense. Not to mention myriad other factors which are neither talent nor hard work — e.g. having the right opportunities, connecting with the right people, lots of other stuff.

  • mike4ty4

    You therefore hit on a very important point: CRITICAL PERIODS — note you said before age 9. Critical periods are out of our control, so our ability to receive the proper stimulation during those periods might as well be a lottery like genetics is.