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.