Don’t Trust Your Talent

I have always been a strong believer in talent being overrated. Over the recent holidays, I read a book that largely confirms my assumption. Yes, talent may set some limits to our abilities, for instance creatively—or for that matter and more specifically photographically, since that is the field I am working in and writing about in this blog—but I really think it’s only of marginal impediment. In particular when talking about creativity, I think it’s something everyone of us inherently possess, we just don’t use it to our full capacities. In growing out of childhood, the society, our peers and ourselves most often discourage our creative development, so much that we end up losing trust in our abilities. What may seem like a lack of creativity is never due to shortage of talent, as far as I see it.

The book I have read is Bounce, written by Matthew Syed, the British number-one table tennis player in the late 90’s, a two-time Olympian, today a columnist for The Times and a commentator for BBC. His book is challenging the prevailing idea that success—whether in sports, business, school, arts or whatever—is determined, in large part, by the skills we are born with. In doing so, Syed pulls on recent scientific studies from around the world on the subject and makes for a convincing argument (well, I guess he never had to convince me in the first place).

When we see—of if you could see—“natural talents” like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, or for that matter Picasso or Mozart, in action, they seem to be in a different league than the rest of their equals—certainly compared to any of us regular mortal beings. What we forget and what we don’t see, is all the work they have put in to become extraordinarily good at what they do. Tiger Woods, for example, was considered a miracle golfer when he became the youngest ever winner of US Masters in 1997. Now, consider that Woods was given a golf club five days before his birthday, that by age two he had played his first round and that by five he had accumulated more hours of practise than most of us achieve in a lifetime. As Syed writes: “Far from being a golfer zapper with special powers that enabled him to circumvent practice, Woods is someone who embodies the rigour of practice.”

Practice is really what makes the difference. If you put in the work, you can excel in anything you want. Do you want to become a master photographer? It “only” takes some work, albeit a lot of hard, consistent and always pushing yourself kind of work. This much say, skills that are more based on pure physical strength may nevertheless have a component that is dependent on our heredity, such as for instance runners. However, not even the best runners in the world can compete at a top level without a lot of training. The genetic composition may have some saying, but medical science still haven’t found any “running gene”, which of course doesn’t mean it can’t exist.

For undertakings that are more complex, involving using more parts of our brain and body, Matthew Syed is adamant about how little talent matters. In achievements depending on fast reflexes, creativity, judging of multiple inputs and even intuition—without going into any definition of the word—we can only excel after hours and hours of hard work. Take a tennis player or a soccer player, he or she will not only have to be good a sending the ball over net or kicking a football and dribble, but he or she will have to be able to judge the movement of the opposition, weather conditions, the conditions of the field or the court and other variables. In many situations during a game he or she will have to make instant decisions. For instance a tennis player at the highest international level must be able to understand where the ball goes even before the opponent has hit the ball, judged upon how the opponent attacks the ball, being able to read even the smallest of muscle changes. This is not something that is God-given.

Syed calls it “combinatorial explosion”; tasks that requires a combinations of abilities and skill sets. As he writes in Bounce: “It is the rapid escalation in a number of variables in many real-life situations—included sports—that makes it impossible to sift the evidence before making a decision: it would take too long. Good decision making is about compressing the information load by decoding the meaning of patterns derived from experience. […] it must be lived and learned. It emerges through practice.”

What Syed is saying, is that in practices that require “combinatorial explosion”, our skills need to have been ingrained in our backbones. We need to be able to apply them reflexively without having to think consciously. To get to such a point takes thousands and thousands of hours of training. Take photography once again. If you are doing street photography, you need to react fast and get your settings right at first try. If you need to think about how to set the camera, how to compose, when to push the shutter button and so on, the subject will have long been gone. You really need to be able to handle your camera without having to think about it at all. Again, this is something that takes long practice. It’s nevertheless achievable—even at the highest level—for anyone who is willing to put in the work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” is not depending on some inherited talent. However, in Bounce Syed is referring to plenty of research that clearly shows that more than anything such proficiency is not a result of heredity but rather environment. I am not going to recount some of the studies; if you are interested I suggest you read Bounce. Of course there is more to excel in whatever endeavour you are engaging in than being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” and put in a lot of work, but let me stop for now. In next week’s post, I will take up the thread and reflect on other aspects of the dichotomy of talent vs. practice.

I will just like to add one thing: Think about how our understanding affects our mind sets. If we believe being able to become good at something depends on talent, what will happen when we fail a couple of times with our endeavour? Of course, we will give up, thinking there is no point in continuing since we don’t have the necessary talent. Rather, failing shows the opposite, that we are on the right track. As Matthew Syed says; to be able to get better at something we need to push ourselves close to what we can possibly handle. That means failing—a lot—before we get the hang of it.

80 thoughts on “Don’t Trust Your Talent

  1. Working at it all your daylight hours and nighttime too, does get you a good player at your chosen game but add talent and often money and you can be ‘the best!’ Great article Otto, as always.

  2. I agree with your insights here Otto. For sure talent and natural skill counts for a lot but so does persistence and perseverance. After all if we don’t succeed at something the first time I’m a big believer in trying and trying again. That’s how we succeed at life. Great post.

  3. Great post, Otto. Nothing in life is achieved without effort, but ‘success’ comes from being the best you can at whatever you do. Living life to the fullest is everyone’s success.

    Even when you have a photographer’s eye and natural talent, practice, practice and more practice will make considerable improvement.

    I also sincerely believe that wisdom to know when the path is not for you and having the courage to begin again in another direction can be a great success too. Changing paths is not necessarily failure. It may be that your first goal was a success but didn’t make you happy.

    It’s never to late to be what you might have been……..George Elliot.

    Money does not bring success. People bring success, (or are successful). And even then, success might be a different vision to each of us, depending on the beholder or that person doing the measuring (of that success).

    Some of the greatest minds in history had no money and not necessarily talent in their chosen field. They had vision and goals and worked hard for them. Some of the most famous figures in the creative arts made no money in their own lifetime and it was only after their death they became famous (and were decreed a success). Many of these figures had tenacity beyond the average person. Some of these great achievers were stubborn and mulish in personality or introverted and self-absorbed to the point of madness and obsession.

    The poor man in the street can be happier and more successful that the person who is a multimillionaire and having the best money can buy. If you are not happy with your wealth and ‘success’, then all else in life is a paltry failure.

    But of course, that’s only my opinion,

    1. Of course, money is a token of success for some – and that’s completely fine. But I agree with you, at least for me it’s not about money, as long as I are able to survive at least. I have seen plenty of happy poor people, and plenty of miserable rich – as part of my work. Of course, it’s not always like that, but it only goes to show that excessive money isn’t needed to make us happy.

  4. Another good post Otto, I read once that talent is like a few minutes advantage at the start of a marathon…than comes sweat and efforts…with much training these become more affordable…but still are there 🙂

  5. Great article, and sounds like a good book. I believe some people are born with certain talents. My husband, his 2 boys, and his cousin are all talented artists. They can draw, paint, sculpt, and of course the wood carving. But they practice these skills all the time, and learn new things. I can’t draw a stick figure, so I could try to learn to draw, but it just wouldn’t be very good. I still have a lot to learn about photography, but over the past years I have shot a ton, and I can see a difference in what I do now, compared to when I started. And, I try to learn something new and valuable all the time.

    1. No doubt talent exists. But I also believe anyone wanting to excel on one direction or another can make it happen. I think – if you really wanted passionately – you could become good at drawing, too. 🙂

  6. This sounds a lot like Malcolm Gladwell’s rather well-known proposition (first published perhaps twenty years ago) that in whatever field, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery, and that this achievement overcomes initial differences in talent. An oversimplification, but you might be interested to look up Gladwell’s work on this.

    1. Yes, Gladwell’s 10,000 hours are important, indeed. And I will get back to it in my next post about talent. Thanks for the tips on Gladwell, but as you understand I am already and avid reader of his.

  7. I’ve heard of this and it’s actually on my list of ‘to reads’ already. I definitely agree with it. Even in running a real estate business, you face a lot of ‘failure’ and there’s lots of competition for clients, so mindset and preparedness for any situation is critical. It’s funny how it applies to just about anything!

  8. Thanks for this interesting blogpost. Have you ever read „Outliers“ by Malcolm Gladwell? That is almost the same topic. Studies have shown that our brain needs 10,000 repetitions of a new movement/task/etc. before being able to perform it perfectly. Apply this to photography and it explains why it takes some time to make the pictures you want you to make. 😉


    1. Thank you for commenting, Annett. Yes, I am well into many of Gladwell’s books, and certainly know about the 10,000 hours necessary to put into anything to be good at it. As mentioned in another comment, I will touch upon the theme in my next post about talent.

  9. I very much enjoyed your compact version of “Bounce” by Matthew Syed in addition to your thoughts about talent and creativity, Otto. Creativity is not a talent.
    Best regards from Cley x

  10. Thanks for another great article, Otto. I have a question: where does our passion come from? A result of heredity? Environment?
    Thanks in advance.

    1. I need to think and study more about passion before I can give a qualified answer. However, no doubt passion is strongly influence by environment. Just think about how inspiring it can be to spend time with passionate people. That will certainly bring up the passion in ourselves. Thank you for bringing up the theme, Helen. It’s a good one, and one that I passionately will look up a little further.

  11. Great post, Otto — thought-provoking, as always. There are so many factors that go into any creative endeavor that I think it’s impossible to dissect them and determine exactly what creates “success.” But I do think Syed has hit on something very important indeed by reminding us that practice is a fundamental requirement … and that talent can be overrated. Thank you for the excellent summary of one of the lessons you drew from his work!

    1. And thank you for the feedback, Heide. Of course, creativity is a complex human feature, which is not easy to dissect, as you say. Nevertheless, I think we can learn a lot by trying to understand some of the mechanisms and responses.

    1. I think we have to agree to disagree. I truly believe – and so does a lot of research concluded – that talent has a minimal effect in mastering complex endeavours. Encouragement is far more important than talent, in my opinion. 🙂

      1. I’m not sure we disagree. I’m with you when it comes to “mastering” anything: whether it’s photography or some other skill. I just think that whatever that mysterious “something” is that draws a person in one direction or another in the beginning — whether we call it talent, or interest, or inclination — it’s also critical in helping to maintain the necessary commitment.

        1. Then it seems like we could agree with each other. 🙂 To go anywhere in life, there has to be some kind of interest. If you don’t care, you won’t put in the 10.000 hours necessary to be good at it. 🙂

  12. Agreed! It’s true if you have two people in the same field, one considered a “natural” and the other just willing to put in the hard work and keep trying. The one who works harder, fails and gets up and tries again will always persevere. Even the old fable of the “Tortoise and the Hare” the Hare was the runner and obvious winner. The hare was slow and steady and just kept at it. We all know how that ended.

    1. Thanks for reminding me of the old fable, which is indeed very relevant for what I write about in the post. The tortoise approach is always the winner in the long run, if not necessarily in the sprint.

  13. Great article, and I enjoy the comments too. How often am I in agreement with everyone?! (Never) I’m looking forward to my next trip to the library. Thanks for the book recommendation. Also, loving the photo. Everyone looks like they’re having a lot of fun, and the stones and colors are happy too.

  14. Isn’t this a question of balance? Undoubtedly talent without strenuous practice will result in a ‘could do better’ outcome. But application and practice without talent will not achieve the impossible. I am sure there are many golfers who have trained and practised as diligently as Tiger Woods without attaining matching standards. Clearly we are not all blessed with the same degree of raw talent. The challenge is to maximise the talent we have.

    1. Diligence and perseverance yes, but not really talent – as far as I see it. As mentioned before in other comments, I will get back to why I believe so next week. Thanks for commenting and adding to the discussion, Cecilia.

  15. Hello Otto,
    What a stunning message you have articulated so well in your post.
    I must admit I have often thought that the difference between ‘them’ and say, myself, is how much they want it compared to me. If I’m willing to put in those hours, I have to commit to it. Intensely.
    Thank you for shining a light on this topic, especially in respect to photography and any other skill someone has come to love, remembering it takes a lot of time and will to become excellent or as near as possible for each of us….
    Kind regards,
    Di 🙋🏻💐

  16. anyone and everyone has natural talents & abilities, but without practice those talents either don’t progress further of we get rusty and have to gain back the ground we made.

    encouragement from friends and family is key to practice. also, someone we care about dearly and value their opinion and completely discourage us from practicing a talent.

    good thoughts and a very intriguing image

  17. Excellent review of “Bounce”, Otto, along with your thoughts on practice and perseverance. Your example of practicing for street photography is a good one that in general, our comfort and knowledge of our equipment contributes to the success of the images. And, creating many images makes us better as we hone technique and become more critical of the work. Looking forward to your follow up post.

  18. This is an amazing post… your points are accurate, and I agree with you. It is not all about talents, but the skills we build as we develop our possibilities. And for that purpose, practice is needed. As Pablo Picasso said: ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ Excellent writing, Otto. Love & best wishes 🙂

  19. I like what you are saying here, Otto, and I agree. We need to build up the skills, whether in photography, music or other forms of art, but sometimes we (at least I) don’t have the patience to practice, fail and practice again…and we give up. We say we don’t have the talent for it.

  20. I completely agree with what you say here, Otto, although I must say that it was not always that way, and it took me a very long time to realize otherwise. As always, thank you for such wonderful insights. Have a great weekend!

  21. Intressant artikel med många givande kommentarer. Ser fram emot fortsättningen. Bilden ovan är bara helt underbar och passande.
    Allt gott till dig!

  22. It’s funny that the word “talent” comes up – I’ve never liked it, and I surprised myself by using just an hour ago, when I left a comment on a blog about a terrific painting someone did. But that was laziness on my part; I still don’t like the word. I heard it used too much as an excuse for people not to try because they think, and say, that they don’t have the “talent” that someone else does. The word also gets used to dismiss work – “Oh, she’s very talented” can be a way of putting a person into a separate, different category, when in fact, that person is human just like everyone else, but has worked and worked at their art, or craft, or sport, because they love doing it.
    Still, there is something there that differentiates someone who creates great art after doing a lot of work from someone who creates average art, also after doing a lot of work. Maybe that something is closer to what we call vision.

    1. You observations about how the word talent is often being used is very accurate. What you address at the end, what difference the best from the good, when the put in the same amount of work, mostly has to do with the quality of the practice – in my opinion. Quantity is one thing, but quality is just as important, which is something I will address in my next blog post. For me vision is not inherited, but also something one develop over time. 🙂

  23. Talent vs. practice; that ought to be good!

    I practice my arts so that I may seem talented. I think I still come up short a lot of times but I’m extremely stubborn. I keep trying to better myself. In my head, keeping on seems to be the most logical approach.

  24. Most interesting. Though I believe anyone can work hard to achieve what they want, having a natural inclination or affiliation to or talent sure helps one to push harder…

  25. I’m a strong believer in practising what you enjoy and in turn that becomes our talents because we only really become good at what we love, like you say with photography, over the last year I have been taking many photos and posting them on Instagram but out of love and enjoyment but when I look from the beginning of my feed to where iam now I can see improvements, I’m not saying I’m amazing I’m just saying if we enjoy it it becomes better

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