Talent Doesn’t Matter

It’s hard to accept that talent hardly matters. I know—particularly if you thought you were benefiting from a special talent yourself. We have become ingrained with the idea, not the least from media, which likes to push the idea of superhuman talents far beyond any reasonable credibility, if for no other reason than because it sells. Be as it may, numerous contemporary studies do indicate that talent has been overly overrated for too long.

As I wrote in last week’s post, Matthew Syed in his book Bounce refutes the, in my view, outdated idea of special talent being necessary to excel it in sports, business, school, arts or any other endeavour that requires more skill-sets than we all are in possession of. The illusion of talent arises because we only see a tiny proportion of the work that goes into the construction of virtuosity. If we were to examine the incalculable hours of practice, the thousands of baby steps taken by world-class performers to get to the top, the skills would no longer seem quite so mystical, or so inborn. That’s exactly what Syed does in his book; he deconstruct all the work some of the world’s biggest “talents” have had to put into becoming the success they have become, whether it’s Tiger Woods or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The belief in talent is not the least a natural derivation from a Darwinian believe-system. I certainly don’t oppose Darwinism and won’t discredit the fact that, at least part of the variation in ability in young people in everything from math to football is determined by generic inheritance. Some start out better than others do, there is no denying that. But, the key point revealed by the science of expertise is that the relevance of these initial differences melts away as the number of hours devoted to practice escalates. And why is that? Because over time, and with the right kind of practice, we change so much in ourselves. It’s not just the body that changes but also the anatomy of the brain. The region of the brain responsible for controlling fingers in young piano players, for example, is far larger than the rest of us. But pianists were not born with this, it grew in proportion to the years of training. Similarly, the area of the brain governing spatial navigation in taxi drivers is way above average—but it developed with time on the job.

And then think about this: It takes generation after generations for humans to adapt the genetic composition to new environmental conditions. How would it be possible for natural selection to change genes for kids growing up today and make some of them excel in computer gaming? A generation ago, nobody even knew about computer gaming. Two generations ago, computers hardly existed.

Yes, it would be anti-Darwinian to deny the existence of talent, defined in terms of the initial skills we inherit from our parents. However, it is in no way anti-Darwinian to deny the importance of talent. Given the adaptability of the human body and brain, it turns out that pretty much all healthy individuals can accumulate the knowledge that creates excellence, regardless of where they started out from. The evidence also tells us that we learn at pretty similar rates, at least on the long term. Certainly, there is no shortcut to excellence.

It takes a lot of work to excel in any field. Studies of grand masters of chess, top golfers of the world and top scientists—just to mention a few areas that have been studied—show that ten years is the magic number for the attainment of excellence. In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of five books, he points out that most top performers practice around one thousand hours per year, so he re-describes the ten-years rule as the ten-thousand-hour rule (as some comments in my previous post about talent already pointed out). This is the minimum time necessary for the acquisition of expertise in any complex task. Ten thousand hours is a lot of devoted time. It means practicing around three hours every day—for ten years. Most people are not willing to pay this price, but it’s what it takes.

However, it’s not only the quantity of training that matters, but also the quality. A study conducted at a music academy in Berlin shows that top performing violinists had not practiced more hours than the lesser violinists had. The top performers had pushed themselves harder for longer. The others had not. That was the crucial difference. Anders Ericsson, a leading psychologist at Florida State University, calls it deliberate practice, to distinguish it from what most of us get up to. In Bounce Syed calls it purposeful practice because this training of aspiring champions have a specific and never-changing purpose: Progress. Every second of every minute of every hour, the goal is to extend one’s mind and body, to push oneself beyond the outer limits of one’s capacity, to engage so deeply in the task that one leaves the training session, literally, a changed person.

Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again. Excellence is about stepping outside of comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavour, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundations of necessary failure.

This can be translated directly to us who perform in the arts. If we do the same kind of work time and again, we will be good at this, but we will not otherwise improve. If we want to become better photographers or better painters or better writes, yes, we must do the work, but we must also step out of the comfort zone—all the time. Same with exercising. I run and exercise quite a bit. Sometimes I get frustrated because my shape doesn’t seem to improve. Every so often, I run a marathon. When I do, I always want to improve my personal best. It rarely happens, though, and if so only marginally. For me to improve, I need to train harder than I already do, and if I want to keep improving, this is a never-ending upward spiral. I am just not willing to do so and have finally accepted this conclusion.

There is more to excel in any task than training enough and training right. It’s also about mindset, of course. Otherwise, you won’t be able to put in the 10.000 hours and keep pushing yourself out of comfort zone. Yes, clocking up thousands of hours of purposeful practice ultimately determines how far we make it along the path of excellence. However, it’s only those who care about the destination, those who are motivated enough, who are ever going to get there. There a ways to sustain the motivation, for instance through encouragement and through internalized belief. This will have to wait to another post, though, as it could be a book on its own. I just wanted to mention that there are more to the equation than enough and right exercise. Talent hardly matters, though.

I have written these posts about how we tend to overrate talent, not because I think we should all strive for excellence. For me it’s just important to know that I can get as far as I want to by my own will and willingness to go the necessary distance. My talent or lack of it is not going to be hindering me. As Syed writes: “The talent myth is not just widespread but it is also powerfully destructive, robbing individuals of the motivation of change.” I encourage you to take this to heart, and just do whatever you feel like doing—and enjoy the journey.

Let me end this rather too long post with my own experience starting out on a photographic career. Well, it’s actually before I even got started, professionally that is. In my teens, I really thought I had a talent for photography. I had won some prizes and I won a few photo competitions. However, just as with my exercising these days, at some point it stopped. My photography wasn’t going anywhere anymore, and I didn’t get the recognition I had started to get used to. What happened was, I had too much trust in talent, and didn’t put in the work. Thus, I stagnated. It was only after some years working professionally that my photography began develop again, simply because you cannot work professionally without doing a lot of work and you get pushed into situations that you have no control over. I didn’t know then what I know today. The moral: Don’t trust talent.

On a different note: When you read this, I have located myself to Park City, Utah, for the annual Sundance Film Festival. This week I will probably be seeing 20-something movies and be covering the festival. Unnecessary to say, it’s going to be work around the clock. But all fun and pure joy.

The first post about talented being overrated was published last week. Go to Don’t Trust Talent to read it.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon Eos 5D with a 24-104 mm lens and the zoom set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/640 of a second. Aperture: f/13. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

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66 thoughts on “Talent Doesn’t Matter

  1. Absolutely fascinating! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, although I dont usually read long articles. Yours kept me riveted and has given me a different perspective on the subject. I put a lot of limitations on myself, not least that I dont have the talent to follow my passions. I know commitment to any path in life is essential in order to progress, but like you I also struggle to commit to anything long term. A friend once told me many years ago that I am ‘like chaff that blows in he wind.’ That phrase still stands. Your article has given me a lot to ponder and I will need to read it several times more to get the full gist of it. Thank you so much for the push that I needed.

  2. Agree whole heartedly Otto, I never had a talent for anything, but got quite good at some things just by keeping practicing and trying. I don’t need to be world class, just be the best I can be.

  3. There is more to it. Not only work. The ability to sell, promote and manage a business is required. I always failed miserably in that area.

    1. Business is just another area that takes a lot of work and practice to master – just like anything else. Success in business and success in creative endeavours aren’t the same, unless one choose to.

  4. Practice, practice, practice. Hasn’t that been said for years? Everything from athleticism, to music, to art needs practice and learning. Have fun at Sundance. My son tells me it finally snowed there, so that’s always nice for the festival.

  5. This post resonates Otto. So much here …. Nature AND Nurture. Pushing past my comfort zone. Not just the Survival of the Most Talented. Putting in the hours (10,000) to become proficient at basics. Etc, etc…. The Outlier book by Malcolm Gladwell is an absolutely fascinating read on so many levels, isn’t it? A little bit about luck (good & bad) in our destiny, too. Thanks for this reminder to work hard, smell the roses, and to take a few risks. Hope you enjoy Sundance.
    Cheers – Bruce.

  6. It gets a lot harder to practice when you have another sentient being who’s “supposed” to be practicing with you…I shall try to communicate these ideas more clearly to my not-so-interested horse. She doesn’t seem to care much about how perfectly we can trot a 20-meter circle!

  7. This has struck a chord with me, Otto (and I somehow missed last week’s post so I will backtrack after writing my two cents’ worth here!) I am one of those people who is good at pretty much everything I try but excellent at nothing, never believing luck had a thing to do with it – I always told myself that to excel, I would have to find a passion for one of those things to want to do more and improve. So far my cooking is pretty friggen good 😉 My photography is okay and my writing too. Three things I have been working on and want to do more of.
    Have a fabulous time at Sundance, you lucky fella!

    1. You are right, passion is necessary to be able to push yourself forward – and you seem to have that. On the other hand, there is no need to push towards excellence if you enjoy what you do.

      1. Absolutely!
        That’s also interesting. No need to push yourself to excellence if you are happy where you are. Hmmm. Not sure about that one. Excellence could be where you think it is. I think I’m going to bring this idea to the next gathering to see where people stand- could be interesting!

  8. Another good post about talent. It is a very good read. I can relate to few things when I read your post. I think I have seen an example that some get better as they go through their career if they work hard and even beat younger one for those careers that require physical fitness as well. Great post!

  9. This article you have written reminds me of the exchange between 2 actors in the movie ‘Barfly’ with Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway… ‘why do you have to drink so much? anyone can be a drunk’ and he says ‘no, anyone can be a NONdrunk… being a drunk takes endurance.. endurance is more important than truth’

  10. Wee bit long for me to read with chronic headaches these days.

    Just wanted to say I love the image at the top of the post. Great composition and framing and fabulous light and shadows for an action shot. You can feel the power in the ‘kick’ and almost see the opposition ‘dancing’ around on his feet. Definitely the right time of day to make the shot 🙂

  11. It’s good to be reminded that we can’t excel at everything if we devote so much effort to one area, either photographer or marathon runner in your case. I gave up marathons before even starting on that goal, but good for you for finding balance with your interests. I hope you have a blast at Sundance!

  12. The best example of your premise for me, was the one from your own life. It makes sense that working professionally pushed you in those ways, improving your work in the process. Have fun at Sundance!

  13. Great post, Otto. Author Malcom Gladwell devoted an entire book, “Outliers” to the same topic. Hard work is the equalizer across all spectrums.

    Enjoy Sundance. I’ve never been to the film festival there, never even skied there. A bit to rich for my wallet. But I’ve been in that area in the summer and it’s drop dead gorgeous. I’m looking forward to seeing it through your eyes.

  14. I’ve just read this and your previous post regarding talent. It’s an interesting discussion and I agree with you for the most part. I know how important passion and practice and discipline are to developing any skill, and to success in any field. But it also seems to me that some people do have something innate that others don’t have. Perhaps that’s what draws them to certain fields in the first place. I believe everyone is creative, but I also believe that it’s possible to have a “gift” or talent for expressing that creativity in specific ways such as art, music, or writing.

    1. No doubt that some people have some natural talent that is very evident when they start out on some endeavour. The question I raise here is whether those talents – or more precisely lack of talents – given by birth are overcome by hard and right work.

  15. You could have a natural God given “talent” to play basketball but you still have to show up for practice.

    I’m glad that you used a shot of karatekas in this post. Apart from being a visual artist, I’ve also been a martial artist for much of my life. Every now and then, I’ve gotten into discussions with fellow martial artists and observers who insist that winning martial arts tournaments is the way to prove that you’re “the best”. My argument is that it only proves that you’re able to beat certain individuals at a specific time.

    If you lose a 5-point match today, you might beat the same opponent next week if your training and kime (focus) is more through than that person’s by that time. It does happen.

  16. At a very young age I had aspired to be an artist. I didn’t know what kind of artist but I drew, painted, sketched. It didn’t matter what I used. Paints, charcoal, pencil, pastels, I tried everything. When my Mom passed and we were taken into foster care, I spent most of my time with my art supplies. Every penny I could scrounge up was spent on more. One day the woman of the home (I will not call her mother in any way as that would be an insult to mothers everywhere) started yelling at me that I had no business wasting this time and money on such things. She told me, “You have no talent” over and over and over. She would burn my canvases and supplies. I confess it left a mark. I never painted or drew again. As I got older I wanted to find something I could do that I could use my ideas but not actually my physical “talent” to portray them. Someone from my church put a camera in my hand and guided me along the way. I will always be in debt to him. I never became a famous photographer. I did make a living at it. But, I loved it and I always had a camera with me in case I saw something. That word, “talent” has always been one I disliked. It is not a word I use often and I’m very careful when I do. It can do a lot of damage. I do believe it is a lot of hard work, persistence, and drive that can make us successful no matter where we start.

    1. I am sorry you had such a discouraging experience in your upbringing. Must have been devastating. Children ought to be encouraged to keep exploring the creative curiosity – always. Thanks for sharing this very personal experience with us, Michelle.

  17. Another wise post and full of invaluable insights. If you have passion for something and do/give it all for that great love (family, athletics, writing, arts, science, etc), then you feed those voids exponentially, and your soul won’t ever know the meaning of starvation.

  18. Great post Otto!
    Talent means little, sometimes it can even hurt you, since people with a natural talent may get lazy to practice really hard, my Sensei, stressed on us constantly that without hard effort, and constant training, striving to push over your limits, you will never achieve anything of worth. Sensei was of the opinion, that it doesn’t matter all the many stuff you do, or accomplish, compared with someone else, always its gone be a ‘little bit.’
    So he used to tell us: If someone practice one hour, you practice ten, if some practice ten you practice a hundred, if someone practice a hundred, you practice a thousand.”
    ‘But whatever you do, be humble, because you are only doing, a little bit’. 🙂

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