Talent vs. Skill — Round 2
I wrote about this topic in the very early days of this blog. In that post, I asserted my belief that talent is an inborn thing, you’ve either got it or you don’t, but you could learn a particular skill with reasonable success. And that passion might be a more important factor than either one.
I spend a reasonable amount of time assaulting other folks’ firmly-held beliefs with off-the-wall concepts like reason and evidence, so it’s only fair that I should occasionally have my own beliefs so assaulted. I was browsing the Kindle store (“Do you have a Kindle, Dorkman? You’ve hardly ever mentioned it”) and saw as one of the recommendations in non-fiction a book with the provocative title Talent is Overrated, and subtitle “What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.”
Interestingly, the title which I found provocative actually understated the case a little bit. The book could easily have been titled Talent is a Myth, because that is essentially the book’s thesis.
It’s important to note that Colvin uses the word “talent” in the same way that I did in my post — not to mean just general ability in some particular field (I delineated that as “skill,” something entirely separate), but to mean specifically an inborn ability that cannot be acquired by any means other than sheer luck of birth circumstances. According to Colvin, the research and facts simply do not support any such thing.
I suppose Colvin forewent a more forceful title because he is actually sensibly agnostic about it — he states several times that he’s not trying to make a claim that there is no such thing as inborn talent, but merely pointing out that if such a thing exists, no one has yet managed to demonstrate it.
The real deciding factor, of the three that I mentioned in my original post on the subject, turns out to be the one I included as an afterthought: passion. According to Colvin, the real separation in ability between the ordinary and the extraordinary is the amount of what he calls “deliberate practice” that they endure.
The operative word there is “deliberate.” If you want to learn a skill, it’s all well and good to practice for 3-5 hours a day, but if your practice isn’t focused on improving your weaknesses, it’s not going to get you anywhere. Most people, he says, “practice” by doing what they already do well. It’s a pleasant experience to do something you do well, reassuring and enjoyable. But it’s not going to make you any better at what you do. You have to do what you don’t do well, and that’s much less pleasant and less reassuring. But that makes the difference. Average or even slightly above-average performers — in all fields — focus on their strengths. Those performers who become truly great focus on their weaknesses.
Based on the book, and my own observations, I have to say that I think Colvin, and the researchers upon whose work he bases the book, are probably correct. I’m actually rather annoyed with myself for appealing to some kind of transcendent, intangible force called “talent” to explain a difficult question. Isn’t that exactly what I’m constantly saying one shouldn’t do? Why yes, yes it is, and so I thoroughly rebuke Dorkman ’07 for being irrational.
It’s particularly annoying given that I actually had a piece of the puzzle in front of me and failed to see it — my short series of posts about artistic insecurity touched upon the idea of always being aware of one’s weaknesses and being willing to accept and focus on improving them.
The first reaction to Colvin’s dismissal of inborn talent as a factor toward success is jarring. I think everyone considers themselves talented at something, and to be told that talent doesn’t even seem to exist at first seems to undermine the idea that there is anything special about you. That everyone could do that thing which makes you stand out.
This is, of course, the exact wrong reaction. What these findings, and interpretations of the findings, actually do is make any top performer in a field more special, and gives them something to be more proud of. The research supports the notion that it takes approximately ten years of focused, deliberate practice to become “masterful” in any field. Think of all the great masters of a given craft and this finding seems consistent across the board. Ray Bradbury famously wrote a story a day for, indeed, ten years before he finally wrote one that he personally felt wasn’t a total piece of shit. Writers are often told something along the lines of “You have a million bad sentences in you, so start writing now to get them out of your system.”
So ultimately, practice makes perfect. It’s got nothing inherently to do with some mystical ability that you were granted at birth, and if you are a top performer in some field, you can and should be proud to know that even though technically everyone could put in the practice to be where you are, you’re the one who did. You’re there because of the effort that you put in.
This is not to say that circumstances don’t play a role. For one thing, as I said before, passion for the chosen craft or field is very nearly all-important. If you don’t want it bad enough, nothing is going to compel you to put in the painful, ego-crushing hours of failure that comes part and parcel with focusing on your weaknesses. We’re talking about thousands of repeated failures over the better part of a decade, each time going back for more. Most people just don’t want to deal with that, and so they don’t bother.
Connected to this is the necessity for a strong support system. Without a supportive environment to facilitate the practice, a potential great performer simply can’t put the hours in. We’ve all seen the movies and heard the stories of people whose passion was squashed by unsupportive parents. You want to sing, dance, paint, drive racecars? Not while you live under my roof! Sometimes the person does it anyway, behind their parents’ back, which will compel them to put in the hard work because they are aware of the importance of getting the most out of the time they get to practice. Or sometimes the person waits until they’re no longer in the oppressive situation, at which time they are compelled to put in the long hard hours because they have a sense of making up for lost time.
Or sometimes they let their passion die, and you never see their name in lights. No amount of talent can give them the years of experience they didn’t get.
The other important factor in a proper support system is a proper mentor. This may take the form of an active coach, a person who is actively involved with the development of the individual, or a passive coach, a great performer who the learner may never meet but can compare his/her own achievements to honestly, and strive to achieve those heights or higher. For deliberate practice to work, you have to be aware of what your weaknesses are and, just as importantly, the steps to take in fixing them.
So there are some environmental factors that can affect a person’s development of what could make them an outstanding performer. I’ve realized recently that I’ve personally been very fortunate in the environment into which chance dropped me. My parents never forced me to choose any particular path in life and in fact attempted to avail me of many different experiences to see if I found a passion in any of them. They were primarily sports-based, and so I didn’t, but they tried. And when I did find things I loved (choir, theatre, band) they, particularly my mom, made the effort to make sure I got to and from rehearsal every night, and the same for my siblings. I can’t say she made the sacrifices particularly quietly or gracefully — she made sure we were aware of how much time it ate out of her schedule, you goddamn kids — but she did still make them, and in the long run I think that’s what counts.
I’m often struck in my online wanderings at the stories of other people who are so often questioned or obstructed in their goals. Why would they want to do that, it’s a waste of money/time, get a real job, you’ll never be good enough, not under my roof, etc. I have never, to my recollection, had anyone tell me to give up, or tell me that I’m no good and I might as well not bother. On the contrary, the only person I’ve ever heard those things from is myself — everyone else encourages me, believes in me, does what they can to give me a leg up.
It’s easy, and ego-boosting, to fall back on the idea that it’s because they can see that I’m clearly talented and are in some way inspired by that, but I think that’s backwards. There are plenty of people who have the inner potential to do what I’ve done, and what I still have yet to do, but had outer circumstances prevent them. Plenty of filmmakers who will never have their voices heard because too many other voices told them to shut up. I hope that more of them decide not to listen. If they put in the hours, and they really want it, they can still do it.
- Yes, he addresses Mozart. The short version is that Mozart was not nearly the prodigy he is made out to be — his early compositions consist of rearrangements of existing composers’ work, and the very earliest, the famous “age of five” compositions, were not even written in his own hand — they were “corrected” by his father, Leopold Mozart, a composer himself. The first of Mozart’s work to be considered one of his “masterpieces” was composed at the age of 21 — still young, but at that point he had been practicing the craft for 18 years.↩
- I hope that anyone who goes back to read those earlier posts shares my amusement at what I felt qualified as a “really freaking long” post back then.↩