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Talent vs. Skill — Round 2

March 27, 2009

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  1. Carl permalink

    Hi. Long time reader first time writer. At first I agreed with your, and Mr Colvin’s, argument. But upon further reflection, I find I must disagree.

    I know someone who desires to be an actor above all else, and he puts in a lot of hard work; acts in as much university and community theatre as he can, but he just isn’t a gifted performer. David Mamet, in his book True or False, goes so far as to suggest that acting schools are only useful for identifying people who already have the natural gift of acting.

    Whether you agree with Mamet or not, other areas still come to mind: some people learn languages incredibly easily. Some people are naturally good at mathematics – an area I have always struggled with, despite lots of coaching and support during my schooling.

    Colvin’s argument seems to be, you will become good at what you are passionate about because of your passion driving you on. I think that is a big part of it. But I also think there is something he has missed. You touched on it briefly:

    “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.”

    What they already do well.

    I put forward that passion can arise because you are already good at it. You enjoy it because you do it well. Because of talent.

    I agree that no one will become a master of anything on talent alone. And I will also concede that people may develop interests in areas in which they have no skill.

    But based on your post, I don’t believe the case against talent is over just yet.

  2. This sounds like a semantics issue.

    When, as an example, someone can visualize an entire process by witnessing the end result and turn it around to create their own process from it, that is a skill. When someone can easily learn to do it, that is an affinity or aptitude (depending on one’s definition of those words). When someone seems to easily learn how to do it and does it well, that will probably earn the word talent thrown in there somehow. The key is actually learning to do something, doing it and improving it regardless of it being easy to learn or improve for that person due to their aptitude or affinity. After all if someone can learn to do something more easily than other people but never learns it or does it or never hones the skill after doing it, I doubt people would say that person was talented.

    I think a problem may happen when people think that having a talent for something means not having to learn how to do it. (If that is the case, I have a talent for pooing. :)) That seems to actually describe either instinct or mechanics rather than any skill.

    I guess that is why it might be wise to just avoid saying talent. One could accidentally dismiss the dedication and practice required to hone a skill regardless of the person’s affinity by making sound like they did not do anything to achieve what they achieved. That could take a honed skill and equate the effort to the same as learning to poo… unless we are being envious. In which case, we should go ahead and insult someone by saying they are talented. 😉

    Another problem I see is that people often (but not always) reserve the word talent for skills categorized as entertainment. We cannot ignore that people outside the industry see less value in entertainment skills. This stigmatizes talent (and the skills associated with it) even further. (I cannot think of a better word than value, but I do not mean just monetary measurements.)

    I guess it depends on the intent when someone uses the word. It can be a compliment or a scape-goat. In either case, it greatly misses the mark for describing the level of one’s skill. AFAIK, nothing can hit the mark for describing a potential level of a skill.

    We should just take it in stride. People will usually just speak what comes to mind rather than work through a complete process to analyze what they are about to say. If they say we are talented, we thank them and file it away for our ego to nibble on it. Yes? I mean, we know what they really meant. Right? By over-analyzing their approval, we may very well just end up throwing it right back at them.

    “You have talent. It shows.” If you are doing something well (whether you know it or not), get used to it. 😉

  3. Teague permalink

    The case for or against someone having a natural predilection to “talent” seems to be in sharpest relief with those folks among us who seem to be very good at almost everything they try, right off the bat. I’ll use them as my example.

    Maybe for nothing, but I’ve noticed that most of those folks – who do almost whatever they try better than most will at the outset – are of above- or way above-average intelligence. Maybe the issue isn’t some intangible force of the universe focusing the ability to do Something Impressive into an otherwise unremarkable person, it’s that some folks are simply going to “get it” faster than others, regardless.

    Whether or not it’s just intelligence, or intelligence combined with an unusually strong awareness of and control of your body is something worth considering, but at the end of the day, the folks who amaze you with the seemingly endless supply of things they can do seem to be the ones who are brilliant to begin with.

    • By what standard brilliance?

      The idea that someone is brilliant because they can do many things is shaky IMHO. That is just another subjective standard over an objective individual assessment. Everyone can do many things. Many things also go unnoticed by the greater population. Does that mean they are not also brilliant? If they are also brilliant, does that reduce the status of brilliance of those who do high-profile things?

      What things do we require people to do to be considered brilliant and why?

      • I forgot to add: People who get it faster than others could simply be able to understand the standard of education over another method where someone else could get it faster. Is this subjective situation the definitive judge on brilliance?

  4. Teague permalink

    “The idea that someone is brilliant because they can do many things is shaky in my humble opinion.”

    And ridiculous in my opinion. Fortunately, that’s not what I was saying. You have it backwards there.

    • the folks who amaze you with the seemingly endless supply of things they can do seem to be the ones who are brilliant to begin with.

      The ones who are brilliant to begin with seem to be the folks who amaze you with the seemingly endless supply of things they can do.

      The idea that someone is brilliant because they can do many things is shaking IMHO.

  5. Teague permalink

    I don’t understand your post.

    What I’m saying is, there seems to be a correlation between someone’s adeptness at most tasks laid before them (“talent”) and their overall intelligence and coordination.

    • dorkmanscott permalink

      But how do you define/measure “intelligence and coordination” as distinct from “adeptness at most tasks laid before them”? Isn’t that tautological?

      I have more to say to address the conversation here, but I can’t write a long thing at work…

  6. Teague permalink

    I’m saying that there appears to be a correlation, and you’re saying they appear to be intrinsically linked. Two sides of the same coin. If everyone agrees that it’s tautological, then I’m just sitting on the internet spouting things we all agree on.

    Above whatever certain point on an IQ chart where someone is able to fully process their world, intelligence is really a measurement for the speed at which someone translates and processes that information. The original point I made was that the ones who seem to catch on to any given skill quickly are the most intelligent ones.

    As such, whether or not it’s tautological, saying someone with a high IQ (“learns things quickly”) picks up skills with ease (or, learns things quickly) is…pretty obvious.


    You people all disagreed with *me*. I didn’t ask for this. 😀

  7. I find this article refreshing in the sense that my parents planned all of our careers before we were out of high school. I find myself an above-average person working in IT, but doubt I will ever move beyond a certain point because (a) there was and there will never be any motivational environment (b) I really don’t enjoy what I do for a living and (c) the passion I wish to follow will never happen as I have a chronic disease.

    I do believe that people need the environmental variables to become truly fruitful and talented in their life. “Talented” meaning, they have found the road to happiness, education and intelligence. You simply cannot “practice” what you dislike and I find it difficult to think that someone who has true talent, is somone who has found the true link to understanding what they are. Most of us, even at the ripe age of 44, are still questioning our true selves.

    My parents guided all of us into careers we never wanted. Surprisingly, only one stuck with her job – government. Is she “talented”? No. The wine bar will have to wait until my next lifetime.

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