I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious. – Albert Einstein
Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work. – Stephen King
Is Talent Born or Made?
The common reaction that most people have when they look at accomplished sports players, CEOs or chess players is that they are incredibly gifted. But is it true? Is talent a myth? Personally, I have never been a big believer in talent. Talent is overrated. I always thought that many people were using the « I don’t have any talent » leitmotiv the same way they are using the « I’m too old » or « I don’t know the right people ». That is, as an excuse for them not to take action, not to face their insecurity or their fear of failure and move forward.
Believing that you need talent to succeed is dangerous because it is totally disempowering you. You are automatically ruling out any change of success and banishing forever any possibility for ambitious dreams or goals you might have, to come to fruition. The more ambitious your goals are, the more hard work, self-discipline and willpower will be required. Thus, only people who truly believe that they can achieve their goals will be willing to put in the hard work and have a chance to succeed. That’s why believing you need talent to succeed is a dream killer.
So far, science has not been able to identify any gene that would explain why certain people achieve extraordinary things while others don’t. Our view of talented people is that they don’t need to work as hard as “normal” people and that everything is easier for them because they are “gifted”. However, behind every masterpiece you will find years and years of dedicated hard work and sacrifice. But wait a minute, wasn’t Mozart a genius? He composed music at age five and gave public performances as a pianist and violinist at age eight. How amazing is that? However, Geoff Colvin, in his book “Talent Is Overrated, What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else”, argues that talent might not have played such an important part in Mozart’s success.
Leopold Mozart, his father, was actually a famous composer and performer and was very accomplished as a pedagogue. His books on violin instruction remained influential for decades. So, to begin with, Mozart was living 24/7 with one of the best pedagogue of that time. Leopold stop composing when he began teaching Wolfgang. It shows how much involved he was with his son education. He also polished Wolfgang compositions before anyone could see them. Furthermore the early works of Mozart are regarded are far from being masterpieces and seemed to be the result of imitating and arranging the works of famous composers like Bach rather than real creative works. The first work of Mozart that is regarding today as a masterpiece is his Piano Concert No. 9 composed when he was twenty-one. Knowing he started composing at 3, it means that it took him 18 years of extremely hard work before reaching real mastery. Even if he had talent, talent itself was definitely not enough!
The situation is somewhat similar with Tiger Woods. His father was a golf addict with a passion for teaching. He gave Tiger his first club at the age of seven months. Then, from age four Tiger was trained by professional coaches.
If we had been in the exact same situation who knows what we could have accomplished. A favorable environment (starting early on, having a great teacher or coach…) seems to be way more important than some hypothetic talent. The Polgar sister’s experiment tends to confirm the importance that has the environment on our performance.
The story of the Polgar sisters
“My father believes that innate talent is nothing, that success is 99 percent hard work. I agree with him.” Susan Polgar, Women World Chess Champion from 1996 to 1999.
Lazlo Polgar, a Hungarian educational psychologist didn’t believe in innate talent and made his mind to prove it. He found a woman, a schoolteacher, who agreed to become his wife to help him conduct an experiment. To prove that talent wasn’t innate, when their first daughter turned four, they decided to turn her into an accomplished chess player. They agreed to repeat the experiment with their second and third daughters. All three sisters, as a result of intense work, ended up being one of the best women chess players in the world.
- Susan Polgar, Women World Chess Champion from 1996 to 1999
- Sophia Polgar, International Master and Woman Grandmaster. At some point, she ranked as the sixth strongest female player in the world.
- Judit Polgar, Strongest female chess player in history. She has defeated ten current or former world champions including Garry Kasparov or Magnus Carlsen
(read more about the experiment here)
I believe that emphasizing their talent as the main reason for the success of outstanding performers is showing them a lack of respect. Many people are not fully aware of the incredibly amount of hard work that is required to reach the top in any field. While writing this article I came across an article about Michael Jordan that said that what bothered him is how people tend to underestimate all the hard work he did to become an outstanding player.
Because I speak three languages, Japanese people often said that I’m smart or that I have a gift for languages. However they forget a small detail: the thousands and thousands of hours that I had to study to reach that level. I would study for hours everyday including Christmas, holidays or weekends. The reality is that, some of my classmates who studied Japanese way less than I did are now better than I am. Thus, considering the time I spent studying English and Japanese, to be really honest, my level is rather disappointing. Though some people might learn faster than others, ultimately absolutely everybody can learn any foreign language, be it Chinese, Japanese, Arabic or Russian. It is just a matter of how many hours you spend studying, why you want to learn that specific language (how strong is your why?), but also how consistently and systematically you are studying.
The importance of deliberate practice
It is not so much the amount of time you practice that the way you practice that matters. It doesn’t matter if you play tennis for 30 years, if the only thing you do is playing games with your friends, though it might be enjoyable, your improvement will be very limited. Similarly, if you do more or less the same thing at work every day for 20 years, even though you might be promoted a couple of times, you will operate way below what you are really capable of. After 20 years in the same industry you should truly be an expert in your field. If you are not, you should ask yourself why. Is it because you have no ambition? Is it because you are not excited by your job? Is it because of the fear of not being able to assume more responsibilities? Is it because you are not working on the skills you really need in order to deliver more value to your company and to your customers? Is it because your company is not supportive? What can you do about it?
What makes the real champions stand out is the way they design their practice. Not only would they work harder than most of the people in their field but they would also work methodically through deliberate practice. What is deliberate practice? It is a meticulous training that aims at focusing on the specific skills we need to work on in order to improve our performance. It usually involves a lot a repetitive work, it is generally not fun and it requires a constant feedback and a great mental effort. That’s precisely why most people are not willing to go through that kind of practice with as much enthusiasm as the best performers in their field.
Let’s face it. That’s also why most of us are stuck at our current level in whatever activity we are doing now. Sure, we enjoy very much playing the piano or the guitar, sure we have lots of fun playing soccer or tennis with our friends, but we are not willing to practice thousands and thousands of time the same movement, to run every morning or to work out on a consistent basis. We are not willing to put the tremendous effort that is needed to go the next level. That’s the reality. That’s why we are stuck where we are now. Not because we lack talent.
When I was in Junior high school I was playing table tennis. I trained several times a week and participated in many competitions. However, I couldn’t reach the first or second place in regional competitions that would have qualified me for national competitions. I was training pretty hard but I realize now that I was probably lacking deliberate practice. Sometimes I didn’t want to practice, I just wanted to play table tennis because it was fun.
Each time you are practicing something you should ask yourself:
Am I really working on improving my skills right now or am I just enjoying what am I doing? What am I trying to accomplish now? In what way does it help me improve my performance? By asking yourself those questions you will realize that most of the time you are not really working as hard as you could; you are somewhat pretending. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should not enjoy what you are doing, I’m just saying you should be honest with yourself and be clear on what you want to accomplish.
Examples of deliberate practice
How Benjamin Franklin became a great writer
Writing style: he made brief notes of an article from Spectator, a high quality newspaper, and a few days later he would rewrite the articles based on his notes and compared his version to the original. Then, he would modify his version accordingly.
Poor vocabulary: he rewrote Spectator essays in verse. Later he would rewrite them in prose comparing his writing with the original.
Organization: he summarized each sentence of an article and put them on different piece of papers. Weeks later he tried to rewrite the article in the right order and compared it to the original article.
Those three exercises require a lot of mental effort, are definitely not much fun, focus each on a specific skill and are repeated over a long period of time. What is impressive is that Benjamin Franklin practiced those exercises consistently while working full time in his brother’s printing business. Those exercises would probably still be very effective today, but how many people that you know would be willing to go through that kind of very tedious deliberate practice on a consistent basis? Very few.
If talent is mostly a myth what does it mean for us?
It is true that we might not become the best in the world in what we are doing and most of us don’t even want that and wouldn’t want to pay the price. However, realizing that talent is largely or totally a myth allows us to reconsider our basic assumptions about what we can and cannot do with our life. In addition to that, by understanding how much hard work great performers are doing, we might realize that after all we are not working as hard as we previously thought we were, or that we were giving up on our goals way too easily.
Real improvement comes from deliberate practice, from practicing the same thing again and again, from spending most of our time doing exercises that are tedious and not fun, rather than playing or performing which is generally the fun part. For that reason, only people who truly love what they do can endure such hard and consistent work over an extended period of time.
What about you? Is there any area in your life where you are not improving the way you want? Can you clearly identify what is it that you need to work on? How can you redesign the way you practice by implementing deliberate practice? How much effort are you willing to make to reach your objective? Do you have a strong enough why?
Leave me a comment below 🙂
See also: Myth #1 – Human Beings Need to Eat Meat
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