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Blog // Thoughts
May 8, 2014

Talent Is Essential – Talent Is Overrated

How important is talent? Does the amount of talent a child has in any way help us predict their potential future success?

Paul Tough suggests talent, especially raw talent, is nowhere as a good a predictor of a child’s future success as other traits and attitudes. The author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Whatever It Takes put it this way, in an interview with 99U (Your IQ Doesn’t Matter & Other Lessons About Creativity From Children),

“Being a really creative person without any discipline to direct that creativity is not so good. If kids don’t have self-regulation or self discipline it can lead to all sorts of negative outcomes. But just coloring inside the lines won’t help you succeed. More esoteric character strengths like optimism and zest are things that can be taught and are also predictive of success.” – Paul Tough

We often hear politicians, parents and populist writers talk about talent and hard work as if they were the only traits that really matter, when it comes to creativity and success. But, maybe we should be tempering the conversation by mentioning other factors, like discipline, aptitude, optimism, determination and perhaps even luck.

What Is Talent

When most people talk about talent, they mean natural talent, a supposed set of skills and abilities we are born. The thinking is; those who are born with more talent, be it for sports, or music, or study, have a head-start, maybe a decisive head-start, in life. However, research has been questioning this idea for some time.

“Music ability is popularly regarded to be innate— one is either born with musical “talent” or not. Part of the difficulty in distinguishing “nature” from “nurture” with music is that the child raised in a musical household—regardless of his genotype—is almost certainly apt to receive more musical input, feedback, and encouragement than the child raised in a nonmusical household.

In one study of conservatory students, the amount of practice over the four years of their instruction was a far greater predictor of final year ability than were the ratings of potential given to them on intake. – Daniel J. Levitin and Anna K. Tirovolas”

I find this line of thinking fabulously inspiring, because we can control the amount of time we devote to practice and the way we practice, but we can’t control genetic variables, the qualities we are born with.

But, surprisingly, many don’t seem to be convinced by this argument, even though so much evidence backs it up.

Perhaps we want to feel special and saying the key factor is the time invested, makes creative success feel less unique, less like a gift from the gods. Inversely, it also puts a deathly dent in hipster/bohemian perspective that if you “have what it takes” all you need to do is just turn up and let your coolness win everyone over.

Hard Work Counts

I’m not trying to argue for a naive 10,000 hours style explanation of talent. Time is not enough and it’s not just about “hard work.” But the character that allows one to put in the time and work, wherever that comes from, is essential.

“Self-reports of world-class musicians, as well as experimental studies, point strongly to the view that musicians are made not born and that practice accounts for an overwhelmingly large proportion of the variance in who becomes an expert musician and who doesn’t. Those factors that cause some musicians to practice more than others may well have a genetic component, attributes such as single-mindedness, seriousness, and conscientiousness. – Daniel J. Levitin and Anna K. Tirovolas”

The Musician’s Evolving Brain

This matters, because as many studies are now showing us, music practice changes the shape of the brain (for example Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain Development from The Journal of Neuroscience). What’s emerging from the study of musicians (using MRI technology) is a fascinating picture of how our brain can change and evolve.

We can not only see how musician’s brains look different from those of non-musicians, we can also see how the brains of different musicians look, depending on the kind of instrument they play! A keyboardist’s brain doesn’t look the same as a trumpeter’s

“Music ability is popularly regarded to be innate— one is either born with musical “talent” or not. Part of the difficulty in distinguishing “nature” from “nurture” with music is that the child raised in a musical household—regardless of his genotype—is almost certainly apt to receive more musical input, feedback, and encouragement than the child raised in a nonmusical household. In one study of conservatory students, the amount of practice over the four years of their instruction was a far greater predictor of final year ability than were the ratings of potential given to them on intake. – Daniel J. Levitin and Anna K. Tirovolas”

Talent Reconsidered

So, if talent is not just something you are born with, not just something you acquire over time, but something you shape and mould, based on your personality, perseverance and dedication, then what does that mean for us?

For starters, it means where you start doesn’t determine where you end. Just because you were told you had no talent as a kid, or you feel underpowered compared to your peers doesn’t mean you can’t change the equation.

There is, of course, so much more to be said, about the relationship between talent and skill, between talent and opportunity and between talent and luck. But, I hope this is enough to inspire you to look beyond whatever you feel you might lack, in terms of talent and set about building a way of working and practising that will help you build up and improve your talent.

The old notion of talent as something you are born with, something God-given, is vastly over-rated, perhaps harmful and almost certainly useless. In so many ways talent is really the way you meet the opportunities you are given, the way you apply yourself over time, by which I mean, over the course of your whole life.

Talent is less like an inheritance or gift and more like a store of wealth we build up by saving and investing wisely.

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