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Why there is no talent

Written by Magnus Holm.

Note: This is a more scientific follow-up to another essay called “There is no talent”. I recommend you to read that essay first, make up your mind about it and then continue with this article. At any time, feel free to contact me if you have any questions or something to add.

A few days ago I published an essay called “There is no talent”, which is by far the most popular essay I’ve written here. The general response seems to be that most people agree somewhat with the essay, but there’s also a significant group who agree completely and a smaller group who disagree completely. To be honest, I’m not surprised that I’ve received so many messages from people who partially or fully disagree with the previous post because the essay wasn’t really making a scientific argument, but rather an emotional one.

The goal of the “There is no talent” essay was in fact not to convince people that there really is no such thing as “talent”. No, no, no. The point was to inspire people to forget about prejudices and simply start following their passion. I’ve received several comments which seem to confirm that not thinking about talent in general have a positive effect on their life:

From Martin Berntsen:

The things you point out at the end is just so very true. My experiences are similar to the ones you write about. I didn’t do anything special at a young age, my Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 2 was more than interesting enough, but then a couple of years ago, my interest for music and programming was growing. In the beginning I wasn’t very good at it of course, and some of my friends were like: “Why even bother?” But I just kept going and I got better, I’m still learning, and it feels great. I think many people around our age give up on their passions in fear of what others might think, which is very sad indeed.

From Blake Johnson:

It’s only in the past 5 years I’ve really come to this realization, and it’s made a huge impact in how I live my life. Once you realize that there’s no such thing as talent, you can let go of the idea that you can’t do this or you can’t do that because you are not “good” at them. You can just start getting better at them and developing “talent”.

While trying to make this simple point, I made several bold statements which were far from scientifically (or even logically) explained. The fact that some of these might have been wrong doesn’t really concern me. I wrote the essay to provoke thoughts, not to tell you what you already knew. If you’ve found flaws in my logic, that means I’ve done my job.

However, I find the more “scientific” discussion around this topic very interesting too, and in this essay I will try to sum up the comments and thoughts I’ve received so far. I’ve essentially based this on emails sent directly to me and the comments posted on Hacker News.

Definitions, definitions, definitions

We can’t discuss anything if we don’t agree what the words mean in the first place.

Let’s start with talent. Talent is usually defined as “a marked innate ability”. The most important words here are innate and ability. Innate means that it’s something you’ve born with: something which, straight from day 1 of your life, is always within your body (even though it might take some time to materialize). The fact that it’s an ability rules out any physical attributes (such as weight, height etc) since these are merely facts. However, these facts can lead to an ability. By being tall you may have a natural talent for blocking basketball shots. Effectively, this means that we’ll have to include these as a part of the concept talent.

Passion is a little trickier though. The definition which matches what I mean by passion in these essays must be “boundless enthusiasm” or “a strong affection or enthusiasm for an object, concept, etc.” Passion is when you continue doing something, not because you have a specific goal in mind (better grades, impress friends), but because you simply enjoy it.

Now that we have the proper definitions in place, we can try to answer the original superficial hypothesis presented:

Is there really such a thing called talent?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Trying to prove that “marked innate abilities” don’t exist is indeed a tricky process. For instance, we can clearly see that most people have an unique appearance, which implies that at least some parts of our body are “randomly generated”. What makes the brain so special that it should be universally equal among all humans? Because if it’s it not equal, that means it’s different and that again leads to the conclusion that some are better suited to perform specific tasks. Well, because we also include physical advantages in our concept of talent, we can simply draw the conclusion based on the fact that some people are taller than other.

The fact that “marked innate abilities” do actually exist isn’t that interesting. Let’s move over to the real questions:

How much does talent really matter?

How much does talent really matter? How much can you accomplish without having a marked innate ability for something? How much can you accomplish if you have a marked innate ability, but don’t spend your time working on it?

I think we all agree on that in order to end up in the world-class of anything, everything needs to be a perfect match: Your innate abilities, working on it from your childhood, family, friends and coaches which always supports you, and so on. For this discussion, I think it’s fair to say that we can ignore these exceptional people, but rather focus on the great people.

There’s various ways to become great at something. One way is based “purely” on your talent. From donaq:

Back when I was doing my compulsory military service, I was really passionate about basketball. I used to play almost everyday, and there was a team in my neighbourhood with a coach I trained with twice a week. Then I met this guy in my platoon who, though shorter than me, trashed me soundly every time we played. I would have thought someone like that would need to constantly hone his skills, but he didn’t. He just occasionally joined us for a game. For about a year before he completed his service I (and a couple of other guys in the platoon) trained to beat him, but never came close. The interesting thing was this one conversation we had where he confessed, “I don’t like basketball. I only play because I am good.”

Another way is based “purely” on environment. From The Making of an Expert by K. Anders Ericsson:

Thirty years ago, two Hungarian educators, László and Klara Polgár, decided to challenge the popular assumption that women don’t succeed in areas requiring spatial thinking, such as chess. They wanted to make a point about the power of education. The Polgárs homeschooled their three daughters, and as part of their education the girls started playing chess with their parents at a very young age. Their systematic training and daily practice paid off. By 2000, all three daughters had been ranked in the top ten female players in the world. The youngest, Judit, had become a grand master at age 15, breaking the previous record for the youngest person to earn that title, held by Bobby Fischer, by a month. Today Judit is one of the world’s top players and has defeated almost all the best male players.

Let’s follow Ericsson’s thoughts a bit. In fact, Ericsson has actually done some great research on this topic. In the paper The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance from 1993, Ericsson presents results from several studies about the role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance (well, duh). By “expert performance”, Ericsson essentially means what I’ve described as “being great at something”, and “exceptional performance” is pretty close to “exceptional people”.

I highly recommend reading the whole paper, but I’ll try to show you the most important parts.

There is a relatively widespread conception that if individuals are innately talented, they can easily and rapidly achieve an exceptional level of performance once they have acquired basic skills and knowledge.

This is sort-of the same conception I was trying to disprove (on an emotional level). Ericsson follows up with more scientific proofs: He refers to another study that came to the conclusion that nobody had attained the level of an international chess master (grandmaster) “with less than about a decade’s intense preparation with the game”. On average, for players that started studying chess after age 11, it took 11.7 years to reach an international chess master status. For players that started even earlier, it took 16.5 years. Even famous chess players such as Bobby Fischer and Salo Flohr needed about 10 years, only one year “faster” than the average. This “10-year-rule” has been supported by data from several other fields, including music, mathematics, tennis, swimming, and long-distance running.

This tells us that even though you might have a big talent for something, you’ll still have to invest a huge amount of time in order to become great at it. There’s simply no shortcut for talented people. In the long run, this means that being talented alone won’t help you to reach expertise, even though it certainly might help.

Of course, there are several ways you can spend 10 years, and they don’t all lead to the same place. Ericsson mentions three types of activities:

Consider three general types of activities, namely, work, play, and deliberate practice. Work includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards. Play includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable. Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance. The goals, costs, and rewards of these three types of activities differ, as does the frequency with which individuals pursue them.

He goes on to discuss the differences between these activities. Work activities are far from optimal as ways to learn because there’s another, clearly expected outcome from the activity (to get the job done). Play activities don’t really have a concrete outcome, and therefore they provide more opportunities for learning. Deliberate practice on the other hand has improvements in performance as the primary goal, which obviously makes learning the expected result.

There’s an important difference between just practicing and what Ericsson calls “deliberate practicing”. mechanical_fish touches this with his comment:

At the risk of overgeneralizing, the most important talent is meta-analysis. You have to be able to self-analyze and self-correct. (If you can’t hear the fact that you’re unable to play on the beat or keep a steady rhythm it doesn’t matter how many guitar chords you know.) You need the social skills and awareness to seek out criticism, listen to it, and act upon it. (If you don’t hear your fellow musicians dropping hints, or don’t act upon those hints, you won’t get better.) And you have to cultivate abilities that may seem unrelated to the problem at hand… because you recognize, consciously or instinctively, that they are essential to your goal. (Professional scientists, for example, need a lot of sales, political, management, and literary skills. And, famously, our stock consumer PCs ship with lots of fonts in part because Steve Jobs audited a calligraphy class during his brief career as a college dropout.)

Practicing by itself is worthless if you don’t constantly make sure you’re practicing the right things. This requires both meta-analysis and feedback. Once again from Ericsson: “In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects. Hence mere repetition of an activity will not automatically lead to improvement in, especially, accuracy of performance.”

The biggest problem by learning through work is that exploration is generally not encouraged. You’re supposed to give the best performance in the least amount of time, and “hence individuals rely on previously well-entrenched methods rather than exploring alternative methods with unknown reliability. The costs of mistakes or failures to meet deadlines are generally great, which discourages learning and acquisition of new and possibly better methods during the time of work.”

Play activities don’t have the same pressure to perform, so you can more easily explore and expand your abilities. On the other hand, because there’s no pressure at all, it’s also easier to continue playing with what you already know and enjoy. There’s nothing to stop you from taking a break when it becomes too difficult, and unless you have the mentality to turn play into deliberate practice, you’ll never get any better.

Based on these thoughts, I believe it’s fair to draw the conclusion that in many situations, talent has little direct effect on the outcome. And even in fields where physical advantages are required in order to reach an expert performance (like sports), you’ll still has to invest a huge amount of time in it.

What about passion?

Well, so what does passion have to do with all of this?

I don’t have any scientific papers to refer to, but please follow along anyway. Imagine that you must invest 10 years of your life in one specific field of study. 10 years. Possibly over 10% of your lifetime. What are your reasons? I would claim that, if we ignore external coercion, you simply need to have a passion in order to continue practicing and improving. Passion leads to practicing, and practicing (deliberate at least) leads to skills. I believe that passion is the only way to became great at something without affecting your quality of life in a negative way.

But wait a second, couldn’t you consider passion as a talent? By our current definitions, this is a rather tricky question since it involves yet another “nature vs nurture” debate. How much can the environment affect our feelings? How much is decided from the beginning? I’m not even going to consider discussing this…

Conclusion

In order to become great or excellent, you must keep practicing. Not mindless practice of course, but deliberate practice as Ericsson has described. Depending on the subject, the innate abilities or the physical attributes may help, but is not essential for reaching an expert performance. In many cases, having a talent makes no significant differences on the outcome, which therefore leads to the conclusion that, very often, “there is no talent”.

If talent doesn’t matter, what do you need then? Passion, passion and passion. By following your passion you will not only get better at things, but your life situation will also improve since you’re doing what you really want to do. Wonderful, isn’t it?

(Thanks to Peter Aronoff for reading drafts and correcting all my silly mistakes)