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Don’t Try to Discover Your Talent

In this article, I debunk the idea that you must “discover your talent” if you wish to have success in life.

I speak from the perspective of having learned multiple subjects to a high degree, having several income streams, and having changed career direction several times.

In the vast majority of my pursuits, I showed minimal promise early doors.

Some think I’m fortunate to have achieved all this, but I believe it’s mostly down to passion and mindset. In any case, it gives me a unique perspective on talent and success.

Let me be blunt about it: the “discover your talent” myth can destroy your career, your hobby life, your creativity, and your potential as a human being. I’ve seen it infect so many people’s minds and prevent them from pursuing their passions, and I think only a few will ever cure themselves of it.

I think the “discover your talent” doctrine is inaccurate, misleading, and damaging. And I believe in the exact opposite: that you can choose almost any field you want, master it, and become successful in it.

Let’s begin by discussing what the “discover your talent” doctrine is all about.

The “Discover Your Talent” Myth

The “discover your talent” myth is simple, but when you consider all its implications and how its tentacles reach into our education system, our upbringing and our own psychology, you realise it’s a deadly set of beliefs.

This is what it says:

  • there is one area in life you’re particularly suited to,
  • if you find this area, you’ll have success in life,
  • other areas are out of your reach, and you can’t have success in them.

Simple, right? But my goodness, the implications of this are remarkable.

Sinister Implications of the “Discover Your Talent” Myth

This myth has so many damaging effects, even more than the talent myth does. And I assure you that if I’d believed this myth, I’d never have achieved what I have.

The implication is that you have an area you’re uniquely, innately talented for. You must discover it. Therefore, all other areas aren’t suited to you and you can’t become excellent in them.

This is simply a lie. In fact, we’re pretty much good at nothing when we start out. Sure, we can hold little headstarts over others, but they equate to starting 100 metres ahead in a marathon. They count for very little over the long run, and constitute a tiny fraction of the competence required for mastery.

Another implication is that you’re inevitably going to be a master if you have talent. If you have a little headstart, you might think you can rest up and watch the results roll in. Nothing could be further from the truth. A probe into the background of leading sportsmen and business people shows you need years of work to reach the pinnacle of a field:

Extensive research has shown that there is scarcely a single top performer in any complex task who has circumvented the ten years of hard work necessary to reach the top.

Matthew Syed

Though we can have areas where we have a slight inclination towards it, and seem to take to quickly, we can’t rely on that. The head start is negligible over the long run.

And even if you don’t want to be at the top, those nascent inclinations will wither away if you don’t nourish them. Success doesn’t come for free. You must work.

There is absolutely no evidence of a fast track for high achievers.

John Sloboda

Another problem with this myth is that you might spend your entire life seeking this fabled explosion of talent and never find it. As a result, you’ll forever feel like a failure and believe you’re genetically predisposed to mediocrity.

What a terrible belief! And the chances of failing to find it are high: let’s suppose there are 100 areas of life that you can master, a remarkably low estimate, and that you only have innate talent in one of them. Your chances of finding it at your first go is only 1%. Your chances of finding it within two goes is 2%. Within ten goes? 10%.

Since this myth denies us the ability to learn whatever we want, it even destroys our ability to get good in areas we love but don’t see any early results in. When we find a pursuit that we like and are inclined to spend lots of time mastering, we’re liable to quit early. We were on the right track and just needed to continue, but psyched ourselves out.

You spend your life on this lottery wheel, grasping at new fields, trying to determine within a few months whether you’re innately talented for them, and jumping ship even if you find one you love.

And as an autodidact, the saddest consequence of this myth is that it prevents us from tapping into the joy of learning whatever we want. Let me tell you: it is possible to know that you can get good at anything with enough practice. I believe I can, and it’s because I have done it so many times and now fully trust in myself.

Can you see how black and white, simplistic, almost childish, this belief is? “You either have talent for an area, or you don’t. If you do, grab on to that area with all your might. If you don’t, you might as well not try.” It’s ludicrous.

It completely ignores a fundamental feature of human beings: our remarkable biological, neurological and psychological adaptability.

The Reality of the Human Being and Skillbuilding

I’ve written many articles on the subject of skillbuilding, and from those you’ll deduce that I don’t place much stock in talent, genetics or upbringing.

Why? Because we’re highly adaptable beings. Our brain is constantly rewiring itself according to the input we give it, and it comes to resemble everything we do. Our genes and DNA don’t spell our fate, but provide a template that we continually alter and shape.

Our life experience shapes us, makes us grow and learn, and change our views and habits. Heck, even the very cells of our body are constantly being recycled and renewed. From month to month, year to year, decade to decade, we’re continually morphing: neurologically, biologically, psychologically.

I’m sure you’ve experienced these processes for yourself. Now it’s time to put it to use in learning: throw out your ideas of fixed genetic destiny and trust in your remarkable adaptability.

When we have the will and desire to make a change in our lives, we tap into this incredible adaptability of the human being. And in few areas is this adaptability as obvious as in learning and skill-building.

Learning is a process of adaptation, and you can track this journey in human neurology.

You begin in your habitual state. Then you expose yourself to a new realm and enter an unfamiliar state. Different brain centers activate to accommodate this adaptation process. You go through trials and tribulations, forcing your organism to assimilate the unfamiliar information and skills.

Finally, after years of immersion in the subject, your brain, body and mind adapt to incorporate and comprehend the new skills and knowledge, such that it becomes an effortless part of the new you. It becomes part of your new habitual self. The brain returns to a habitual state, yet contains entirely new brain maps corresponding to the new realm.

This has nothing to do with predisposition or genetics, but with desire, open-mindedness, and persistence. When you truly desire to learn a subject, you’ll put the hours in, expose yourself to it and fully drink in the new knowledge and methods that comprise it. This kickstarts the adaptation mechanism, and eventually you’ll come to master the new realm.

Develop Skills in Any Field

Now you know why you shouldn’t believe this myth, it’s time to develop your inner security such that you know, whatever you turn your hand to, you’ll get good with enough determination and effort.

If you want to know the practical steps involved in developing skills in any field, pursuit, hobby or craft, check out these articles:

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