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Does Talent Exist? Here’s The Truth

Today, we answer the question “does talent exist?”, and whether training and practice have any bearing on competence.

Most of us put skill down to natural talent – inbuilt, pre-installed capabilities. We view athletes, scientists and champions as superhumans who were destined for glory at birth. We habitually say things like “he’s so talented”, “she’s a natural”, “he has god-given musical ability.” You don’t have to look far for this parlance in everyday speech.

Yet the talent theory is starting to lose credibility. Modern neuroscience is slowly shining a light on all the dodgy pseudoscience behind these centuries-old assumptions and catchphrases. The famous 10,000-hour rule has turned our ideas about learning and training upside down. Our awareness of the power of mindset and persistence is having a similar effect. And as learning becomes more and more accessible, we’re realising competence might have more to do with exposure and effort than miraculous, inbuilt abilities.

So, does inbuilt talent determine whether we get good at a certain pursuit? Can anyone have talent? Does all the talk about “god-given” natural ability match the reality of high performance? Does talent exist, really?

These are some of the questions we’ll be answering in this article. And at the end, I’ll share my tips for training yourself to get great at anything.

Does Talent Exist? The Idea of Natural Ability

We’re brought up with the idea that we either have talent for a certain area or not. You have a “maths brain” or you don’t. You have an “eye for art” or you don’t. They may have even said you’re “good with words” or not. We hear these ideas over and over in our early years. We never ask the question, “does talent exist, really?”

Where does the talent theory come from? There are many possible causes of it, but ultimately I think it’s because the greats seems to possess some form of magic when they perform. Notice we talk of high performers in this magical, superstitious way: “he’s so talented”, “dancing is in her blood”, “she was born to paint”, “he has a fantastic football brain”, and so on. This is the well-worn parlance of commentators, pundits and journalists.

But does it have any foundation? Let’s start with a look at the people whose natural ability seems unquestionable: those known as child prodigies.

Does Talent Exist? Child Prodigies

child prodigy is defined in psychology research literature as a person under the age of ten who produces meaningful output in some domain at the level of an adult expert. The term is also applied more broadly to young people who are extraordinarily talented in some field.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Among the most common examples of a child prodigy is Mozart. Have you ever seen Good Will Hunting? (I love that film.) When explaining to his despairing girlfriend how he’s able understand organic chemistry, Matt Damon’s character dramatically declares: “Beethoven and Mozart saw it [a piano]; they could just play!” Thank you, Matt, for cogently summing up how we view typically Mozart.

On the surface, it seems Mr Damon got it spot on. By age 6, Mozart was performing on stage, dazzling members of the European aristocracy. Age 6? Right when he should be learning how to count to 100? How could anything but natural ability be behind this remarkable level of skill?

man training to play the piano

Let’s avoid the oft-committed error of getting dazzled by appearances. For one thing, Mozart’s dad was a famous composer and performer, and an accomplished music teacher who developed his own pedagogy. That’s not a bad hand to be dealt if you’re an aspiring musician.

And Mozart started learning with his dad at a very young age. Michael Howe, a British cognitive psychologist, estimated that Mozart had spent 3500 hours practicing piano before his sixth birthday. 3500 hours of training? To give you an idea, that’s 500 seven-hour workdays spent playing the piano. It’s no wonder he was causing a stir in the European courts of the day.

What’s more, music experts agree that Mozart didn’t write a significant piece of original music until he’d been composing for ten years. Where was all his talent there? When we look at the plain facts of Mozart’s personal life, it seems his piano proficiency was less a matter of natural ability than a child raised to be an incredible pianist in exceptional circumstances.

Mozart is proof of something crucial – not of talent, but of the importance of hard work, dedication and single-minded focus.

On the back of this, we must answer the question “does talent exist?” with a firm no.

Other Apparent Child Prodigies and Their Training

And the abilities of other familiar superstars also seem disappointingly banal when seen in the cold light of fact. Albert Einstein started doing mental experiments at the age of 16. Only ten years later did he come up with his groundbreaking theory of relativity. Yet how many times do we call him a genius, as though his remarkable insight and creativity came pre-installed?

Tiger Woods started playing golf at age 2, clocking up ten thousand hours of dedicated training in his early years. Charles Darwin spent his whole early life studying animals before proposing his theory of evolution. Even then, he spent the remainder of it refining that theory and grounding it in solid science.

Here’s the problem. We’re hypnotised by child prodigies because we compare them with other children their age, not with other experts who have accumulated the same amount of training. It’s no wonder it seems they came born with their talent.

I’m not contending their incredible skills, but the idea that these signal natural ability. The following case shows us in even bolder relief how success can be engineered in children who have no reason (genetic or otherwise) to achieve it.

Does Talent Exist? Lab-Grown Chess Champions

The case of Laszlo Polgar shows you can literally raise children to be superstars. He was an educational psychologist and one of the first to advocate the practice theory of expertise – the idea that expertise is a result of training, not talent.

To provide strong (and unconventional) proof of his theory, he undertook an audacious experiment. He decided to deliberately turn his three daughters into chess greats. To be clear, Polgar was not a chess player, certainly not to grandmaster level. In fact, he deliberately chose chess to eliminate any genetic influences.

And he succeeded. Look up Judit Pulgar – Magnus Carlsen considers her the best female chess player of all time. Her other sisters did pretty well too.

Polgar used his newborns as lab rats in his mission to debunk the talent theory of expertise. He gave them all thousands of hours of training in their youth. They’ve broken records, been world champions, grandmasters, you name it. They looked like child prodigies, but they were ordinary biological phenomena raised to be superstars.

Their success simply can’t be explained by genetics or “god-given ability” or any other snappy soundbite. It was a result of dedication, training and focus. Yet Polgar commented that other parents and people in the chess world often attribute his daughters’ success to talent! This shows you how unconscious and automatic this assumption is.

That said, I do know some cases that I can’t put down solely to training. But I can show that this natural ability, often blown up to stratospheric proportions, was little more than a tiny headstart.

Does Talent Exist? Stephen Hendry

When it comes to an example of a person with supposed out-of-the-box talent, I’m most familiar with Stephen Hendry. If you don’t know him, he won the World Snooker Championship seven times in the 90s and is one of the GOATs. If you don’t know what snooker is, it’s like pool but much more difficult. Some call it the toughest individual sport around.

Stephen was given a kids’ snooker table when he was 12 years old. Though he’d never played before, after two weeks of practice he was making 50 breaks. To give you an idea, you need to pot 12-16 balls in a row to score 50 points in snooker. It’s quite a feat.

Why Stephen’s Feat Wasn’t So Remarkable

Sure, for the average person, that’s a remarkable achievement. Most people never come close to a 50 break in their life. He was born a world champion, right?

But not so fast – compared to what snooker pros are capable of, especially given the tiny table, those 50-point breaks are pretty irrelevant. If Stephen had stopped his snooker journey after making them, I can guarantee the name Stephen Hendry would be completely unknown to the sporting world.

As it was, Stephen quickly took to the game and decided to make it his life. After leaving school with no qualifications, he spent seven days a week practicing snooker, six hours at a time, racking up innumerable hours of practice. Eight years after first picking up a cue, he won the World Snooker Championship for the first time at 21 years old.

For Stephen Hendry, the clearest example I know of innate skill, we can see that his natural ability was like a little headstart, a little push in the right direction. But in the grand scheme of things it meant very little, and he worked incredibly hard to become a great. When commenting on Hendry’s commitment to training, the other GOAT contender, Ronnie O’Sullivan, said: “they don’t make them like Stephen Hendry any more”.

Does Talent Exist? My Take

Ultimately, I believe talent does exist, but it’s way, way less important than we believe. Rather than defining whether we’ll ever succeed or not, it gives us a nudge in the right direction. And I also believe if you’re not given that little push, there’s no doubt you can still succeed.

We’ve taken this negligible advantage and blown it up beyond all proportion. And it’s a disservice not only to successful people, but to ourselves. If we think talent is everything, we set up a self-fulfilling prophecy and doom ourselves to mediocrity.

Does Talent Exist? My Skillset

Having reached impressive levels in several hobbies and fields, I’ve witnessed the talent illusion in both my personal and professional lives. Here’s a short summary of what I’ve achieved.

Maths (top grades, degree, run private classes)

Spanish (recently passed highest level of exam available for foreigners, done paid translation work)

Chinese (solid intermediate level)

Writing (to a professional level)

Pool & Snooker (I once considered becoming a pro)

Guitar (worked for world-famous guitar website)

None of this was a result of talent or natural ability.

Though family and friends believe I’m some kind of multipotentialite alien, my personal opinion is that only in maths would did I have any discernible head start. I was extremely mediocre when I first started out in all of these pursuits. If you’re an advocate of talent, you’d never have encouraged the Ross of 2016 to continue playing guitar. You’d have told him to stop wasting his time and sell his six string.

What was my head start? Well, I could tell the time and read the numbers on buses way before my peers in nursery (that’s kindergarten if you’re in the US). Sure, I looked good compared to my two-year-old peers, but in the grand scheme of things that natural ability was meaningless. Let’s be honest – if an adult can’t tell the time or read bus numbers, it’s either because they’re blind or have serious disabilities. I spent most of my early life working hard to get my grades and achieve a top degree. None of it came from bus numbers and telling the time.

People look from the outside and think I was somehow born to do all these things. It sounds sexy, but it’s not true. My personal view is that I was born to persist enough to get good, which most people are incapable of.

So if talent is this way, why do we fall for it? Why do we use the word so much? Why do we think people are “gifted”, born geniuses? There are many contributing factors, but at least part of the reason is because the greats look so amazing at their pursuit that it’s tough for us to imagine them as clumsy newbies. This is the Iceberg Illusion.

Does Talent Exist? The Iceberg Illusion

The end result of a long learning process is pretty remarkable. 

For example, mastering a foreign language brings effortless listening, speaking, reading and writing in the new tongue. From the outside, it seems seamless, graceful, flowing, like a choreographed dance performance. People see this result and it dazzles them.

It often feels that way from the inside too. I can effortlessly listen to native Spanish speakers talking at full pelt. I can spontaneously respond in equally precise language. And I can also read pretty much anything written in Spanish, unless it’s full of technical jargon, and understand perfectly. And yes, it feels effortless and graceful, so much so that I don’t even realise I’m doing it.

The same is true of all your favourite high-level performers. That’s right. They look god-like only because of their long immersion and dogged dedication.

At this level, they can see and do things we can’t. For example, when it comes to making decisions, they quickly glean the necessary information and react accordingly in an instinctive way. They’ve been there and done it 1000 times, meaning they have a standard and effective response kit for all problems that arise.

Skilled performers seem to have all the time in the world. Recognition of familiar scenarios and the chunking of perceptual information into meaningful wholes and patterns speeds up processes.

Janet Starkes

End Result v The Training Journey

Don’t mistake grace and ease with natural ability. They’re the end result of an arduous journey. They comes after days, weeks, months and years falling over, hitting your head, and getting back up again.

This is the point – from the outside, high performance looks so natural that you can’t even imagine the person being terrible. But their grace is akin to that of a statue: it’s on the other side of a long, sweaty process of training, hammering, chipping, sanding, inspecting and refining. Ignore this fact, and you’re being hypontised by the Iceberg Illusion.

Does Talent Exist? People Underestimate The Path

And at the root of it, my personal view is that we simply underestimate what the greats go through. We’re hypnotised by the final result and forget that their pursuit is their entire life. Their personal and professional lives merge, and apart from training and preparation, they do little else.

I also think they forget too. It’s suprising how often you hear top-level sportspeople talking about talent even though their own story irrevocably debunks their beliefs about natural ability. Sometimes they even insist on the necessity of training and practice while championing natural talent. It’s sad, really.

It even seems that we enjoy recognising “natural ability” in others. It’s much less cognitively demanding to declare somebody a genius than to carefully consider how they reached such incredible levels of competence. It’s more palateable to see remarkable performance as a result of natural ability rather than of a long, gruelling process. Combine masters’ abilities with our laziness, and it’s no wonder we believe they’re magical beings.

Stop Believing in Talent and Natural Ability – Now

Anyways, I’ll get down off my soap box. Deep Psychology is about empowering you to better yourself.

And to that end, my personal view is that you should ignore talent. Ignore the entire concept. Forget it. Stop using the word. It’s a social myth that we’ve been irresponsibly throwing around, a virus infecting our mindset and worldview. It does nothing but hold you back.

And when you’ve learned something to a high level, going through all the stress and struggles it entails, come back and tell me how you answer the question “does talent exist?”.

Be Successful in Learning: Master Your Training and Mindset

I’ve written about a dozen long articles describing my personal views on how to be successful in learning, and I’ve got a course coming, but let’s just put it very concisely.

The keys are mindset and persistence.

When you begin the learning journey, it seems you’ll never get good. The activity seems so foreign and unusual. You look at your teachers and they seem to be “on a different plane” (thanks George Leonard for that revealing description). You feel insecure, scared.

But if you have the right mindset, you’ll be able to sustain the training and practice required to get good. And if you trust in the power of persistence, you’ll keep going regardless of your doubts and fears. 

Does Talent Exist? What the greats really do

Do some investigation into the question “does talent exist?”, and you’ll realise your favourite high performer dedicates their entire life to their craft. They spend so much time training and honing their skills that they inevitably become amazing. They’d have to have some sort of horrific disability or ailment not to get good.

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

What all the greats do have is an inclination and curiosity, and they’re willing to follow them to the end, no matter what. Some say that calling is innate. Perhaps, but even that is a limiting idea. We’re all attracted to many topics, not just one. What about pursuits we take a liking to later in life?

Sometimes fortune plays a part. There are many fantastic musicians who don’t get success while others do, simply because they don’t get the breaks. Time and place also matter. As Matthew Syed says, “with the technology available now, anyone with an internet connection can access hundreds millions of webpages and spend endless hours pouring over human discoveries and knowledge. Even Picasso and Einstein couldn’t do that.”

Does talent exist? Conclusion: competence is about training and dedication, not natural ability. And learning is an art we can master – to learn how to learn, see my Be A Prolific Learner series.

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