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You're not talented and why it doesn't matter.

I have some great news! It turns out, you’re not talented. Why’s that great? Because, it doesn’t matter.

Photo courtesy of graur codrin

I’m almost finished reading Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and it’s helped broaden my perspective regarding talent, success, exceptional achievement, and the myth of talent.

The Myth of Talent

Talent is generally seen as an innate ability; a gift you’re born with – you either have it or you don’t. We often attribute talent to people with exceptional abilities or use it as an excuse as to why we can or cannot be exceptional at a given ability. However, in Talent is Overrated, Colvin gives evidence that talent either doesn’t exist or if it does, it has little to do with exceptional achievement. Instead, exceptional ability or success is due to “deliberate practice” in the learning zone; not just a couple months of hard work, but years. In fact, on average it takes a minimum of 10 years of deliberate practice until the characteristics of great achievement are evident.

Mozart and Tiger Woods

So what about Mozart or Tiger Woods who are usually thought of as child prodigies? Neither turn out to have innate abilities or talent.

Mozart’s father was a master composer. The early works of Mozart, such as his symphony at age 4 and first concerto at age 7, weren’t written in his handwriting and were heavily influenced and corrected by his father. Mozart didn’t start his masterpieces until his mid twenties and leading up to those he wasn’t writing original work, but arranging the works of Bach, one of his mentors . So prior to Mozart becoming exceptional, he had at least 10 years of deliberate practice.

Tiger Woods’ story is similar. Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, was a Military instructor and taught young men. He had 3 kids and a marriage prior to Tiger. By the time Tiger was born, Earl had an extensive knowledge of children, effective teaching, and golf. At 8 months old, Tiger would sit and watch his dad hit golf balls for hours at a time putting him through deliberate practice. At the age of 4, Tiger was given professional instruction. While Tiger’s early achievements were noticeable, they weren’t exceptional, and it wasn’t until his later teens that Tiger started to show exceptional ability – more than 10 years after he had deliberate practice.

Mozart wasn’t born with a predisposition for music and Tiger didn’t have a gift for golf; both reached their exceptional ability through years of deliberate practice.

There’s countless other examples in Colvin’s book including the success of Jerry Rice, Bill Gates, chess masters and instrumental virtuosos. In all cases, if talent exists, deliberate practice plays a bigger role than any innate ability, genetic trait or intelligence (IQ).

Conclusion

Colvin doesn’t suggest that deliberate practice is the only factor to becoming great, but that it is evident in all cases. He credits the success of Mozart and Tiger to their fathers which he calls ‘luck’. So a part of the argument involves being ‘lucky’ to be surrounded by the right people, at the right time, in the right place.

If talent isn’t the answer for achieving exceptional abilities, we can no longer use it as an excuse, and greatness becomes a matter of choice. That is great, isn’t it?

Questions: Do you believe Colvin’s finding? Does it surprise you or change your outlook? Yo always have great insights; leave yours in the comments below.

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  • Anonymous

    Good article. I guess talent is the potential, discovering and practicing make them successful.

    • Thanks! Practicing is the key; but, not just practicing in the sense that we’re used to. Deliberate practice is really a dedicated and disciplined way of practicing/learning. I hope to write about it more after I finish the book.

  • Harry van der Veen

    All I can say is thank goodness 🙂

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  • Harith

    but what puzzling me is ‘creative’, talent is one thing but how about creativity?
    Because I heard many people especially teachers said ‘you have to think outside the box’, ‘be creative’. So creativity can be taught and learn? so why there’s no subjects teaching creativity’..just read up to chapter 5, will continue on later

    • Good questions Harith. I’m not sure what the research shows about creativity. I believe that’s another topic entirely. In this article, I’m specifically talking about talent in relationship to world-class people and how the research shows that talent is a very small factor – if one at all. I definitely think that creativity can be learned though or at least developed further. I think it’s about putting someone in the right environment where they can see things in new ways and therefore can be more ‘creative’. Knowing more about something can lead to having various creative ideas around that topic.

    • Sethsandler Com

      Sorry for being late to the party, but I think everyone is creative. But through culture we’re tought that creativity belongs to arts in particular, but I think it is one’s ability to solve problems one encounters for the first time. And even the most “non-creative” people are usually able to solve problems in their area(s) of expertise.

    • Syrion

      My apologies for the unintended imposting. Somehow the name was taken from the email-account I used (which is usually domain @mydomain.tld, to check where posts originate from).

    • I agree Syrion. Thanks for the input; it’s never too late. 🙂

  • C.J.

    I completely agree, we can be whatever we want if we fully commit to it and train deliberately and intelligently. The only thing I disagree with though, is the 10 year requirement. If someone trains highly efficiently for 10 hours a day, every day, I’m inclined to think he or she will be extraordinary in 9, 8, 7,6 or fewer years.

    • Well the 10 years is based on research. There’s always exceptions to the rule. 10 years was the average across the research. I actually think it was broken down to hours and that averaged over a span of 10 years. So if the same amount of hours were done in 8, then it’d be 8.

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  • SAx

    Your conclusion makes no sense at all. Talent does not become a matter of choice, but of luck – the luck of being exposed to an environment conducive to talent in your formative years.

    • Thank you for your feedback. In the article, it doesn’t state that talent is a matter of choice, but that greatness is. This isn’t necessarily my conclusion, but the conclusion in the book “Talent is overrated”. While there is definitely a luck component, the takeaway is that there is more choice than innate ability when it comes to talent and that deliberate practice can lead to greatness whether it starts in early or later years.

  • SideKick

    Ive read this book as well, and from my own personnel exposure to those who are indeed talented I think a bit more goes into then just practicing. I’ve drawn since childhood, always considered myself not bad. Not talented but not bad. My friend Chris took an art class on a whim. He hasn’t really drawn since he was a child when he just scribbled. Man is talented. His work has won awards and the teacher he worked under highly encouraged him to continue on. Though he has the talent he didn’t have the passion for it. So his drawing fizzled out after the class ended. My own father is another example. He got into computer in his late twenties. He skyrocketed career wise cause he was simply talented when it comes to computers. Practice does indeed help and can help turn medicore ppl in to good. But if you are born with an inate talent and become passionate about that talent you shoot much higher then those who’ve struggled their whole lives to master that very thing

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