The Allure of Talent and Gift of Practice

The Lens of Talent

As western individualists, we celebrate the idea of “talent”. It plays itself out in how we laud athletes and artists, saying things like they are a natural at playing a saxophone or hitting a four-seam fastball. When we think about the feats of people such as Michael Phelps or Elon Musk, we place these individuals on a particular kind of pedestal that sees their talent as on a higher plane of existence. It is almost impossible to not do this when we watch Lebron absolutely own the court with elegance, poise, and strength.

This perspective is equally present – although in a less obvious way – when we assess the attributes and skills of others. How common is it for us to think that someone is naturally good – or bad – at something based on our initial judgment of their ability?

“I’m not good at it…”

It’s also present in our self-understanding. We can quickly judge whether we are good at something after only a short trial period. For instance, I have always thought that I’m not good with music because I struggled to grasp rudimentary musical concepts in my elementary school years. However, I’ve thought of myself as fairly proficient at disciplines such as math, because it seemed like “I got it much easier”. These working principles of self-understanding in turn impact how we invest our time, both in the short-term and long-term.

The Iconoclast

However, Expertise expert Anders Ericsson has something to say about this assumed monopoly of talent. Ericsson has invested his career in the study of the human dynamics of expertise and success, and has concluded that on an empirical level, intrinsic talent or “gifts” play a minor role in a person’s success and expertise in a particular field. Genetics merely establish particular thresholds; they do not determine how we will actually preform.

Deliberate Practice

In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders establishes that what determines a person’s success and aptitude in a particular arena is whether they participate in “deliberate practice”, which is preforming repetitions with focused attention and with the goal of improving performance. Deliberate practice is not the mindless hitting of balls at the driving range; it is the focused application of mental energy, awareness, strategy, and feedback as we are intentionally going through each swing of the club.

In a pretty straightforward model that risks oversimplification, Ericsson states that talent + deliberate practice = aptitude, and that aptitude + deliberate practice = success/expertise. Thus, practice is exponentially more valuable than talent in the cultivation of expertise. This places a much higher premium on grinding out repetition after repetition, workout after workout, trusting that the process will yield the fruit. It is almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of the unsung early morning and late night session in the gym, hall, library, or wherever you get after it.

The Renaissance Man

There is another potential pitfall of participating in the cult of talent; it can become a roadblock in our journey to developing resilience and grit. In Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, he discusses the nuances of learning. Josh has a bit of insight into this field, as he was a world champion chess master (he was the young boy who was the inspiration for the film and novel Searching for Bobby Fisher), a Tai Chi Push Hands world champion, and continues to be a performance coach for many high performers.

Entity or Incremental?

In his book, he considers the work of Dr. Carol Dweck in the field of developmental psychology, who “makes the distinction between entity and incremental theories of intelligence”. Children – and adults as well – who function within an entity paradigm “attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability”; they think that they succeed or fail at something because they are good or bad at it. Those who view intelligence through an incremental perspective think “that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped – step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” (sound familiar?).

thesDweck’s research also shows that the incremental children are far more likely to rise to the occasion when faced with challenging material or situations compared to the entity children. In one experiment, both groups were first given rather simple math problems that both groups solved with ease. The experimenters then presented the children with math problems that were too difficult for them to solve. While both groups obviously struggled with these problems, each group responded differently; the incrementalists were energized by the challenged, while the entitists were distraught and stunned. Finally, both groups were again given a set of easy problems to solve. Here is the plot twist: while the incrementalists proceeded to crush the easy problems again, the entitists struggled with problems that they once easily breezed through. The struggle with the tougher problems shook and destroyed their self-confidence.

Keep Grinding

As a recovering entitist, this perspective challenges and convicts me. How many times in my life have I struggled to rise to the occasion because I allowed a perceived struggle to incorrectly dictate my self-understanding? How much have I wrestled with insecurities or lies that I can’t do something, or that I’m not good at something, because my initial efforts were met with adversity. As Dweck and Waitzkin both discuss, the results of the math experiment have nothing to do with intelligence levels, but instead have everything to do with what people believe in the source of their intelligence and aptitude.

If we believe that our intelligence and aptitude is based in intrinsic, then we will resist intentionally challenging things, and struggle with weathering adversity and defeat. Conversely, if we instead believe that we develop our abilities through intentionally pursuing the grind, then we will do much better with pursuing and embracing difficulty. We will do much better with getting up and dusting ourselves off when we do fall. We will value deliberate practice, knowing that this produces fruit over the months, years, and decades.

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