The “Natural Talent” Excuse

Courtesy of Arjan Almekinders of and Creative Commons

I’ve always believed that succumbing to the phrase “they are naturally talented” is one of the most pessimistic attitudes to explain a truly extraordinary act. The simple reality is that a person is whatever they repeatedly do on a consistent basis. Using the excuse of “natural talent” to explain how a person achieved a perfect score on a test or how they set a record on an athletic team is completely ignorant. The mastery of any field requires incessant practice, and the uncommon results of high achievers are likely the result of a tremendous amount of focus and execution in practice.

Sometimes I come across motivational material that is so powerful that I believe it is worth sharing; I was recently reading the New York Times best seller SuperFreakonomics by economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Here are a couple short paragraphs that explain the conclusions of the most up-to-date research on understanding talent:

K. Anders Ericson is now a professor of psychology at Florida State University, where he uses empirical research to learn what share of talent is “natural” and how the rest of it is acquired. His conclusion: the trait we commonly call “raw talent” is vastly overrated. “A lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with,” he says. “But there is a suprisinigly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.” Or, put another way, expert performers–whether in soccer or piano playing, surgery or computer programming–are nearly always made, not born.

And yes, just as your grandmother always told you, practice does make perfect. But not just willy-nilly practice. Mastery arrives through what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.” This entails more than simply playing a C-minor scale a hundred times or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals; obtaining immediate feedback; and concetrating as much on technique as outcome.

The people who become excellent  at a given thing aren’t necessarily the same ones who seemed to be “gifted” at a young age. This suggest  that when it comes to choosing a life path, people should do what they love–yes, your nana told you this too–because if you don’t love what you’re doing, your are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good at it. (Page 61)

There you have it, talent level is precisely the result of how much proper execution is practiced. The thing I love most about this philosophy is that it applies to any discipline, whether it is academics, arts, athletics, and beyond. In short, if you love what you are doing, your chances of succeeding are far greater. Perhaps the description of remarkable talent should be described as a “natural process” rather than “natural talent”.

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10 2010
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  • Rohit Bhargava

    Brilliant article and if you could edit one line “and concetrating as much on technique as outcome.” to read “and concentrating as much on the technique as on the outcome”, it would be perfect!

  • Daniel S (CatFish21sm)

    I’ll agree and disagree. I also study psychology, and what we learn is that there is a thing called “natural talent” some people just find t certain things easier. However, that doesn’t mean that they have to be better. In psychology when you say natural talent you are speaking about a persons ability to grow in that field. Basically no matter what you do there is a curve when you first start, from exercise to learning. Natural talent is only how easy it is to get over that curve. Everyone is more talented in one thing than another, but that’s because they enjoy that thing. That makes getting through the learning curve easier for them. Its better to do something you enjoy. However, as you said a lot of people use this as an excuse to not try at all. This doesn’t make the time it takes to get over this curve any shorter, or make the work they have to do to get good any less. The only restrictions on a runners ability to run is whether or not they have a physical impairment. The only restriction on a learners ability to learn is a mental impairment. While it is true that humans as a species do have their limitations, anyone who tries hard enough can meet those limitations. People often use genetics as an excuse too. But as a species each individual shares more than 99.99% of the same DNA. Its like comparing two fish of the same species and asking which one is better at breathing under water.