Why Talent Doesn’t Really Matter

Our natural talents have a lot less to do with our success than we think

Feb 18, 2019 · 4 min read

When I was a toddler, my parents noticed how much I liked to draw. I went through packs of Crayola markers like chain smokers go through packs of cigarettes. I scribbled enthusiastically on whatever surface was within my reach.

My parents did more than pay attention — they fostered my natural ability. They encouraged me to draw, bought me art supplies, and even enrolled me in a few classes.

As a result, art became my favorite hobby, and I practiced tirelessly to hone my skills. What started out as poorly-drawn stick figures with dull crayons eventually turned into photorealistic portraits.

For a long time, I chalked my artistic abilities up to talent. Both my uncle and grandfather were artists, and I must’ve been lucky enough to get the Picasso gene. Others have thought so, too — showing people my artwork throughout the years has always yielded responses like, “Oh, I could never do that. I’m not talented enough.”

Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about talent in a new way. As I reflect on the years of hard work I put into my art, it doesn’t feel right for me to say I owe all my success to good genetics. I didn’t pop out with colored pencils and acrylic paints. Without practice, I’d probably still be scribbling out stick-figures.

Despite the value our culture places on natural abilities, talent doesn’t really exist — at least, not in the way we think it does. It may play a role in our natural interests and abilities, but talent has little to do with actual success.

What is exactly is talent?

The word “talent” is thrown around so much that it has become more of an abstract concept rather than a physical trait. Many people tend to associate talent with success or impressive skill. It’s often assumed that actors, musicians, artists, and athletes who stand at the pinnacle of their fields got there by talent alone.

When we see Celine Dion belt out My Heart Will Go On, our first thought is usually about how talented she is — not about how many sleepless nights and long days she had to put in to perfect her voice.

Once you strip away the preconceived ideas that our culture has about talent and success, it’s a pretty simple concept to grasp. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, has constructed her own definition of talent:

“Talent — when I use the word, I mean it as the rate at which you get better with effort. The rate at which you get better at soccer is your soccer talent. The rate at which you get better at math is your math talent. You know, given that you are putting forth a certain amount of effort. And I absolutely believe — and not everyone does, but I think most people do — that there are differences in talent among us: that we are not all equally talented” (Duckworth, 2016).

According to Duckworth, talent is really just our rate of improvement. It’s a natural advantage that we’re born with. For instance, my innate artistic abilities ensure that I progress faster at art than others. What may take me only a week to grasp could take someone with no artistic inclinations a month.

In many ways, talent is a lot like a race — except, not everyone is starting at the same place. Some of us are getting a major head starts while others lag behind. There isn’t an equal distribution of talent, either — there will always be those who naturally excel more than us.

Talent doesn’t really matter

Head starts aside, Duckworth’s definition of talent also highlights another important ingredient for success — effort. You could have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t practice, your natural advantage is null.

In fact, a cognitive psychologist, Anders Ericsson, argues that talent doesn’t really matter. “In the long run it is the ones who practice more who prevail, not the ones who had some initial advantage in intelligence or some other talent,” he says.

I can see the truth of Ericsson’s words echoed in my own life. There have been times where I’ve pushed the paintbrush aside and gone months without practicing my art.

When I returned to it, my skills were rusty — and there were even times when I needed to redevelop them. Yet, in the periods when all I’ve done is eat, sleep and breathe art, I’ve seen incredible progress take place.

No matter what natural edge your talent may give you, it will never be a replacement for effort and commitment. Talent alone cannot sustain you or lead you to success. The dedicated person who practices tirelessly — regardless of talent — is the only one who will ever truly succeed.

There’s a dangerous cultural presumption out there that you’ll only ever “be good” at something if you’re naturally talented. It’s a belief that’s stopped a lot of people from pursuing their interests out of fear that they’ll be wasting their time. But, the truth is, behind all of the talented people we admire are countless hours of hard work and practice.

Instead of looking at talent as a determinator for success, try seeing it like Duckworth does — as a rate of improvement. A talented musician will progress faster than an untalented one, but that doesn’t necessarily make them better. The person who puts in the work will come up on top. Talent may give you a head start, but it won’t win you the race.

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