Don’t believe in natural talent
I hate it when people use the term “raw talent.” Multiple people, in the last few years, have used this term to describe my ability to learn new things. Though I know they’ve all said it with the best intention, hearing it always made me feel a bit uneasy.
I hate the phrase “raw talent” because it implies talent is something people are born with — that some people are born smarter than others, or that some are born more athletic. While genes do play some role in our brain structure and physical development, for the most part, talent is made.
I’m not talented, I just push myself to be better.
I’ve been guilty of believing in “raw talent” myself. During my first semester at MIT, I heard the story of this guy who aced his math problem-set while drunk. Meanwhile, I had trouble solving a single problem by myself and I was struggling to get a B in class.
For years, I’ve had the mindset of “I’m just not talented in math.”
My journey as a blogger has changed me. I’ve read and reflected on life-changing articles (and books some of these articles have recommended) around this topic.
What I’ve failed to realize then was that I don’t know what that classmate did in high school. He might have done a hundred times or a thousand times more math problems than I’ve done by the time we were both freshmen in college. He might have taken multivariable calculus (an institute requirement that you cannot skip with AP credits) already because of his math-centric upbringing.
What others often perceive as natural talent usually comes thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of hours of hard work.
Talent is born out of curiosity, drive, and hard work.
Saying some people are naturally talented not only discount the amount of work that they put into honing their skills, it’s also a cop out. It’s an excuse. You could be that person too, if you 1) cared enough and 2) put in the same effort.
Believing in raw talent is a fixed mindset way of thinking. I used to have a fixed mindset. It’s toxic. It led to my biggest regret in life.
My biggest regret was not taking enough challenging and interesting courses at MIT. I graduated with the bare minimum STEM requirements for my major. I filled the rest of the time with “easy” classes. I should have taken advanced chemistry, differential equations, advanced statistics, perhaps a robotics class, computer science, etc. After all, I had the best opportunity in the world, and I blew it.
I had a fixed mindset. I didn’t think I was smart enough for those hardcore advanced math and science classes.
A fixed mindset like this creates a toxic behavior where you’re less willing to take on challenges because you’re afraid to see yourself fail. Failure means “I’m just not good at this” and it’s not pleasant being confronted by that fact.
Adapt a growth mindset instead. Having the right mindset helps with drive and motivation too. When you fall into the trap of “I’m just not good at this,” it becomes easy to give up. Why try? I’m never going to be good at it.
If I had a growth mindset years ago, I would have challenged myself much more in college. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have majored in biology, the subject I was best at.
Adapting a growth mindset has helped me tremendously in my professional life. One, I’m thrilled to take on challenging projects. I know that the fastest way to grow is to do things I’m not already familiar with. Two, I no longer have the imposter syndrome.
A growth mindset has given me the courage to be at the bottom because I know learning is a lifelong process. No one starts knowing everything, and as long as I keep going, keep learning, I will rise.
Growth requires discomfort. Taking on challenging projects is not comfortable. Joining an incredibly smart team at work is not comfortable. However, they’re necessary.
“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
Similarly, if you’re always comfortable, it means you’re not challenging yourself hard enough. You can do better.
Now I wonder what my life would have been like and where I would be now had I grown up with a growth mindset my whole life.
Skills aren’t fixed traits. There is so little holding you back from becoming better at the things you care about. All you need are the curiosity to learn more, the drive to improve, and the attitude that boundaries are meant to be expanded.
So here it is, the not-so-secret recipe to “talent.”