Is talent natural or gained through experience?
Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 22:09
We’re often told that those who excel in their field have natural talent, an innate ability that’s hardwired into their brain. Their special talent allows them to do something more easily than the average person. It’s just simpler for them, somehow. Barely anyone stops to question this sentiment.
Many people are certain musical talent exists. That’s why some lucky individuals can sing or play an instrument so well and others cannot. How else could Mozart have composed entire masterpieces in his head? In a letter, he wrote: “The whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind…the committing to paper is done quickly enough…and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.” It turns out this letter is a forgery.
Such stories of miraculous abilities in great performers propagate unfounded understandings of talent. While Mozart is an extraordinary example of what we might call talented, he trained intensively from the age of three under the supervision of his father Leopold Mozart, an already famous composer. Furthermore, Tiger Woods, who is often compared to Mozart in research on great performance, experienced a similar form of training from an early age from his father Earl Woods.
In 1992 researchers from England conducted a study in search of innate musical talent. The research looked at 257 young people who began the study of music at around the age of eight. They were divided into five groups starting from those who gave up after at least six months to those in music school (the top group). These groups were controlled for age, gender, instruments and socioeconomic class.
Extensive interviewing of the students and their parents turned up no evidence for early signs of inherent talent. There was only one reliable factor in predicting a student’s success: the amount of time they practiced. At the age of 12, the students in the top group were practicing an average of two hours a day, whereas the lowest active group practiced an average of 15 minutes a day. Professor John A. Sloboda of the University of Keele, one of the researchers, said: “There is absolutely no evidence of a ‘fast track’ for high achievers.”
Thanks to the Hungarian educational psychologist Laszlo Polgar, there is a particularly strong case of evidence for talent acquisition. Laszlo believed that “geniuses are made, not born.” Through much research, he wrote a book about raising children to become great performers. He also publicly asked for a woman to marry him, have children with him and help conduct an experiment in raising top performers. Luckily for him, an adventurous woman from Ukraine named Klara accepted his offer. They had three daughters, all of whom were home schooled, and trained in playing chess.
Both Laszlo and Klara eventually quit their jobs and accumulated a library of 10,000 chess books, devoting their lives to teaching their children chess. Susan, the oldest daughter, became the first woman to earn the title of chess grandmaster, at 21. Judit, the youngest daughter, achieved the rank of grandmaster at age 15, being the youngest person of either sex to attain such a designation. Judit is still regarded as the strongest female chess player in history. Because professional chess is such a male-dominated field, the Polgar sisters are an exceptional example of human-cultivated talent. To learn more about this case and the previous research, read “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.
Any sensible person will shape their life around their talent. Successful musicians, writers, engineers, scientists, athletes, artists, filmmakers, teachers and leaders all care a great deal about what they do. It’s a profound source of fulfillment. The problem for most people is discovering their talent. This is an issue in itself; one can’t simply find a skill—it must be developed.
Sometimes people will try something new for a small amount of time and find that it is not easy. They might conclude they have no “talent” for it and never pursue it again. A beginner’s frustration reveals the truth about talent: it’s not up to chance. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes tremendous personal sacrifice. Time and effort must be exerted, often painfully. Rodney Mullen, the world-renowned professional skateboarder, said: “To get good, you have to throw your board around and fall.”
When great performers are revealed to be ordinary humans, it takes some of the magic and romance out of it. This is perhaps why there is such a vested interest in maintaining myths about superhuman talent. Nevertheless when someone invests their time and passion into cultivating a talent, they may find the magic is just as real.