It’s not that I couldn’t understand his point.
The scene: an outdoor dinner table, surrounded by people sharing food and coming down off a community salsa dance lesson. As we ate, one of our guests and I got into a rather impassioned conversation when he took me off-guard by saying, “There’s no such thing as talent.” His contention was that everyone, if they work hard, can do anything well. I answered that this is the kind of “everyone gets a medal!” thinking that is making us weak. So who was right? Is talent a myth?
I was born in 1981, which means that I was part of that strange transition that happened in the public school system – I saw the beginning of teachers removing grade curves and handing out participation ribbons while at the same time I was living with parents who believed that you should bring home A’s. The days when a less than perfect report card meant losing your TV privileges to make more time for homework, not your mom making an appointment to argue with your teacher about why you deserved better. We were sorted and labeled; put into advanced classes or held back, told we had talent or told we needed to work harder, sometimes still within the new paradigm of ‘everyone just needs to try their best’. The underlying message seemed to seep up through the collective like a sign in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
This is not meant to be a review of the education system, but rather thoughts about whether or not ‘talent’ really exists. Like many others, I first heard about the idea that talent is a myth by reading Malcolm Gladwell and seeing what he had to say about famous people that we think of as talented, but where the truth came down to just a ridiculous amount of hard work; the classic example being the Beatles. I understand the idea that it takes 10,000 hours for someone to truly excel at their craft and there is no debating the power of hard work. The debate here is would someone else have had that same success if they put in the same work? If I spent all those hours practicing music with my bandmates in Germany, would I have been as successful as John Lennon?
To quote one article that I read, “The verdict in the scientific community seems to be in line with Aesop’s fable: The tortoise beats the hare, but only because the hare took a nap. Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work” This is based on a paper published in Psychological Science (2011) entitled: Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance. Authors David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz basically point out that the higher the IQ, and skill levels you are born with, does in fact make a difference, unlike the view of many pop-psychologists who state that, after a certain baseline point, it doesn’t matter.
Part of the issue is that it is very hard to scientifically study talent. What level of ability does someone need to intrinsically show for us to call this ‘talent’? How do you separate this from the positive effects of a supportive home environment, social economic class, etc.? The research tends to be tucked into the Nature vs Nurture debate, and many of the scientists performing the studies already have their feet in one camp or the other, making it difficult to be truly objective. So one study seems to show that characteristics such as IQ, artistic talent, and ability with numbers and languages is innate and unchanging and the next seems to show that it is influenced heavily by cultural and parental factors.
As a mom of three, I have watched all my children be naturally good at some things and (let’s face it) pretty terrible at others. As an instructor of various modalities of holistic health for the last 12 years, I feel like I can train anyone to be competent, and yet, there are certain people who definitely display a natural aptitude – where it seem to come easily and they are good right off the bat. Why are we so afraid of that? Why isn’t it OK to say that someone is blessed with a certain ability?
One of my favourite family movies is ‘The Incredibles’ and there is that wonderful line of Syndrome’s (the ‘bad guy’) in the movie; the theme that repeats itself, “when everyone is super, no one is.” Denying talent and praising everyone equally doesn’t seem to have the effect of making everyone perform better – rather than making ‘everyone super’ it makes ‘everyone normal’. Perhaps we have become uncomfortable with the idea of talent because we have become a little obsessive about everyone being equal. The fear of praising someone’s talent here seems obvious; if I say that you have talent in a certain field, then that means that someone else is not as good in comparison and that’s simply not OK to imply, especially if I am talking to my own kids.
Bring it back to my friend who was arguing with me; one of his points was that everyone should be able to enjoy the arts without worrying that they aren’t good at it. As this conversation took place after a salsa class where I revealed my lack of rhythm and musical ability, but managed to have a fabulous time anyways, I have to agree with that. But that doesn’t come from denying the talents of others. I can embrace the fact that I will never be a professional dancer (probably not even if I practiced everyday from now until I die) and still enjoy the act of dancing. Looking at someone else who is naturally gifted does not take away my joy, rather it can give me something to aspire to. Great art shouldn’t make us feel inept and sad; it should elevate the human experience. Me denying your abilities doesn’t make me better and my denying your kids’ abilities won’t help mine succeed. Instead, maybe we can each embrace our own superpowers and use them to be heroes, not just of our own stories, but of everyone’s.
It’s not my job to pretend to not be good at things in order to make someone else more comfortable, and I don’t want my kids to live like that either.
Article: Hard Work Beats Talent, (but only if Talent Doesn’t Work Hard), Piers Steel Ph.D. 2017 https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-procrastination-equation/201110/hard-work-beats-talent-only-if-talent-doesn-t-work-hard
Paper: ‘Does Talent Exist? A re-evaluation of the nature–nurture debate’ Paul Ward, Patrick Belling, Erich Petushek, and Joyce Ehrlinger, In book: Routledge handbook of talent identification and development in sport, Publisher: Routledge, Editors: Joseph Baker, Stephen Cobley, Jörg Schorer, Nick Wattie, pp.19-34 January 2017