The Talent Myth

GOT TALENT?I was rereading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell last night and I ran across a very important paragraph talking about talent. This is one of my very favorite topics in the whole world and whenever I tell someone “TALENT DOESN’T EXIST” they always look at me like I am crazy. America has perpetuated this myth that Talent is the driver of success forever and people are so infatuated with that idea they can’t imagine anything else. I think the main reason people love to believe this is that it is easy. The reason I say that is if I can look at someone and say he is successful is because of innate talent then there is nothing I can do about it. If I have to admit he is successful is because he chose to work harder than me then I don’t feel good about it. So check out the following quote and please help me stop this myth that talent is real!

“The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find and “naturals”, musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any “grinds,” people who have worked harder than everyone else, yet didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

7 thoughts on “The Talent Myth

  1. CrookedTimber says:

    I hate for my first comment to be negative because I have been enjoying this website since having a post recommended to me recently. It is always nice to see wrestling discussion, especially from such an accomplished grappler.
    However, talent denial is so scientifically ignorant that it can’t be ignored. As an antidote to the odious Malcolm Gladwell please read The Sports Gene by David Epstein. For a good preview of what is in the book see reviews here and/or here
    But I think a simple thought experiment should suffice. What you are essentially saying is that if Michael Jordan and I were born at the same time but to different parents and given to his parents to raise and were always working and practicing together, that we would achieve somewhat equal success. That is insane! No matter how much I worked my 5’7” self would not match his natural athletic ability.
    As a wrestler who had a reputation as a hard worker I loved thinking that what success I had was all earned by me. But I now have to admit that things like V02 max, proportion of fast and slow twitch muscles, balance, etc are largely (not entirely – but largely) inherited. Even the ability to work hard, now called grit, is partly heritable.
    There is a danger you allude to of kids giving up because they feel they aren’t genetically gifted enough. But the rub is that one has to do the hard work in order to see what their potential is. Maybe they are a late bloomer – better keep working as hard as you can just in case. But this danger doesn’t change scientific reality. Talent exists whether we like it or not.

  2. Ben Askren says:

    Hey thanks for the feedback! I will make sure to check out that book as this is one of my favorite topics.

    Obviously certain sports have prerequisites for being successful. such as being tall for basketball or being large to be a lineman in football. I believe once you meet those prerequisites then after that it is an ability to work.

    As far as late bloomers physically, most greats we base our opinion on their later work not their early work. Obviously in wrestling we see athletes who mature early have lots of early success but that advantage always fades over time. The one thing that often remains with some of those kids is the fact that they now view themselves as the best and they do a lot to keep it that way.

    Obviously I don’t base my theory around Gladwells work, although I do think he has some good stuff. Some other books I like in this area are Talent Code, Talent is Overrated, Mindset, The Art of Learning and more.

    Thanks again for the feedback and I will checkout The Spots Gene.

  3. Ben Hackbart says:

    Love the thoughts Ben. This is one of my favorite topics as well, and seems we have the same reading list as I have read many of the same titles you have. My 2 cents on the discussion so far is this. I am 100% a believer that talent does not exist at birth. I believe that your experiences as a child allow you to develop certain abilities and the hard work you put into refining those abilities makes you a good athlete. What separated the good from the great, and the great from the elite, is as you said, the amount of hard work one is willing to put into the refining and developing of those skills and abilities.

    I believe the first poster has a point in that genetics does in fact play a role. I believe that genetics will only come into play as the athlete gets older and your on competing in high level athletics. In sports like football or basketball (even wrestling, where guys at the same weight, one could have longer legs and arms which may be an advantage) where size does become a factor a athlete could be extremely skilled and the ability to play at a high level, but he will often times not compare to the athlete who has the same ability and skill but is much taller/bigger/heavier than he is. but this is not necessarily “talent” depending on what your definition of “talent” is.

    Great stuff. Hope all is well

  4. CrookedTimber says:

    I agree, fascinating topic. I am excited to check out a couple of the titles you mentioned that I’m not familiar with.

    • Matt Bequette says:

      Here is the full paper…


      Ericsson and his colleagues’ (1993) deliberate-practice view has generated a great deal of interest in expert performance, but their claim that individual differences in performance are largely accounted for by individual differences
      in amount of deliberate practice is not supported by the available empirical evidence…

      We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for
      professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.

  5. Matt Bequette says:

    Here is another peer reviewed study that looked at the (DPM) deliberate practice model of expertise which holds that talent does not exist or makes a negligible contribution to performance. This study looked at the biographies of male and female Olympic sprinters such as Jesse Owens, Marion Jones, and Usain Bolt, and found that, in all cases, they were exceptional (better than 95%-99%) compared with their competitors from the very start of their sprinting careers – before they had accumulated much more practice than their peers.

    The evidence suggests that we were NOT born on an equal playing field when it comes to our skill sets. DNA plays a large role in our individual abilities and not just our athletic abilities. Many of our personality traits, e.g., the differences in our individual motivations, the drive to learn, and the need to achieve, etc. have a strong genetic basis as well.

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