What About Talent ?

Oh yes,  the age old debate. Is talent something one is born with or is it deliberately acquired during one’s life time ?

Talent is crucial, everyone agrees to that. But can it be acquired ? More importantly, can it be acquired enough to make one awesome, as opposed to just good ?

I am sure there are strong opinions in this area since the idea of talent or exceptional skill is something that we hold very close to our hearts. After all we measure ourselves by what we achieve and what we achieve is directly linked to our skill set. It is one of the major attributes of our identity.

But the question is not about the importance of talent, but the source of it. Athletes are great because they train. They train hard and they train very often. That is acquired talent. But then again, of all the people who trained there is only one Micheal Jordan and only one Sachin Tendulkar. Guys like them are special in that they showed greatness that transcended their field. They inspired not only their fellow sportsmen, but even people of other industries. For any one observer, there must be something clearly different about these guys; something more than just training.

Or is it?

These elite men always say that they were able to achieve such levels of success simply because they wanted it so badly. They readily admit to working long hours, sacrificing many luxuries on their way towards greatness but they always attribute the majority of their success to luck/god/family and the passion for their field.

This kind of all consuming passion surely produces great drive which acts as the motivation for all those hours of lonely practice and training. This applies to all fields, not just the world of sports. When pursued relentlessly with single minded focus, any talent, whether it is art or business is acquirable. So it is clear that with enough practice exceptional skill can be achieved. That just leaves us with one nagging question. What about all the other not-so-great people who work hard, all day and all night? How come they don’t reach the so called ‘exceptional’ level of skill.

The answer to that question is revealed to us by science. Turns out our ability to grow largely depends on our mindset. If you believe that you are capable of continuous growth, you grow, continuously. If you believe that people are born with innate talents that define their potential, then its more likely that you will reach the limit of your potential. Stanford researcher Carol Dweck calls the former type as “growth mind set” and the later, “fixed mind-set”.
Three decades of research has convinced her that how people think about talent, affects how talented they are. She says

“People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes.”

This is a subject I have discussed in our blog many times. The fear of failure has drastic effects in all walks of our lives. On the contrary people who look at talent as something that can be learned and nurtured, keep growing. Of such people Dweck says,

“.. people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

To make her point, she lists some case studies about some of the tech industry giants like IBM, GE and Xerox in this New York Times article.

So there it is. Talent, for the most part, seems to be a learned attribute. Of course, passion, the other vital ingredient to success is not so tangible a factor, and it is up to us to look into ourselves to find what motivates us. Once we find that, acquiring the skill to be awesome at it, is straight forward.

Just add practice. And a bit of fun.

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