The Talent Myth
Talent. How do you feel when you hear that word? What emotions come up? Which memories? For most of us, the word itself acts like an invisible ceiling to what we can accomplish. That’s ok if it’s something that you don’t like. I’m not interested in gardening. I couldn’t care less if anyone told me I don’t have a green thumb. But what about stuff that we like such as singing? I went through that and still remember vividly.
It was the end of secondary school, we went for a jamming session and I sang one of the songs. They videotaped the event, and when we watched it, it was painfully obvious to everyone that my voice was horrible. Then came the comment: “you obviously have no talent in singing.” It took only a few seconds for the person to utter those sounds, but it took me like 4-5years to get back on my feet and start learning to sing again.
What is talent anyway? Here’s the definition I grew up with: a certain head start or outright gift that some people have that others don’t, that needs little or no extra development for the person endowed with it to obtain brilliance in the area of interest. Other characteristics of talents:
1) No normal distribution – only a select few have this gift, which makes them by default the “authority” on the subject, and can wield substantial power to criticize and berate other people as they see fit, in order to maintain the purity of the area in which they are “gifted”.
2) Cannot be learned or taught – again, with the indirect consequence that the “chosen ones” have the exclusive rights to all the jobs available. Either you have it or you don’t.
3) Cannot be added on or reduced – people who have average talent are stuck with that level for life, and people who have the “gift” cannot lose it.
I’m sure that the list above is far from comprehensive, but that’s what comes to mind as of this moment. This kind of thinking has always done more harm than good for people who want to learn to sing, or anything else for that matter. For the person deemed talented, the effects are obvious. If you were born incomplete with regards with what you are trying to be good at, it would stop you well before you started your journey.
But even for those who are deemed to have “talent”, it acts as a ceiling where they often say, “Ok, I’ve come this far, and I’ve been practicing like crazy lately and my progress has plateaued. This must be the upper limits of my talent. I won’t waste time trying to improve anymore because obviously this is as far as I could go.”
Now let’s get serious. Have you ever questioned this “fact” of life? Have you ever wondered whether it was all true? And if it isn’t, how do you go about proving it? I have always had this gut feeling that there was a major problem with the whole thing. For instance, even though I can’t really compose songs as good as Beethoven or Bach, I can still appreciate the beauty of their compositions.I can still feel what they are trying to express. If what they are expressing is on some intergalactic level that is beyond my mortal abilities, I wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of it now, would I?
But I do feel it. That must mean that somewhere in me, the harmonies and melodies in the piece are tugging at my heartstrings that are sophisticated enough to understand the message being said. The fact that good songs, no matter how simple or sophisticated, can be understood by all strata of society means that underneath, we are indeed all the same.
But that’s just a thought experiment, right? Has anyone been good enough to conduct an actual scientific experiment? The short answer is yes. Another short answer is to buy the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book, Malcolm discusses the 10,000-hour rule. The experiment went as follows: music students (how convenient for our case) were put into teams, and were documented as they went through their practice routines and sessions.
The hours they put in were recorded and the quality of their practice, etc. I’m not going to go into detail about the whole thing (buy the book), but the results were very surprising. Turns out that whether you were grouped in the “gifted” group or the “challenged” group, in the end whoever completes 10,000 hours worth of practice became very proficient at whatever they were learning.
The gifted group might have had faster progress due to having more focused practice and overall quality practice time. But in the end the results evened out when they reached the 10,000 hour mark. Another thing to note: there were no cases of someone reaching the 10,000 hours mark and did not master their selected instrument.
The last statement really got me. Read it again. Come on! Do it. Read it again 3 times. This is it, guys. That’s the proof, in broad daylight. Scientifically proven! Nobody on earth is such an idiot that they can stick to something for 10,000 hours and somehow not get good at it! There goes the talent myth! I can’t tell you how excited I was when I read this.
The thing that has bugged me all my life, finally laid bare for all to see. Sorry to disappoint you, guys, but you’re not the idiot you believed yourself to be all this while. You can’t stick and keep working on something long enough and still fail. I hope you buy the book and read it, because there are a lot of useful insights aside from this one.
And I hope you can view the talent issue in a different light after this. Or better yet, not view it at all. After all, how do you view something that does not exist? Free yourself from this mind disease, and start practicing. Even if you don’t want to do it for 10,000 hours, you can still benefit from much less than that. I’m getting sleepy. See you guys again!