The Myth of Talent

research Jan 25, 2018

By K. Anders Ericsson, PhD and Robert Pool, PhD

There is something awe-inspiring about someone — an athlete, a musician, a chess master, even a doctor or architect — with extraordinary skill. These people seem to inhabit a plane far above what we mere mortals could aspire to, and it seems natural to conclude that they must possess some capacity the rest of us weren’t. Their achievements seems unattainable, and, indeed, it was thought during the 15th and 16th century that they were gifts of God. Today we tend to refer to it as natural talent, but it means the same thing — they got it, we didn’t.

Centuries ago, it would have been heresy to try to understand the details of God’s gift, so the focus was on enjoying the fruits of such gifts and on searching for individuals who possessed these gifts. Over time, however, scientific explanations based on genetic inheritance started to replace the notion of gifts of God, and these explanations had certain natural implications about talent. If talent is inherited, for example, it should be present from birth, so it might be possible to identify talented individuals at young ages and provide them with the training they need to develop the skills necessary to fully realize their talent as adults. Furthermore, if talent is genetically encoded, it should be possible for people to inherit various amounts of talent, which would explain why different individuals reach different levels of accomplishment in music, painting, science, and other areas.

It is a nifty explanation that would seem to account for the differences in ability that we can observe among people. But is it actually true? Let us review some of the scientific evidence for this explanation of why certain people develop extraordinary abilities and then propose an alternative account.

If innate talent is necessary to becoming highly skilled in a particular area, then inevitably there will be some individuals who can develop a skill quite easily and others who cannot develop the skill no matter how much they try, and, indeed, in recent years there has been a rather heated debate between those people who contend that talent is required for the development of a given skill and those who argue that all healthy individuals can improve their performance with training. What does the evidence say? It is certainly true that if a child, adolescent, or adult is identified as lacking talent in some type of activity —singing or drawing, for instance, or learning math or a foreign language — that person will often fail to develop any noticeable skill in that area. But that does not necessarily prove that a lack of innate talent is to blame — people who believe they have no talent for a particular activity will often avoid engaging in these activities and thus never have the chance to improve, which then seemingly confirms their lack of talent. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the other hand, there is good reason to believe that any healthy child can become very good at a given activity if he or she is highly motivated and works individually with highly skilled teachers. Over the last several decades a large body of research has emerged showing how ordinary individuals can reach world-class performance in certain areas, such as memory for long lists of random numbers, but only after going through hundreds of hours of specialized training. In fact, studies have shown that virtually any aspect of the human body and brain can be changed by particular types of extended training. For example, the speed of performance of a task can be dramatically increased through the rights sorts of training, and one’s physical capabilities can be sharply increased through exercises that boost the amount of oxygen-rich blood that can be transported to muscles through increases in the number of capillaries and the size of arteries and changes in the structure of the heart. In fact, the only aspects of the body that cannot be changed by any currently known type of training are the length of bones and thus one’s height and body size.

Perhaps even more compelling is the growing understanding of what differentiates people with exceptional capabilities from everyone else. This understanding has developed from a series of lab studies. Exceptional individuals have been invited into laboratories, where they are asked to repeatedly reproduce their extraordinary performances so that researchers could pinpoint exactly what they are doing that set them apart. The research showed that these exceptional individuals had acquired specialized abilities specific to their particular activity, such as singing, chess, or some sport — abilities that non-expert performers did not have. Furthermore, by interviewing these individuals, researchers found that their development differed qualitatively from regular people. For years or even decades they had spent hours each day engaged in specialized training. Many of them had started with practice directed by a parent of teacher between age 4 and 7. In late adolescence many of these individuals spent 3 to 4 hours of solitary practice every day, and by age 20 most of them had spent 5,000 to 15,000 hours engaging in practice. In short, what set these exceptional individuals apart was not innate talent but having devoted years of practice to developing their abilities.

But, you ask, what about child prodigies like Mozart? Doesn’t the existence of such child prodigies indicate that some talented individuals can excel in such areas as music, sports, or chess without devoting years to practice?.Actually, no. If you investigate the development of child prodigies, you inevitably find that that their parents started them in training at very young ages, often at 3 or 4 years or even younger. And when these prodigies began performing in public performances it was after several years of steady practice, and their performances were exceptional only when compared with other children — not compared with adults who had been training for much longer. There are no well documented cases of prodigies who became world-class performers in music, chess, sports, or any other highly competitive area without years of dedicated practice. In short, there is no evidence that talent provides some sort of short cut to excellence.

The fact that “talented” people are built rather than born has an important implication: We can learn by studying these people what it takes to develop exceptional skills and apply those lessons to help others.

One of the key lessons gained from studying expert performers is the importance of the right sort of practice. A persistent myth about talent is that in those who have it, practice magically improves performance — that once a talented person starts practicing in his or her field, the improvement comes in leaps and bounds with very little effort. In reality, no matter who you are, you will improve very little, if at all, with the wrong sort of practice — with, for instance, just doing the same thing over and over. In most activities — driving a car, for example, or working at a job — people reach a certain level of competence and then plateau, improving very little no matter how much “practice” they do.

By contrast, studies of expert performers have found that they improve their performance steadily over years and even decades, seldom getting stuck on a plateau. Typically a teacher or coach will examine an individual’s current performance and propose a specific performance goal and assign some practice activities that have successfully helped other individuals to attain that goal. The trainee goes off and engages in the prescribed practice and returns to the teacher for a new goal. The resulting improvements are gradual but steady, and cumulatively they can add up to major changes in performance.

Furthermore, scientists have a good idea of what happens at the cellular level in response to this sort of practice — and why such training can produce such large changes in performance. Take long-distance running, for example. Any individual engaging in long-distance running so intense that the oxygen level in the blood leaving particular muscles is dramatically reduced will activate genes that will lead to the growth of the capillaries surrounding the muscles in the legs. Through intense training elite runners induce an enlargement of their hearts and arteries which allows more oxygen-rich blood to be pumped to the muscles, giving them the ability to maintain high running speeds over longer periods of time.

There is similar evidence that the types of training that lead to improved speed and control in playing a musical instrument or executing gymnastic movements are associated with observable changes in the structure of the brain and with the myelinization of nerve fibers. For example, the brains of trained musicians differ in clear ways from the brains of people who have never received music training, By asking experts and less skilled individuals to think aloud while they perform representative tasks with different success in the domain, such as chess, music, sports, researchers have found large differences between the experts and less skilled persons in their thought patterns and their ability to plan and evaluate different options, These differences in performance have been found to relate to differences in the brain that are consistent with years of purposeful practice having created changes in the brains of the experts.

The bottom line is that once you get past the myth of talent, you can start asking what it is that really separates those who are the best in the world at something from the rest of us — and put the answer to work to help people develop abilities they might otherwise believe were unattainable. The myth of talent is a dead end. The study of purposeful and deliberate practice opens up a world of infinite possibilities for human improvement.


About the Authors

K. Anders Ericsson, PhD, is presently Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. With Robert Pool he published Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise in 2016. Currently he studies the measurement of expert performance in domains, such as music, chess, nursing, law enforcement, and sports, and how expert performers attain their superior performance by acquiring complex cognitive mechanisms and physiological adaptations through extended deliberate practice. 

Robert Pool, PhD, is co-author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. 

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