Why the phrase ‘natural talent’ should be offensive

Nothing kills hope like finding out you are genetically incapable of something. Yet, that’s what we subconsciously tell ourselves any time we announce someone has ‘natural ability’ in something they do better than us. Believing that someone can effortlessly perform certain tasks, just because they were born that way, implies that the majority of the population (including us) lack this natural ability. If we think that nothing can be done to equalise those differences, envy can creep in pretty fast. Luckily, this is not the case.

An important concept behind flight-mode learning is that any subject is there for the taking by anybody with the right passion for it. Feeding yourself the destructive “it’s over before it even started” line contradicts this notion. So we need to work on moving our mindset to a more realistic space.

Genes matter, but not as much as we think

Nobody is debating the role geometry plays in all of this. Someone who is tall will obviously have an advantage playing a sport like basketball. Someone who is big for their age will have an advantage playing a contact sport that is graded purely by age. But even genetics don’t always tell the whole story. Play someone a song performed by the late guitarist Jeff Healey and they will likely categorise him in the group of ‘naturally talented musicians’. That is, until you show them a video of him performing.

Jeff Healey was blind. Unlike typical guitarists who ‘grab’ the neck of the instrument with their non-dominant hand, Healey used an unorthodox technique of placing the guitar on his lap and pressing the fingers of his left hand down on the strings.

Perhaps Healey’s technique was easier for someone with no vision to grasp. Perhaps it was a consequence of starting playing guitar at a young age when his hands were small. Either way, there are two important points in this story. First, a lack of eyesight need not imprison you. Secondly, there is more than one way to achieve an amazing sound as a guitarist. In other words, even when genetics don’t seem to be on your side, you can still create amazing results. You just have to do it differently.

The plausibility of the ‘natural talent’ myth

If you subscribe to the ‘talent is naturally given to some people’ theory, this is what you have to believe:

  1. A baby is born with no ability to walk, talk, understand spoken language, distinguish right from wrong, see more than a foot in front of its face etc. Yet, somewhere in that baby’s brain is a kitset that need only be quickly assembled and will enable it to untap the powers to become, for instance, the world’s best golfer.
  2. It’s common for large numbers of these magical babies to be born within a small geographical area, as this explains how some nations dominate in particular sports.
  3. Some of these babies grow up to be plain and ordinary children and teenagers. Despite harbouring world-class talent, they keep it to themselves, preferring the anonymity of appearing like a regular student. One day, however, they decide “enough of this” and suddenly decide they will apply themselves and eventually go on to become a world leader in their field.
  4. World leaders in a given field never had to work hard

The research

Many people have spent their lives believing the myth of natural talent, and it takes a lot to change these views. Fortunately, a growing body of research is proving more and more that talent, as we know is, is really just a by-product of the right kind of practice. Daniel Coyle calls it ‘Deep Practice’ in his book ‘The Talent Code’, while Geoff Colvin calls it ‘Deliberate Practice’ in ‘Talent is Overrated. Both books are incredibly refreshing to read, and talk about the methods used in talent hotbeds to develop numerous world-class sports players and musicians from within a small geographical area. They also talk about people who were quite mediocre at primary and secondary school, and later went on to become world leaders in their field.

Daniel Coyle gives a TED talk about deep practice and talent. He admits that the ‘magical babies’ hypothesis is quite an exciting concept, but one completely debunked by research.

What does it all add up to?

Natural talent doesn’t exist. There are no ‘special people’. Research has provided an alternative explanation that makes more sense. Without doubt, we have different traits that help us lean toward certain interests and pursuits. However, if mindset is all that separates us, this is also the easiest thing to change.

Any time we look at someone who has become successful because of their skills and say they have natural talent, we are insulting them. We are ignoring the countless hours of very hard work they had to put in to get to where they are today.

The phrase I use instead of ‘special people’ is ‘people who have done special things’. This moves the focus away from their inherent traits. Instead, it shows that greatness is a choice we all have. The only thing separating someone of average ability from someone of brilliant ability is desire.

So with the newfound knowledge that your life is no longer doomed because you don’t have any big ‘natural talents’, go forth and start thinking about what you would like to be good at. The great thing about how talent works is, when we ask ourselves ‘what am I really amazing at?’ we also get to choose the answer.

What do you want to become good at?

Posted in Uncategorized.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *