Too often, in our culture, the value of talent is elevated to an extent that it provides an excuse for not working hard. Children need to realize two important things. First, that those who are excellent at something have put in a ton of work. And second, that they are capable of mastering most things with enough work.
I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat. – Michael JordanI’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. – Michael Jordan
I think it is easy for people to look at those for whom things seem to come effortlessly and believe that it is because they have natural talent. Inherent, genetic talent is a factor in some activities, but it is generally a much smaller factor than people give credit for. Read this great blog post by Cal Newport about the differences between practice and talent. In it, he discusses some recent research results in Psychological Science [paper]. The take-away is that in the study, talent accounted for around 7 percent of performance. What made the rest of the difference? Something they refer to as “domain knowledge” which basically boils down to practice.
Is Michael Jordan talented? No doubt. But there were plenty of other equally talented children growing up at the same time who never amounted to much on the basketball court.
The key concept here is that talent is only a minor differentiator among people who have invested similar levels of effort. Taken another way, even those with the least innate talent at something can be in the top ten percent if they work as hard as anyone else. I believe that this applies to most fields.
One reason that I think the common perceptions don’t match this is that we observe people who seem to master things effortlessly. My experience, based on working with people who are at the top of their field, is that this perception comes from the fact that many of the best students in school adapt to the social environment by becoming what I call “cryptic” learners. That is, they work really hard when alone so that things will appear easy when they are around others. I know that I fell into this category.
Why do people learn in secret? The main reason that I did is that learning and being educated were not valued in the social environment of my school. Being smart had some value, but working hard to learn things was actively despised. This relates back to the fixed versus growth mindset that I discussed in a previous post. I had a very fixed mindset, or even if I didn’t completely internalize that, I knew that those around me had a very fixed mindset. To show effort was to show weakness and lack of intelligence. So, I would work really hard in private so that things would come effortlessly to me in public. When things didn’t… well, those things weren’t important anyway.
It was a destructive mindset overall, but I was determined enough to study things that I found interesting, that I still managed to spend a lot of time working hard to learn. I would hear people say both, “He’s just really good at that stuff”, and “He is weird, reading dozens of books on programming” in the same conversation without even seeing the connection. Somehow the idea of natural talent is so ingrained in us, that even when the evidence that people are working harder stares us in the face, we write it off as natural ability. The reality is that those people who were better than you at something were likely just spending a lot more time in focused practice.
Does that mean that natural ability plays no role? I believe that the effects that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in Outliers come into play here. One of his observations was that tiny differences very early in an athlete’s career caused the player to be selected and given more focused practice, which lead to much larger differences later in the career. This was illustrated by the fact that a large percentage of professional hockey players were born right after the cutoff for grade levels in the Canadian leagues. These students were slightly larger and more coordinated than others in their level because they were slightly older. This led to them being given extra practice and training. By the time they reached professional levels, they had thousands of hours of extra focused practice and therefore were substantially better players.
I think that exactly the same effect is at play with academics, although instead of age (age may be a factor here as well), small differences in natural ability or IQ lead to children doing a bit better and being targeted for advanced classes and more attention from teachers. There is also the cumulative effect discussed previously with subjects like mathematics, where falling a bit behind early on leads to serious struggles later. The situation is compounded by the fixed mindset, which tells students that they are smart or not and directly affects how much of their self-esteem they wish to risk in trying to do well in school.
The end result is that children who have some early advantage in something, tend to want to maximize that advantage. They therefore spend a lot more time and effort than other children practicing, and wind up with a large advantage. This applies to anything from sports to academics. It is not insurmountable though. If we can work to teach our children to have a growth mindset and that through hard work they can master subjects, they will have the flexibility to excel in whatever field they choose.