I find this ‘talent vs hard work’ debate a particularly interesting one and when debating this with both people in the arts and ‘civilians’, as I like to call them, I seem to, on the whole, stand alone in thinking there really isn’t any such thing as talent. In my opinion, hard work is the most important factor with talent playing a tiny role, if any, in some cases.
My Father is a drummer and when having this discussion with my Mother (a civilian) I proposed to her that I am only a drummer because of my Father. I grew up with drums around the house and it just made sense for me to copy what my Father was doing. My argument is that, had he been a juggler in the circus or a professional golfer, then I would have taken up those pursuits, or at least, tried them. I happened to like the drums, so I stuck with it. My Mother refuted this, saying that she thought it was in the ‘genes’ and that the talent was passed on to me – we both happened to be good at this particular skill.
It seems that most of society shares my Mothers view, that talent is innate and can be passed on from parent to child. Star child performers at school concerts are often praised for being ‘exceptionally talented’ or even hailed as child prodigies and looked upon as being different from the other children that cannot play Bach concertos on the piano at warp speed.
I have read two books that deal with this subject, both are great reads – ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell and ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed.
Outliers argues that background, heritage and environment are the key factors for success, along with at least ten thousands hours of practice. Bill Gates for example is not necessarily the natural genius that everyone thinks he is. He happened to go to a school that, at the time, had the very best computer department in the whole of the United States. The school happened to have a particular machine that no other school had. And he happened to have unique access to the room at all hours. All these factors allowed him the opportunity to practice and become a master. He put in the ten thousand hours on this machine when other teenagers his age with the same ability simply could not. He had the right ingredients to enable success.
Another example from ‘Outliers’ was where work ethic in certain races, comes from. Why is it that, at school, the Asian children were in the library all the time working harder than everyone else and received top grades? The book explains that the farming techniques in Asia are very different from Western farming. The earth is different and crops grow differently. Their farming is brutal, demanding long hours each day, all year! No breaks. Over many generations, that is where their incredible work ethic comes from.
The other book, Bounce, also deals with the ten thousand hour rule. They both suggest that it takes ten thousand hours of practice at a chosen skill to become a master. Ten thousand hours of diligent and purposeful practice, that is. The writer uses Mozart as an example. He was heralded as a child prodigy and set apart from other children his age. But not everyone knows that his Father was also a composer and demanded hours of practice each day from his son starting at age three. The reality is that by age six, Mozart had put in 3,500 hours of practice already. So, of course he was different from the other children. He simply cannot be compared as other children his age will not have done the 3,500 hours. So perhaps he was not the child prodigy we all think he was.
One final example that I found really interesting involves an Hungarian man who was ridiculed for his theory that genius’ can be manufactured. He said “Children have extraordinary potential and it is up to society to unlock it. The problem is that people, for some reason, do not want to believe it. They seem to think that excellence is only open to others, not themselves.” He was so sure of his theory that he designed the ultimate experiment. He and his wife had three children all about two years apart from each other. He chose chess as the skill in which to train them and he produced, through a strict daily practice routine, three of the greatest chess grand masters of all time. He said “If they had seen the painfully slow progress, the inch-by-inch improvements, they would not have been so quick to call my children prodigies.”
This realisation should be inspiring, I suppose. It suggests that anyone can be great at anything. Barring of course skills that require certain physical attributes, like being tall to play basketball etc, anyone can be great at anything if they dedicate enough time to it.
It also made me realise that I was benefited with a lot of the things said to be needed to breed success. I have all the ingredients necessary – that is both a scary and inspiring thought.
A Nelson Mandela quote comes to mind regarding achievement – “Our biggest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”