Stop Believing in Talent

Almost nothing in this world can make me angry.

Nothing, that is, except someone saying: “Oh, that person is so talented!”

When I hear that, one of two things is happening:

1) I’m vomiting hot bile;

2) I’m quietly sitting in a corner beating myself in the head with a cheese grater.

Why is that?

Because there’s no such thing as talent.

Just like the moon isn't made of Gouda, bleeding people with leeches doesn’t cure them, and wrestling isn’t real. Well, maybe wrestling is real, but you get my point.

Believing in a thing called “talent” is like believing in Santa Claus. It allows us to offer a fact-free explanation for why that present is under the tree, but it’s a flat-out lie.

Talent is an easy, fanciful, and borderline dangerous way to keep ourselves in the dark about what we’re truly capable of.

“Hold up. Talent IS a real thing. Look at Michael Jordan or Mozart or Leonardo da Vinci. They’re clearly amazing! What do you call that?”

I call it skill, and there’s a huge difference.

Talent is something you’re allegedly born with (or so the story goes).

If you're one of the “chosen ones", after being delivered by the stork the Talent Gods come down and sprinkle Talent Dust all over you. And from that moment on, you mesmerize the world with your effortless, supernatural feats of amazement.

That’s why you can find Grant Hill without any eyes. That’s why you’re the songbird of your generation. That’s why you can do this.

And when we, the regular people, see one of the Chosen Ones do something incredible, we tap the fellow next to us and say, “Wow, look at all that talent!”

Chances are, that person will nod approvingly, and life will happily go on. There’s almost no chance the person we just tapped will suddenly take on a look of deranged sadness and pull out a cheese grater.

Unfortunately, that talent story just isn’t true.

There’s no talent fairy handing out secret talent-blessings. When you see that superstar do something mind-blowing, what’s actually happening in that moment is the culmination of thousands of hours of boring, purposeful practice. That superstar actually was just like us when she started out. Nothing more, nothing less. But she decided to do the work.

How do we know that? The first answer can be found in the wonderful book by Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code). In his book, Coyle takes us to some “talent factories”, and we find out that talent factories simply are places where groups of people do a whole lot of deeply-focused practice. Hours and hours of it.

In addition, in Malcolm Gladwell’s amazing book, Outliers, we find out that it takes about 10,000 hours of focused practice to become amazing at anything. In Outliers we learn that the Beatles played gigs seven days a week when they were coming up (easily getting 10,000 hours in), that Bill Gates had special access to computers as a teenager (allowing him to reach 10,000 of programming time) and that Mozart’s early compositions were garbage (he didn’t become a “genius” until he’d composed for about 10,000 hours).

And in Matthew Syed’s book, Bounce, we learn how world-class table tennis players (like himself) aren’t automatically world-class at, say, tennis, even though the two sports appear to be similar.

It turns out Syed doesn’t have a “talent” for racquet-sports, he has a lot of practice time invested specifically in table tennis. That’s not the same thing as tennis, thus he has no equity built up there. In other words, you’re only talented at something you’ve spent countless hours on.

“Fine, maybe you’re right. I don’t understand what the big deal is.”

The big deal is that believing in talent just might ruin your life.

Let’s say you wake up one day and you have a dream. You want to be a singer or an athlete or a computer programmer. Whatever.

What happens, though, if you come across someone who’s really good at what you want to be? If you believe in talent, you might see that she’s really good, and you’re really not. She might even be so good that you think she’s a “natural". What then?

Because she supposedly has talent and you clearly do not, you decide to give up. That only makes sense, right? What’s the point of pursuing something you were never meant to do? You’ll never be as great as her no matter how hard you try.

So you do the logical thing and quit on your dreams.

The curse of talent doesn’t stop there. Now, everywhere you look, you see people with “talent". After throwing your original dreams in the sewer, you start to think that maybe you’re not good at anything. You start to take inventory on what you’re “talented” at. After a few sad, lonely minutes the answer hits you.

“Nothing, I have a talent for nothing.”

Where does that leave you? Since you’re not one of the lucky ones, you find yourself giving up on everything. You start gaining weight (“I’m not talented genetically”), you stop working hard (“I’m not blessed with work ethic”), and you find yourself alone after an emotional break-up (“I don’t blame her for leaving someone so un-talented”).

You find yourself slowly and inevitably spiraling down, down, down with no hope in sight. And why is there no hope? Because if you’re not born with talent, there’s nothing you can do about it.

What if, however, you realize that talent is a fake, made-up thing? What then?

The first thing that happens is you become hopeful. You see that girl who is so good at what she does, and instead of it being debilitating, it’s inspiring.

“Look at how good she is! If I can just practice enough, I can be just like her!”

And so you get to work.

You decide to get up earlier every day to get that little extra practice time in. You decide to start eating right because that gives you more energy, and you get to practice more if you have more energy. You get involved in a healthy relationship because hard-workers are confident, and confidence attracts admirers.

Meanwhile, you’re keeping an eye on whoever the best is, knowing optimistically you’re creeping closer and closer to that person with every hour you practice.

A life believing in talent is a life of despair.

A life built on focused practice is a life with no limits.

Do you see why I keep my cheese-grater handy? It’s because anyone who believes in talent is probably giving up on his or her dreams, and that's a tragedy.

Anything is possible. Nothing is pre-determined. There are no geniuses.

Getting you to believe that is my talent.

 

My book is called The Inevitability of Becoming Rich, and you can find that here.