He was just an ordinary kid who barely passed calculus in his first year at a university. His grades in creative writing were nothing to brag about. He wasn’t born a genius, but John Mighton is now an award-winning playwright, an author and the brains behind the pioneering knot and graph theory in mathematics, as well as a globally recognized math teacher.
The debate of whether or not talent is inborn or acquired through practice has been ongoing since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers. Plato argued that we come into this world with biologically-endowed abilities and skills, and the highest levels of success are predetermined by the heavens. Then, there was Aristotle, who firmly believed success was gained through learning and training.
Can anyone possess talent, or do you have to be what they call “a natural”? Usually, when someone possesses a certain talent, society tends to believe it is unique to that person–nobody else can mimic it. However, research regarding whether or not talent is truly innate has been conducted, and the results are interesting.
Mighton attributes his success to years of rigorous training and a passion for what he does. He says that expert abilities are generally made—not born—and often these abilities arise from a great amount of repetitive practice and copying other individuals’ styles and ideas. For example, chess masters continually play small sets of moves, memorize thousands of positions and obsessively study the games of the masters.
Malcom Gladwell, the author of “Outliers,” believes a person can develop a talent if they dedicate “10,000 hours of practice.” It is an interesting theory to think about, because how many people are willing to invest that much time in a particular skill? Some people believe talents only develop based on physical characteristics—playing the guitar because you have long fingers. In some respect, this may be true, but it isn’t the entire picture.
Professor Benjamin Bloom: Top-Notch Performers Study
University of Chicago Professor Benjamin Bloom conducted a study of 120 top-notch performers who had earned numerous awards and medals. He researched their childhoods, and he found there was nothing notable about them as they grew up compared to their current talents. Bloom learned the performers developed their talents through continuous practice—the talents were not innate. The lone exception to the rule is having a creative mind—this has to be innate since everybody’s minds are different. While anyone can possess a creative mind, the factors that make it up are based on a personal level.
Professor K. Anders Ericsson on Expert Performers
Florida State University Psychology Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues studied expert performances in soccer, surgery, piano, software design, writing and chess. The findings proved that expert performers are nearly always made and not born. Only when a task is repeated many times to perfection do people excel. In addition to practice, achieving this type of status includes setting goals, obtaining necessary feedback, correcting past mistakes and focusing on the process and the outcome.
Mozart and Picasso: ‘10 Years of Silence’
Carnegie Mellon University Cognitive Psychology Professor John Hayes researched the role of effort, practice and knowledge in top performers—people like Mozart and Picasso. He wanted to determine how long it took them to become world-class at their talent. He examined successful composers, analyzing musical pieces produced from 1685 to 1900. He developed a list of 500 pieces (by 76 composers) played frequently by symphonies around the globe and considered to be “masterworks” in the field. Then, Hayes made a timeline of each composer’s career, calculating how long they had worked before creating these popular works. The discovery: virtually every “masterwork” was written after the composer had been in the career for 10 years. (The three exceptions were compositions that were written in years eight and nine.)
These prestigious composers produced incredible work only after putting a decade of practice in first. A genius like Mozart had to work for at least 10 years before he created something that became popular. Hayes referred to this period of hard work and little recognition as “Ten years of silence.”
Other Scenarios of Hard Work Versus Innate Ability
Harvard graduate and gastroenterologist Dr. Nasrullah Manji said it was his passion for the life sciences combined with hard work that helped him reach his goal in life. He said success comes with having the ability to use your skills and talents, and that only happens when you work really hard at it. Manji cited the example of Michael Jordan, a former basketball player who practiced for hours each day to reach his success. According to Manji, high achievers usually possess a burning desire to go over and beyond the bare minimum in life, and they often ask themselves, “How can I make this better?”
Patricia Lovett-Reid, a senior vice president at TD Waterhouse Canada Inc., is an author and host of Money Talk, a personal finance show. She attributes her success to sheer determination, hard work and a passion for what she does. She reached the top echelons of the corporate ladder without a university degree and as a single parent in her mid-30s.Lovett-Reid believes that individuals must have the internal flame—the “can do” attitude in order to success. Something inside you forces you to say you are going to do it. While sometimes people have self-limiting beliefs about themselves, once that is out of their own way, the sky is the limit, she says.
Dr. Anthony Centore on Natural Talent Versus Practice
I personally feel that natural talent does not exist and truly depends on how much practice you are willing to put into something. For example, let’s think about a guitar player. Before somebody learns to play the guitar, they tend to look at another guitarist and say, “Wow, they’re amazing! I wish I knew how to play the guitar like that!” However, the person practices and learns how to play the guitar, accomplishing his desire despite the original thinking that it was a natural talent he never had.
My friend, Neal, was this way. All of his brothers played guitar. After Neal tried to play, he quit. It just didn’t feel natural to him. But, when he picked the guitar up again and dedicated a year to practicing it, he became a “natural.” Becoming a natural at something doesn’t require any innate characteristics–it requires a lot of work.
The argument of talent being innate or something you can attain after constant practice still continues. After his research on talented individuals, Bloom found the talents were not exhibited at an early age. Instead of calling somebody “naturally talented,” ask them how long they have practiced their talent. You may be surprised to find out how much time they invested in something that first appeared to be “natural.”