How Much Does Talent Matter?

Have you ever been frustrated because you were not born with enough talent to compete at the highest level?

Just imagine if you were born with the innate basketball talent of Michael Jordan or the swimming ability of Michael Phelps? Wouldn’t your life be sweet?

Sounds great, but here’s the catch. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team, and for all of Michael Phelps talent, he recently admitted in a Colbert Report interview that before the Olympics he swam 365 days of the year.

That’s right. He swam every day (including holidays and weekends) for about 4-5 hrs. Wouldn’t you think that if someone had such natural talent then they wouldn’t need to work THAT hard?

You can see this pattern repeated over and over by people who achieve greatness. And this doesn’t just apply to sports. For example, Stephen King in his On Writing memoirs describes how he writes every day (even on holidays).

What about music? Surely there are some musical geniuses that are just born with raw talent?

In Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, he discusses the following study of classical pianists by K. Anders Ericsson at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music.

They divided the Academy into three groups: average, good and elite. And then they were asked how often they practiced since starting to play piano.

Everyone started young and originally practiced the same amount of time. But as they aged, those in the elite groups practiced more and more while those in the average group maintained the same amount of practice.

The hours of practice were amazingly consistent with the group that each musician fell into. Average students never practiced regularly for more than three hours a week while the elites practiced regularly for thirty hours a week!

Gladwell describes it this way:

The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any ‘naturals,’ musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any ‘grinds,’ people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.

If fact, he goes on to claim that to be an expert at something has little to do with talent and much more to do with putting in the practice. He even quantifies it and says that to really reach expert level requires 10,000 hours of practice.

Not sure that I would place a number on it, but he’s on the right track. It’s not that talent doesn’t matter at all. It just doesn’t matter as much as people might think.

It helps to a degree. To play basketball, for example, you need to be at least six feet tall, but the tallest players are not the best by default. The deciding factor is how hard and consistently you’re willing to work at it.

And at the end of the day, there’s something liberating about that. For the most part, you are not limited by your genes or how you were born.

You CAN achieve greatness in your specialty as long as your willing to put the hours in.

No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich. -Chinese Proverb

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2 thoughts on “How Much Does Talent Matter?

  1. I would say Talent is more important than hard work.There are countless examples of individuals who perform very competitively at sports,arts and academic pursuits who never put in more hours than any tom dick or harry on the street.Most people I know who are really good at something were able to master it within 2 or 3 years.I have trained for 20 years intensely at some things but still nowhere near mastering it.Hard work just wont cut it if you don’t have natural ability,Sorry, that’s the truth.

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