Many of us believe that natural talent is at least somewhat involved in attaining great achievement. But I personally believe that “talent” is a made-up concept that we use to simplify and explain some complex phenomena.
Before we start our discussion, I want to clarify that these are just my beliefs. I am not trying to convince or convert anyone to my side. I will simply explain why I believe what I do, as I get that for many people, talent is a treasured, at times even sacred, part of their worldview.
Also, when I say “talent” in this post, I am referring to natural gifts, innate and inborn ability. Some people use the word “talent” to mean a current high level of ability, so I want to be clear that I mean superior abilities from birth, natural aptitudes.
I was inspired by a psychology researcher, Anders Ericsson, to believe that talent doesn’t really exist. Ericsson studied numerous world-class musicians, chess players, athletes, and international experts in other domains. He found that all of these extraordinary achievers had at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice doesn’t mean any experience or activity in your field; it means specific, often repetitive, training to challenge yourself and improve your skills. In addition, Ericsson postulates that natural talent is nonexistent. Rather, some other factors may give us the illusion of talent:
N.B. In this blog article, I will draw mostly from examples in writing, particularly fiction-writing, because this is the field I’m most familiar with, and because most readers have some experience with written communication and fictional stories.
1) Exceptional Motivation and Thus Much Increased Attention and Focus
Being unusually interested and motivated in an area, would lead one to pay more attention, work more diligently, persevere through difficulties, and be eager to keep learning and expanding one’s abilities. Having such an attentive, tenacious, and open attitude, would help someone learn a lot more quickly than someone who is less attentive, persistent, and open to learning, even if the two people spend the same amount of time in training.
If you are more interested and motivated, you would be more alert to and actively seek out opportunities to enhance your skills. Such opportunities don’t just include formal training through education, workshops, and practice, however. They also include more indirect learning, such as making friends with others in the field and sharing tips, advice, and experiences with each other. Emotional support from peers can bolster and sustain motivation too.
Having such a deep drive and love for that pursuit, may lead you to spend tons of time thinking or fantasizing about the activity (e.g. imagining plot events in your novel or what your story characters will do), which can increase the rate of learning in the field, since practicing a skill in your head can improve your abilities too. Because you love this activity so much, you may gain skills from seemingly unrelated activities, as the field you are passionate about is always at the back of your mind. For instance, when you write messages to friends, you might polish and pay attention to the mechanics of your writing, like your punctuation, grammar, word choice, and clarity of expression; you may write many Facebook statuses, and pay heed to the rhythm, flow, and emotional power of your sentences.
In a similar vein, when you read someone else’s article, blog post, or book, you may look very closely at the way they express and organize their ideas with words, punctuation, and paragraph spacing. Folks who are less interested in the art of writing, may not pay much mind to how others write, which means they will likely gain much less in terms of writing skill when they read a book, compared to someone who pays far more attention to the author’s writing. Writing is of course not just about grammar, rhythm, flow, or clarity. There are many other elements, like character development, setting descriptions, action descriptions, dialogue, humor writing, thematic resonance, and many more aspects. One may attend strongly to these big picture aspects in books, plays, poems, and other literary forms as well.
Some of you may rightfully point out that our attention is limited, so there is only so much we can focus on at a time. That’s why we can always re-read a book, or analyze a book we read before, homing in on something specific that we barely noticed on the first read. I like checking back on character action descriptions in dialogue scenes, copying them down onto a document, and then finding patterns in each author’s writing style.
All in all, stronger motivation results in greater attention and therefore faster learning. In fact, having more knowledge as a result of learning, encourages even deeper attention to things that relate to your field. When you become more familiar with a domain of knowledge, you start to form a cognitive frame, which is an organizational structure that your mind uses to order, process, and make sense of new incoming information. So, in the case of writing, you may mentally file some sentences you read as “smooth and melodious,” “scary and suspenseful,” “deceptively plain,” or other categories of writing style and tone. To give an example, you may see Edgar Allan Poe’s writing as “dark and mysterious,” and Charlotte Bronte’s writing as “warm and passionate.”
You could file “bad guy” characters you read about under “villains with black-and-white beliefs,” “villains who had good intentions,” “villains who acted out of revenge,” “unfortunate souls who grew up in a social circle that taught them harmful beliefs,” etc. For whole books, your mind may organize them under: “extremely thought-provoking,” “overwhelmingly romantic,” “made me cry,” “enjoyable but didn’t make me feel much,” “too much like a textbook, not enough like a story,” and other categories. Of course, books, characters, and sentences can fit into more than one category, or not fit anywhere such that your mind feels the need to create a new category. Put short, when you form cognitive frames (e.g. making categories to understand new stories you read), they help you process and integrate new information in a more efficient manner.
More on Cognitive Frames
An additional point, is that you can elaborate on your cognitive frames too; for instance, by making subcategories. So with “black-and-white villains,” you could further divide them into “overpowered,” “underpowered,” or “power matched with hero’s.” Moreover, you would gradually attach emotional meanings to the categories and patterns you see. For example, whenever you see a villain who changes and redeems themselves, you feel a jolt of pleasure, because you have come to like that sort of character and plot. Similarly, you could see a villain with zero redeeming qualities who never reforms, and feel a twinge of disappointment.
It’s debatable whether the emotional meanings we attach to categories are inborn, learned over time, or a combination of the two.
We accumulate emotional meanings and categories in our cognitive frames as we gain more experience in the field, which speeds up the learning, analysis, and synthesis of new information. However, as some of you might point out, building up your cognitive frames may lead to some rigid or restricted thinking in the future. This is a real danger. That’s why it’s recommended that we talk to people outside of our field, and why we want to express our ideas in accessible, simple language, so that we can communicate with people who are not our colleagues.
If we are somewhat involved in another domain as well (e.g. music as well as physics), this other domain can also help you create new categories, question old categories and emotional meanings, and generally restructure your cognitive frames.
For example, learning about the animal ecosystem in biology, makes you appreciate more seriously the dynamics and relations between fictional characters. Using the ecosystem analogy, you may create new categories that talk about the relationships between characters (such as “the new fabulous friend makes the hero envious, but spurs the hero to work extra hard to achieve”); rather than only thinking about characters as individual, self-contained beings (e.g. “the vain, self-absorbed character.”)
More character relationship categories you may form are: 1) the sidekick is secretly in love with their boss, and their love is requited by the end of the book. 2) The poor victim triggers the hero’s sympathy, which emboldens the hero to do things they are normally afraid of, because they want to protect this victim. 3) A charismatic person urges the main character to join their cause and make a difference in the world. 4) And any other examples of character relationships.
Of course, these character relationships can involve more than two people; for instance, a character inspires the protagonist to become a better person, but also incites the jealousy of the protagonist’s best friend, as the protagonist seems to have found a new favorite person. Or, a character acts as an older sibling to three friends, taking care of and protecting them; one day, it’s the turn of the three friends to protect their “older sibling.”
I imagine that some of you will ask why we need to think in terms of categories in the first place. Why can’t new information be taken and understood in a fluid, dynamic manner without putting them into boxes? Well, first of all, most humans have a natural tendency to categorize information, in order to minimize cognitive load, and to process new stimuli more quickly. This method of rapid organization is not always bad.
Secondly, just because you see in categories, doesn’t mean that they have to be static, rigid “boxes.” Things can fit into more than one category, and their places of belonging can shift depending on the context and even over time. Categories can always be deleted, modified, or merged with other categories, and new categories can always be formed. Plus, new examples can be put outside of all current categories, because they don’t seem to fit anywhere. For instance, you can’t decide whether Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is a “good guy” or “bad guy,” so your mind might create some new categories: “characters who are neither good or bad,” or “characters who are both good and bad.”
Another important point about developing cognitive frames is, if you’ve already learned and incorporated some concepts and terms into your cognitive frame, then you can read and understand an article more quickly, compared to someone who is learning these terms and concepts for the first time. Some examples of terms and concepts: the Doppler effect, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and centrifugal force in physics; cognitive dissonance, object permanence, and the basal ganglia in psychology. If you are already familiar with certain terms and concepts in your field, and you come across them when you read an article, watch a clip, or listen to a speech in your field, then you would benefit from a faster processing speed and a lower cognitive load. A lower cognitive load also means that you won’t be mentally exhausted as quickly, compared to those who are less knowledgeable about the field; so you’ll be able to read, watch, or listen to materials in your field more swiftly and efficiently too.
2) Inheritable Characteristics That May Masquerade as “Talent”
Aside from great motivation, enhanced attention, and the development of cognitive frames, all of which help to speed up the learning process, another factor that can look like “talent,” are inheritable traits that give you an indirect edge over your peers. Here are some of them:
A) Having the Right Kind of Face or Look
Some people have a cute, young, innocent, and harmless look; this gives them an advantage in some areas, such as acting a role where the character has a pure and innocent personality. People with this look, may win others’ trust more easily too, as they appear so sweet and unable to harm anyone.
In contrast, some people look rougher or more intimidating (not always due to height or size), and this is ideal for an actor who wants to play a more fearsome or physically tough character. In addition, because they have this bigger, stronger, or scarier appearance, those around them are likely to take them more seriously, or at least not dare to mess with them. A person who does not have such a daunting face and figure, may ask a friend or companion with this kind of physical appearance to escort or protect them.
Another example of a beneficial look, is where some people have a “funny” appearance, such as Mr Bean’s. This really helps in comedy performances. I regularly watch LGBTQ+ comedy shows, and I’ve noticed that some comedians have this “funny” face, making it extra easy for the audience to laugh. Contrarily, I find it harder to laugh when the comedian has a “cute” look, because my natural reaction would be to say, “Aw!” because they look so adorable.
In fact, I find it more difficult to laugh if the performer is very beautiful to me: I would probably be musing about how pretty they are, rather than laughing at their jokes every few seconds. This doesn’t mean that hard work, experience, confidence, and other factors don’t matter in comedy, because they do; how funny we find a performer depends on many things.
Obviously, having a look that helps you in your career or goal, is not the ultimate advantage, nor does it mean that you can’t reach your goal without that type of physical appearance. But having that certain kind of appearance would still make it somewhat easier for you.
B) Having the Right Sort of Voice
Similar to the above, another natural advantage we may have that is not about talent, is how our voices sound. I know a guy who has a deep, sonorous voice, which makes people around him take him seriously, even when he’s talking about something light hearted. His voice clearly helps him, because he’s the executive director of a non-profit organization.
There’s another guy I recently met, who has a rich, impressive-sounding voice, and he turns out to be a voice actor. There were a few people who thought I had an impressive voice too. One friend even thought I would make a great voice-over for radio and TV shows. My voice has deepened even more ever since taking testosterone (I’m transgender), so I don’t know if I would still get such compliments; but in my opinion, my new voice is smoother, more natural, and more pleasant than my old voice.
On the other side of the coin, higher voices can be advantageous too. For instance, having a voice that sounds sweet, high, and innocent, may lead others to treat this individual more gently and kindly. Having a sweeter, more melodious, or generally pleasant voice can be a great bonus if one is into singing.
Some people have a soothing, calming voice, and this is beneficial if they are in a field that involves taking care of people, such as social work, counselling, and nursing. Having a soothing voice is a huge help in many domains, actually, as many people would appreciate talking to someone who sounds caring and comforting.
C) Being Able-Bodied Enough for Specific Tasks
It would be easier to read tons of books quickly, if your eye stamina was better than most. This doesn’t mean that you’re doomed if you don’t have this ability, however. I myself have below-average eye stamina, and so reading 5+ hours of books every single day for an extended period of time, even during the holidays, would be physically too much for me.
But I still try my best to make the most of what I have; I read as much as I can without hurting my eyes. Regularly going to the gym helps me too, but I know that I’m not able-bodied enough in my eye stamina to read as much as many others can, but that’s okay. I can make up for my deficiencies in some other ways. Work smarter, not harder!
Similarly, not having spinal pain that makes it difficult to sit for long periods of time, would make it easier for you to read quickly. Not having asthma also makes it easier to train as a sprinter or long-distance runner. Someone who is frequently sick or who suffers from chronic fatigue, would have a disadvantage compared to folks who are sick much less often and who are not constantly exhausted. It’s hard to be “efficient and productive” when you have these conditions.
Again, it doesn’t mean that folks with these physical conditions have no hope (e.g. the famous poet John Keats was frequently sick), but we should recognize that “productivity” can be extra challenging for them, and not be too harsh on these individuals. Having ADHD may make it a struggle for some people to concentrate on tasks and “achieve” too, though achievement is of course not impossible for those with ADHD.
Sometimes, however, when one has natural disadvantages such as the above, it drives us to strategize to make up for our weaknesses, and we strive extra hard to accomplish our goals. Reaching our goals isn’t the only worthwhile thing we can do in life, though.
3) Having the Resources or People to Help You
Earlier, I mentioned that having a community of writers (or experts in your field) can help with advice, tips, information, emotional support, and motivation. This is definitely a resource that can help you reach achievement goals more quickly. When you share advice and teach others, this consolidates your own knowledge and understanding of the field too.
Furthermore, being in a community gives you the chance to connect with people who can aid you in practical ways; for example, finding fellow writers to give feedback on your work. Receiving specific feedback from others, not just from yourself, is incredibly beneficial to improving your skills and knowledge. You can also help others in return, and in doing so, accelerate your own growth: giving comments and critiques on other people’s work, teaches you a great deal about your field too.
Having access to financial resources is helpful as well. For instance, if we have the means to hire a good teacher, or to pay a competent professional who can assist us (like an editor), this would facilitate our learning process. For how professionals can help us on our journey, great editors can teach us much about writing, adept graphic and book designers can free us from the time needed to learn other skills (such as cover design), so that we can devote more time on our main skill, which, in this case, is writing.
We can still build on our abilities even if we can’t afford to hire fantastic teachers and professionals, but the path of learning may be more difficult for us. We can compensate by learning in other ways, however, such as exchanging story critiques with other writers, writing and reading as much as we can, finding cheaper services (e.g. Fiverr offers professionals who are willing to work for much lower prices than the usual fees), reading about writing craft techniques in books and blog articles, asking other authors for advice on specific writing challenges, etc.
Sometimes, one can have less access to resources due to non-financial reasons. You may not have the knowledge that a useful tool exists; for example, not knowing about the more cost-effective ways to self-publish, and thus believing that you must pay several hundred bucks for indie publishing. You might not know that Canadian citizens can get ISBNs for their books for free. You might have never heard of Fiverr, the place where you can find decent services for much more affordable prices.
Moreover, you may not have an e-reader, which would bar you from books that are only available as e-books. Furthermore, many e-books are cheaper than physical books, some even free to download, and of course they have no shipping fees. Thus, possessing an e-reader would grant you access to even more books to help you hone your abilities as a writer.
As well, it would be beneficial if you are able to find role models, or even mentors, in your field, especially if you can connect with them as a person. Hearing about people you admire, such as a favorite author, is great for motivation, morale, and learning. But it would be even better if you can talk to some of your role models as well, or even become friends. It’s incredibly powerful to have both peer and mentor support.
4) Having Good Social Skills
Many books and articles have written about the importance of social skills, so instead of repeating the same old information to you, I will tell you about some individuals who inspired me in my real life.
Denton (all names are pseudonyms in this article) is a facilitator of one of the LGBT+ support groups I attend. On the surface, he is simply a very sweet and compassionate guy. Yet, he’s not just a “nice person”; he is also adroit at voicing requests, reminders, and critiques in a sensitive, tactful way. This is such an important skill to have, to be able to tell someone that you are bothered by something, or that they are crossing a line, but to express these concerns in a respectful manner.
Another facilitator I know, Peter, is similar to Denton. Very warm and friendly, but simultaneously adept at gently redirecting the conversation, and tactfully saying “no” if someone’s request is unfeasible or unreasonable.
Peter and Denton inspire me in how they can be soft-hearted and highly assertive people at the same time.
The third person I want to mention, is a friend named Chance. They are a comedy show host, as well as a comedian themselves. Not only are they someone with an abundance of optimism, enthusiasm, and love, they are also remarkably skilled in saving situations. If Chance accidentally says or does something that could be interpreted as hurtful, they immediately clear up the potential misunderstanding so that others don’t have to wonder why Chance said or did such a thing.
In like manner, if someone else said something problematic, Chance can easily defuse the situation with humor. Once, a comedian ended with a series of jokes that made most of the audience uncomfortable. So when Chance returned to the stage as the host, they deftly cracked a joke about what the comedian had last said, and smoothly transitioned to some other jokes. At once, the tension in the air disappeared, and the audience laughed at Chance’s jovial humor. Chance was sensitive too, as they retained their friendly hug for the comedian (Chance hugs most of the comedians when they come on and off stage), and even the tension-defusing joke was playful rather than hurtful.
Thus, I really appreciate how Chance is able to use their quick thinking and social dexterity to spare others’ feelings and dissolve tensions.
Of course, I believe that social skills are learned and can improve over time. Nevertheless, these valuable social skills can enhance your success at what you are doing, such as leading a support group or hosting a comedy show.
5) Having a Lovable, Even Charismatic Personality
Again, since this personality factor to achievement and performance has been talked about at length by many books and articles, I will just describe some of the people I know who illustrate the power of personality well.
A friend and classmate of mine, Trisha, was recently hired by a hospital as a therapist, and she hadn’t graduated too long ago. Aside from having the qualifications, experience, and abilities in psychotherapy, she also happens to have a very lovable personality. Trisha is a warm, empathetic, and deeply caring person. When an employer hires someone, they wouldn’t just want a competent worker; they would want someone who is pleasant to work with, someone who would make a great teammate.
Speaking of what an employer would want in an employee, it’s a similar situation when professors hire students to work in their lab. A prof of mine said that he does not want someone who is competitive and self-promoting; he wants someone who is cooperative, who will get along with their teammates and do good work together.
Another case showing the power of personality, is my comedian friend I mentioned earlier, Chance. They recently won a national comedy competition, and though they are obviously very skilled in comedy, it was apparent that their attractive personality contributed to their victory as well. In this and many other comedy competitions, wins are not determined by professional judges; rather, audience members vote for the comedian who they think should win. Thus, as you can imagine, Chance won not just because they are hilarious, but also because so many of us love them and are drawn by Chance’s lively, bright, and affectionate personality. Their charisma and lovability as a person help them to make and maintain many friends too, which is essential, as the average audience member is more likely to vote for a friend than for a stranger.
Some may think at this point that I’m confounding worldly success with actual skill and quality of performance. Yet, if you think more deeply about the issue, when your personality helps you get to places, such as winning a national contest, or getting hired at a desirable organization, that would give you more opportunities to learn and become even more proficient at your skill, whether it be stand-up comedy, psychotherapy, fiction-writing, or something else. Winning a big contest means more fame and a greater reputation, which opens doors to connecting with other high performers in your field. In a similar vein, getting hired at an organization you like, instantly surrounds you with skilled colleagues who can influence and teach you, whether through direct advice, or through setting good examples for you.
I could go on and on about even more factors that could masquerade as “talent,” but this post is already too long, so I’ll stop now. Some of you may think that the factors I listed are merely contributors to achievement and skill, and that a mythical element called “talent” is still involved. I don’t know if there is a sure-fire way to prove or disprove the existence of talent, so you are free to disagree. Once again, my post here is just to explain why I personally don’t believe that talent exists, and that many factors can contribute to the impression that one has “talent” or a natural gift in their field.
What are your beliefs about talent? Do you agree or disagree that talent is just a fictional construct we created to explain a very complex phenomenon? Can you think of any other factors that could masquerade as talent?