#17 Talent Might Be The Answer: Are We Sure Talent Really Exists

I'm still trying to figure out why I get out of bed each morning. Last time I ditched the idea of passion, and set my sights on talent. I closed with this quote from Scott Adams of Dilbert fame...

“Passion can also be a simple marker for talent. We humans tend to enjoy doing things we are good at, while not enjoying things we suck at.”

So maybe I get out of bed each morning to pursue my talents. Here is a list of words that show up in most talent definitions.

Natural Ability

Clearly people tend to think of talent as something you're born with. A genetic advantage that you can use in some valuable way. So all I need to do is figure out what mom and dad threw in the mix on that fateful night. Then I’m off to the races.

Unless talent isn’t what I thought it was.

Here's a story about talent that rattled my beliefs. It's from the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and it's about the birth dates of elite Canadian hockey players.

40% of these studs are born in the first quarter of the year. 30% in the second quarter. 20% in the third quarter. And only 10% in the fourth quarter. If I assume talent is a big factor in becoming a star hockey player, then this distribution makes no sense. Why would so much more talent be born in the first quarter of the year? Let's dig a little deeper.

It turns out that pee wee hockey clubs in Canada group kids by calendar year. So Jimmy January - who turned 10 on January 1 - and Davey December - who turned 10 twelve months later on December 31 of that same year - would compete in the same ten year old league. And let's assume they have equal innate talent. But, of course, Jimmy is 364 days older. And at that age those days matter - probably way more than talent. Odds are Jimmy is bigger, faster, stronger, etc. 


So even though it’s a close call, Jimmy January gets selected for the traveling team. Davey's left behind on the recreation league team. And, even though he doesn't realize it at the time, his hockey dreams are  probably toast.

You see, on that 10 year old traveling team Jimmy enters a different world. Better coaches, more practice, higher quality practice, etc. By the time they’re 11, Jimmy can flat out skate circles around Davey. By age 12, Jimmy’s a mini Wayne Gretzky and Davey’s playing hockey on his XBOX.

And his demise had nothing to do with talent. Here's a good summary quote from page 30 of Gladwell's Outliers book.

"Success is the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.” The professional hockey player starts out a little bit better than his peers. And that little difference leads to an opportunity that makes that difference a bit bigger, and that edge in turn leads to another opportunity, which makes the initially small difference bigger still - and on and on until the hockey player is a genuine outlier. But he didn’t start out an outlier. He started out just a little bit better."

A tough pill to swallow for little Davey, but he's not alone. Gladwell points out that this accumulative advantage exists pretty much everywhere.

If you want to go deeper on this topic I’d suggest you read Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and/or The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. You'll come away thinking very differently about child prodigies in sports, music, and many other fields. If you want to get really deep, do a search on Anders Ericsson. He did a lot of the core research behind these books.

OK, so maybe innate talent isn't all it's cracked up to be. But, there's no risk in me believing I have a special talent, as long as I still put in the hard work to develop it. Or is there? 

Think of it this way. If you believe in talent, then you also must believe in lack of talent. After all, you can't be talented at everything. And this is where things can get dangerous. Check out this research.

A group of high school aged ladies took the Advanced Placement Calculus test. It's a high stakes test for people that have tons of quality math practice under their belt. And researchers discovered an effortless way to help 4,700 more ladies pass it. All they had to do was move a single question from the beginning of the test to the end of the test. Can you guess what that question was? 


Are you male or female?

That's it. The location of that single, seemingly harmless, question was the difference between pass and fail for 4,700 ladies. It somehow triggered the negative stereotype that ladies aren't talented at math. 

That’s stunning. I doubt these female math studs sat there and thought - “I just checked the female box and females aren’t good at math so I’m going to choke on this test.” But somewhere, somehow, something clicked that reminded them of that negative stereotype. This is no different than any of us, either consciously or subconsciously, telling ourselves we can’t do something due to our disadvantaged DNA. 

Thinking we don't have a talent is a self limiting disaster. Especially when it's so hard to prove that true innate talent even exists. But, it's not necessary that we become anti-talent zealots. In fact I struggle with the idea that we're a blank slate at birth - that innate talent is a complete myth. So I accept that talent very well may exist in our little selves in some way shape or form. 

But, for most of us that aren't freaks of nature, it’s a fragile seedling. And maybe it gets nurtured and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe your parents or your environment nurture some other skill or behavior and you get a big smile out of it. So you pursue it and it grows and grows and grows until maybe it’s something people call a talent. 

But why bother calling it a talent? Too many people associate talent with gifts from birth. Why not just call it a skill because we don't get to know in this lifetime whether it came from nature or nurture? 


My only point is the exact same point I made about passion. Thinking that this stuff is pre-ordained is limiting. Waiting around for this stuff to show up is a waste of precious time. And, even worse, letting the world tell you that “people like you” weren't granted a certain talent, like math, is dangerous.

(SIGH) And once again, I’m left with a real problem. I’ve shot both passion and talent. What the heck belongs at the center of my I? Why do I get out of bed in the morning?

I have another hunch…and I’ll share it with you next time.

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