Our innate abilities play a much less role in our progress than we believe.
My parents remembered how much I enjoyed drawing when I was a toddler. Like chain smoking, I went through packs of Crayola markers like they go through packs of cigarettes. I scribbled furiously on whatever surface I could get my hands on.
My parents did more than just pay attention to me; they encouraged me to develop my natural abilities. They inspired me to sketch, purchased art materials for me, and even enrolled me in a couple of classes.
As a result, painting became my favorite pastime, and I worked hard to improve my skills. What began as sloppy stick figures drawn with bland crayons evolved into photorealistic portraits.
For a long time, I attributed my artistic talents to natural ability. My uncle and grandfather were also musicians, and I must have inherited the Picasso gene. Others have agreed; showing people my work over the years has always elicited comments like, "No, I will never do that." I don't have the required skills.”
Recently, though, I've been considering talent in a different light. When I think about the years of dedication I've put into my craft, it doesn't feel right to suggest I owe my whole success to good genetics. Colored pencils and acrylic paints were not among the things I brought with me. I'd still already be scribbling stick figures if I hadn't practiced.
Despite how highly we esteem innate talents in our society, creativity does not exist — at least not in the manner we believe it does. While talent plays a role in our innate abilities and desires, it has nothing to do with real performance.
What exactly is talent?
The term "talent" has become more of an abstract definition than a physical characteristic due to its frequent use. Often people equate creativity with achievement or exceptional ability. Actors, singers, writers, and athletes at the top of their professions are often thought to have gotten there solely by creativity.
When we hear Celine Dion sing My Heart Will Go On, the first thing that comes to mind is how beautiful she is, not how many sleepless nights and hard days she had to put in to improve her voice.
It's a fairly easy concept to understand if you remove our culture's preconceived notions about creativity and performance. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has developed her own concept of talent: "When I use the term, I mean the pace at which you get better with effort." Your soccer talent is the pace at which you improve at the sport. Your math skill is the pace at which you improve at math. Provided that you are bringing in a certain amount of commitment, you know. And I absolutely believe — not everyone does, but I believe most people do — that we all have different levels of talent: that we are not all similarly talented.”
Talent, according to Duckworth, is simply our pace of change. It's an inherent advantage we're given at birth. For example, my natural creative abilities allow me to advance in art more quickly than others. What takes me a week to understand might take a month for someone who has no creative inclinations.
Talent is similar to a race in several respects, except that no one starts at the same time. Few of us have a significant head start, while others are falling behind. There isn't a fair distribution of talent, either; there will still be others that succeed more naturally than we do.
Talent doesn’t really matter
Aside from head starts, Duckworth's idea of ability emphasizes another critical component of success: commitment. You may have all the potential in the world, but if you don't practice, you'll lose your innate edge.
Indeed, Anders Ericsson, a social scientist, claims that creativity is unimportant. “Those who train more, not those who had any original edge of intellect or any other skill, win in the long run,” he says.
The reality of Ericsson's words can be seen mirrored in my own life. I've put down the paintbrush and gone months without practicing my craft.
My abilities were outdated when I returned to it, and there were moments when I wanted to redevelop them. And, through the times when all I did was feed, sleep, and breathe art, I saw amazing change.
Whatever natural advantage your talent may provide, it will never be a substitute for hard work and dedication. Talent alone would not be enough to keep you going or take you to prosperity. The only person who can ever really excel is the committed person who works diligently — regardless of talent.
There's a dangerous societal assumption that you can only ever "be fine" at anything if you're born with it. It's a misconception that has deterred many people from following their passions for fear of losing their time. However, the fact is that all of the brilliant people we respect have put in endless hours of preparation and hard work.
Instead of viewing talent as a determinant of success, consider it as a rate of improvement, as Duckworth does. A skilled artist can advance more quickly than an untalented musician, although this does not always imply that they are better. The one who puts in the most effort will win. Talent will help you get a leg up on the competition, but it won't win you the ride.
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