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There is no talent (judofyr.net)
158 points by judofyr on Dec 5, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 140 comments

You will look around and find other people at your age who are way better than you at playing guitar... in reality, all they did was starting earlier than you or have been spending more time doing it.

I don't want to disagree with this essay... to first order. But it's important not to take the emphasis on passion too far.

Because this hypothesis doesn't explain the existence of passionate but untalented people. Such people exist. Dear god, do they exist. There are people who play a hell of a lot of guitar and are nevertheless not very good. There are people who write a lot of novels and stories but can't produce enjoyable prose, or sellable prose.

To paraphrase Edison, success is 90% perspiration. But that still leaves 10% for inspiration. You need directed passion, and the ability to properly channel and manage your passion is a talent. It might not be an inherited talent -- you can develop it -- but you need to do more than just noodle around for more hours than the other noodlers. You need to develop a specific constellation of skills in order to make progress.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, the most important talent is meta-analysis. You have to be able to self-analyze and self-correct. (If you can't hear the fact that you're unable to play on the beat or keep a steady rhythm it doesn't matter how many guitar chords you know.) You need the social skills and awareness to seek out criticism, listen to it, and act upon it. (If you don't hear your fellow musicians dropping hints, or don't act upon those hints, you won't get better.) And you have to cultivate abilities that may seem unrelated to the problem at hand... because you recognize, consciously or instinctively, that they are essential to your goal. (Professional scientists, for example, need a lot of sales, political, management, and literary skills. And, famously, our stock consumer PCs ship with lots of fonts in part because Steve Jobs audited a calligraphy class during his brief career as a college dropout.)

"At the risk of overgeneralizing, the most important talent is meta-analysis. You have to be able to self-analyze and self-correct."

I disagree with the OP but this I can get behind. I teach at the college level, and I have seen, repeatedly, students who put in a lot of effort but get nowhere. Not a ton, but always a few each year. There's also almost always a much larger group that maybe muddle along to a passing grade but don't understand why they don't understand more.

What both groups have in common is an inability to learn from their own errors. They can listen to what I say, and absorb some of it, and they can read the book, and absorb some of it, and after they've gotten something wrong they can come back, talk to me or a tutor, and absorb a little more. (Maybe.) But the more productive route by far is to look at the specific thing they got wrong, and learn from that, "fix" the specific misunderstanding that misled them. And whether by inclination or ability, they don't do that. And despite spending big chunks of time on my class, they don't do very well.

I do think there is such a thing as native talent. There pretty much has to be. But I think that the skill of meta-analysis can account for a large percentage (not all) of what is usually chalked up to "talent".

I think the term you are looking for is 'Metacognition' or 'Meta-cognitive reasoning'. It boils down to being aware of what you are reasoning about (and subsequently reasoning about that).

On a practical level it's about analyzing your own reasoning when performing an operation and changing your reasoning based on the results of the reasoning you applied to the operation.

Being able to do 'thinking about thinking' is generally considered a good indication of sentience (whatever that might be).

> There are people who play a hell of a lot of guitar and are > nevertheless not very good.

They just repeat the same mistakes, i.e. they don't try to identify the areas they are weak in and improve on those. Mindless repetition does not bring much benefits, mindful practice does.

Actually, there's quite a lot of evidence that mindless repetition greatly benefits learning, at least in terms of the actions being repeated. The problem is that since we tend to enjoy activities we are good at, and we are much more likely to repeat an activity we enjoy, talent in fact guides our learning process: we tend to practice the things we're already good at and shy away from practicing the things for which we lack talent.

If by 'mindful practice' you mean deliberately practicing things we do poorly at (because we don't have natural talent for them), then I agree that proficiency can be developed. But of course given equal effort the one with the greater natural talent will perform better. And in the ordinary course of life, they will also tend to practice their talents more (since they get more gratification from it) and magnify their superiority still further.

The statement 'there is no talent' is nonsense.

Yes, but in my opinion, an ability to perform mindful practice is part of what we call talent. The person you described here is exactly someone who has passion for something, but is not that much talented.

BTW, I wonder, is this some new Internet trend, trying hard to "prove" that talent doesnt exist? I wonder what the motivation is... trying to convince oneself that one can be good at anything? :-) ... just asking

It seems to be a political thing, running during the last hundred years or so. The left likes the tabula rasa approach: if everybody can be a genius, then we need to have a public education system that equalizes the chances. The right prefers the genetic explanation, because it justifies that rich people keep their fortunes in the family: intelligent people's sons are more likely to be intelligent, so it makes sense to offer them a better education to develop their intelligence and means to create companies that they will direct better than anyone else.

In my opinion, both models are bullshit. To develop talent you need both genes and environment. I believe that's becoming one of those things that you can't say:

The most progressive the environment, the most politically incorrect is to mention that you need some inherited muscle.

I can see how you get that association, especially when discussing education and wealth disparities.

But I think there's also a strong association in the reverse direction (I haven't figured out quite how the two interact). To me, the sort of Puritan conservative approach is "keep your head down, work hard, and you'll succeed", and emphasizes practice, paying your dues, being a diligent worker, slowly moving up the ladder, etc. The left often recoils at that, seeing it as a "cog in the machine" mentality, and certain parts of the left at least have a more Romantic view that emphasizes inspiration, creativity, etc. instead (think of, say, the Beat poets).

Well, I wouldn't call it an association of mine. It's thoroughly recorded in history, the soviets and all that.

Puritans? They're alien to me, except for Quicksilver, that I've read a week ago. I think you're right that they're not in the same axis as european parties. But that doesn't invalidate my point: that this question is ideology (or religion) more than science.

Hi, I actually don't think it's politically incorrect to mention inherited intelligence is necessary in some endeavors. Just impolite, if the person you're speaking to needs a higher level of inherited intelligence.

The point of public schools is to prevent a calcified aristocracy from emerging. Inheritance isn't deterministic, and recessive genes exist. If we don't give everyone some bare minimum shot to improve their intelligence and move up in society, we'll either stagnate in the best case or have violent revolution in the worst.

I think it's becoming politically incorrect by means of an activism campaign. That's an uncomfortable thing to stand against. The trick here is precisely what you point to: it's very easy to take the question to ad hominem territory. If you say that hard work is not enough, they will say that's because you're an elitist.

About the public school system, I didn't mean to put its origin in socialism (I believe it predates socialism), but to describe a mindset. In fact, I believe it works. Soviets powered the chess in the education system trying to prove that they could surpass corrupt capitalism... and they succeeded. I mean they succeeded dominating chess. But IMO that's not enough to prove anything :-)

There has been a significant shift in education to emphasize concerted effort as the most important intrinsic factor to be rewarded. That is to say, saying to someone, "Wow, what a great job, you're so smart", only serves to reinforce the notion that the accomplishment was due to innate ability, whereas saying, "Wow, what a great job, you worked so hard", instead reinforces the idea that accomplishment was due to exertion.

If it really does take 10,000 hours of practice at something to be good at it, then this isn't necessarily a bad idea for people to have ingrained upon them. Nobody has 10,000 hours of natural talent.

If it's just in terms of what you say to students, I can see that working, especially in K-12 education. I've seen some of the "grade on effort" approach in universities, though, and it produces some pretty perverse incentives. It sends the message that effort is more important than results, so students end up optimizing not for "quality of final project", but "effort the professor thinks I put into the final project".

Of course, perhaps that's good training for certain corporate jobs, where the person who stays late every day and works weekends, writing terrible code, often gets promoted ahead of the person who leaves at 5pm every day and actually does most of the work--- because the person who stays late is a "diligent worker".

In both settings, it also leads to an incentive to withhold work and parcel it out. If you did something impressive in two hours, some people might reward you for that: wow, great fix, and in only two hours? you're amazing!. But if it's more of an effort-based reward system, you're better off keeping that fix in your pocket for another week or two while you pretend to still be working on it, in order to get: wow thanks for working so hard on this for two weeks, the fix works great!.

To generalize broadly, I think startups tend to have more of the "results matter" culture, while large companies more often have an "effort matters" culture. The manager will remember the guy who spent two weeks of long nights working on a problem, while the startup will remember the guy who performed wizardry to fix some seemingly intractable problem in 45 minutes.

There was research in "How We Decide" by Jonah lehrer that in a string of 3 tests, control group students who were told they succeeded on the first test because they worked hard did far better on the last test than students who were told they did well because they were smart.

You make a good point but I have a few qualms. I agree that there exist a lot of passionate guitarists who play poorly. Speaking as a guitarist, guitar is an extremely difficult instrument to learn to play and master. The amount of time involved in learning to play guitar and play it well is huge. I argue that passionate but untalented people only exist because they are partway through the learning process or because of a loose definition of passion.

It's ridiculous to say that there is no talent. obviously, talent, passion, zeitgeist, deliberate practice, luck etc all matter. each factor in your favour nudges your probability towards success.

If we could live for a million years, then talent probably doesn't matter compared to deliberate practice even in fields such as pure mathematics. But life is short and that in many fields, success is relative (ie good is irrelevant, you need to be top 1 %). In those cases, once you are behind, the probability of catching up to other people in your field is slim.

I'll highlight an interesting phenomenon with respect to your assertion that the most important talent is meta-analysis: the effect of a coach.

Some people have no capacity at all for meta-analysis, but succeed because they have a great coach. Someone to give them direction and feedback and strategy and who will make sure they are making maximum use of their opportunities.

This cuts both ways: marginal musicians can have great managers and producers that will insure success for (seemingly) any warm body that fits the mold. Hence the "boy band". Similarly, fantastic musicians that don't always see the bigger picture and have their finger on the pulse of the industry might fail. (substitute any endeavor for "music" in this case).

Largely agree with you here. But I actually think the most important talent is being good at practicing. This ties in a bit with self-analyzing and self-correcting, but also the ability to put yourself through crushing amounts of practice over and over.

The pinnacle of human performance is formed by the intersection of those naturally talented, those who are passionate, and those who have the talent for practicing.

I put talent for practicing separate from passionate just really based on that lovely coach's slogan 'practice makes nothing, perfect practices makes perfect'.

"Because this hypothesis doesn't explain the existence of passionate but untalented people. Such people exist. Dear god, do they exist. There are people who play a hell of a lot of guitar and are nevertheless not very good. There are people who write a lot of novels and stories but can't produce enjoyable prose, or sellable prose."

I'm kind of reminded of Malcom Gladwell's "Late Bloomers" piece[1]. Some people take very little time to become good. Some others learn by sheer trial and error, and it takes them a long time. Like as in decades.

[1] http://www.gladwell.com/2008/2008_10_20_a_latebloomers.html

I agree with you. To me it seems naive to say there is no talent. If humans can play music because our DNA allows us to do so while monkeys can't do the same, why is not possible that the DNA responsible for this varies slightly from person to person making some people better than others? I said music, but the same applies to reflexes in soccer or planning ahead in chess.

The bottom line is that if you work hard enough you can compensate somewhat for lack of talent. You probably won't be the next Mozart or Einstein of your field, but the good news is that you don't have to be inorder to be very successful.

Does anyone have a good definition of talent?

"A special natural ability or aptitude"

Malcolm Gladwell defined talent as "the love of practicing". That's the best definition I've heard.

That would be a better definition of "passion" than of "talent".

By Retric at http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1647291

"The following men won gold in a solo swimming even in 2008.

  "6 ft 4 in
  "6 ft 5 in
  "6 ft 5 in
  "6 ft in
  "6 ft 3 in http://sports.yahoo.com/olympics/beijing/TUN/Oussama+Mellouli/217537
  "6 ft 4 in 
  "6 ft 2 in   
  "5 ft 10 in 
  "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maarten_van_der_Weijden (10 km marathon)
  "6 ft 7 1⁄2 in
"Height is not the most important factor in swimming, but out of 10 people, only one was under 6' and he is still taller than average. Now look at something like size of hands and they are going to stand out even more. Practice may be able to get an average person to the 90th percentile in most things but once you start talking about 99.99% DNA becomes extremely important."

(If you upvote me, please upvote the original comment as well: I'm sure Retric would appreciate it)

100% disagree. I could try my entire life and I will never be able to sing like Josh Groban, or compose music like Mozart, or win the Iron Man Strongest Man competition, or beat Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France.

Yes, a LOT of success comes from effort, but to say that talent doesn't exist is absurd. People who have a talent in a given field, AND work with and hone that talent will always do better than people without talents that try to get into a field they aren't fit for.

I really disagree with you. You say you could never compose music like Mozart, but how do you know? What if you worked at it every day for the rest of your life? Are you really certain you could never reach his level? (And bear in mind he is an extreme case.)

You should read this piece by Derek Sivers called "After 15 years of practice...": http://sivers.org/15-years.

Quick excerpt (but really, read the whole piece):

"At 29, I had done it. After 15 years of practice, and about 1000 live shows, I was finally a very good singer, at least by my own standards. (You can judge for yourself at sivers.org/music. Old stuff at the bottom. New stuff at the top.)

Someone who heard me for the first time then said, “Singing is a gift you're either born with or you're not. You're lucky. You were born with it!”"

Mozart was a guy who was on his way to possibly becoming history's best maker of music, except he died an unfortunately early death at the age of 35. He was writing tuneful, listenable, harmonious music at the age of four. This is a level of talent far beyond what Sivers was talking about.

I am afraid that mozart at the age of 4, more or less played the works of Bach et al. to audiences after 2 years of strict practice with his father. (He saw that his son had interest in music when he would patiently sit through his sister's lessons and then he started pushing him to see how far he could go)

The Mozart we know didn't emerge until he was a teenager and he started composing at the grand old age of 13. Yes, he did have a talent, but perhaps that talent was the gift of accelerated learning. Not the gift of magical music.

No actually I read that his so called "compositions" at that age were heavily guided by his father and were merely modified improvisation of Bach/other pieces he was taught. The Mozart we know didn't emerge till a later age.

By the way, I don't mind being wrong. So, let's figure out the truth and I'll email you, okay?

Where did you read this? Musicology journal? Popular biography? Oprah Magazine? In academic musicology unsubstantiated theories and hearsay are unfortunately the rule and not the exception, but in general it should be considered bad practice to so plainly contradict conventional wisdom without giving a convincing reason to do so.

Unubstantiated hearsay? Actually, it's insane to call any of what you're saying "conventional wisdom". It's sort of like saying that Abraham Lincoln chopped down trees with his hands and puffed his enemies away with his breath. All that we have for evidence is some compositions in her sister's notebook that could have been made by anyone, and her sister's account which is likely to be terribly biased.

Hate to lengthen the thread, but it's too late to add this to the original post--

Remember that the Mozart family toured Europe only a few years after these pieces were written, and he was improvising pieces of considerable harmonic difficulty based on audience suggestions. The documentation of this tour is extensive, as the tour was a sensation, attended by many of the most important people of the day, and made young W. A. famous throughout Europe.

The alleged four-year-old compositions are considerably simpler than the things he was reported to improvise a few years later. Really, with this level of talent, it's more wild to say that Mozart was not writing music at a young age; that his ability to imagine melodies and harmonies just popped into his head shortly before the tour started. I was arguing talent is very much natural, but not so natural as that!

I think I read it in Scientific American.

Isn't this in Gladwell's book Outliers?

Also, perhaps this is the SCIAM you are referring:


No it's not.

There's actually a lot of ongoing debate about what exactly we mean when we call somebody "the best" at making music. Every brand of music has its own series of ethos, and many of them actively disagree with many others. I love Mozart and think he was a brilliant writer of pop music — his work is very hook-driven and similarly repeats parts until they get stuck in your head — but I have friends who find his work too simplistic to take interest in. Then there's Beethoven, whose works disappoint my more technically-obsessed friends but are so gorgeously emotional. And on the other end of it you have the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols and Merzbow and a line of musicians who go for things Mozart never dreamed of pursuing.

Brian Eno, pioneer of glam rock, pioneer of ambient music, one of the greatest living producers of music of all kinds, is actually very critical of classical music for this reason; he claims it bores him. He has a quote where he expresses skepticism for that kind of prodigious talent where he basically implies that any music so easy to make that you can be a prodigy at it isn't worthy of accolade:

"Classical — perhaps I should say ‘orchestral’ — music is so digital, so cut up, rhythmically, pitchwise and in terms of the roles of the musicians. It’s all in little boxes. The reason you get child prodigies in chess, arithmetic, and classical composition is that they are all worlds of discontinuous, parceled-up possibilities."

Not that I entirely agree with him, either. But the point he's making is that it's stupid for us to make these assumptions that there's such a thing as "better" or "worse" music other than what we subjectively like and dislike. In my opinion, Mozart is very, very, very good; I might even decide he's great as I continue to listen to him. But somebody else can call him shit, and I have no way to argue that they're objectively wrong. (Unless they say he's uneducated, or incompetent, because competence can be objectively argued.)

Mozart had a father who was a well practiced musician himself, and Mozart's father was an innovator in music education. Wolfgang Amadeus got an early start in studying music, and his dad was also relentless in promoting his career. A lot of people who may have had more "innate" talent didn't grow up with those environmental advantages.

Let me ask, what were you doing at age 4?

IIRC 4 year olds have a lot of free time (to practice etc...)

Wow, you serious? You think just any 4-year-old can play amazing music just because they have a lot of time to practice?

I think it'd be better to ask for a scientific study on the subject for 4 year olds, except finding an acceptable sample size would be nigh impossible.

Obviously this is only one study, but have you heard of László Polgár? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A1szl%C3%B3_Polg%C3%A1r

He is the father of 3 chess prodigies. The interesting thing is, he decided very specifically to try and raise his children to be chess grandmasters, in an attempt to prove that geniuses can be made. Quote from his wiki article: "He is interested in the proper method of rearing children, believing that "geniuses are made, not born". Before he had any children, he wrote a book entitled Bring Up Genius!, and asked for a wife who would help him carry out the experiment. "

Quote from the article on one of his daughters, who is the strongest female chess player in the world: "She and her two older sisters, Grandmaster Susan and International Master Sofia, were part of an educational experiment carried out by their father László Polgár, in an attempt to prove that children could make exceptional achievements if trained in a specialist subject from a very early age.[3] "Geniuses are made, not born," was László's thesis. He and his wife Klara educated their three daughters at home, with chess as the specialist subject." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judit_Polg%C3%A1r

  > You think just any 4-year-old can play amazing music just
  > because they have a lot of time to practice?
Honestly, it's a pretty reasonable hypothesis. That's not to say that narrow-minded focus and incessant practice on a single skill at such a young age (or any age) produces a balanced or happy individual, but I have no problem believing that it would produce someone with skills far in excess of 99% of their peers.

There is obviously a natural advantage to people with a keen sense of hearing. The ability to differentiate tones, etc. However, I spent a lot of my teenage years playing bass guitar with no musical training (literally zero, I have no formal musical lessons to my name) and I learnt the ability to not only to decipher a songs bass music, but I was able to actual transcribe its tablature simply by ear - IE in many songs I could actually hear how the song was being played, not just the notes that were played.

My high school music teacher literally described me as tone and pitch deaf and basically declared me a write-off. I received virtually no tutelage, in fact I believe I spent a large majority of that class outside the class from being kicked out. My only musical ability was to moderately hold a beat. I opted out of music classes, and my brother had an old amp and had one of his friends bass guitars over and showed me to play something basic. I bought a bass guitar and practiced an hour or so a day just fucking around and trying to play along with songs.

My passion was always and still is writing. I spent much of my time writing video game reviews with my bass guitar strapped around my neck. 1/2 of my learning was simply keeping my instrument so close that it became my object of distraction.

Of stories I've heard of child prodigy are largely along the lines of a parent practicing in front of a child and when the parent is out of the room the child attempts to imitate their parent and doesn't do half bad.

On the subject of imitation I like to tell the story of my first golf swing. I was ~20, I'd never so much as held a golf club (a putter at crazy golf doesn't really count, 5ft vs 200 yards is a huge difference) before, but I've seen people golf all my life on TV and in real life from friends. I went to the driving range with my future-father-in-law and my future-brother-in-law, both knew I'd never really golfed but neither knew I'd never hit a golf ball in my life. I borrowed one of their drivers (thankfully my father-in-law is actually a left-handed golfer) and I figured no pressure, they expect I won't be good so just do it. I watched a few guys take swings and I did the same. I hit 250 yards (which is actually a semi-pro-range IIRC), and never looked back. I still regularly manage to get in the 230 range without any form of practice. I take a couple of trips to a driving range a year - if that. I didn't go this year and I don't expect my shot to be any under 200 when I go next year.

Peoples greatest failure is in failing before trying. If you have a bad mental attitude you will never succeed no matter how naturally 'talented' you are. However, the least talented person will always succeed if they have a strong mental attitude and a whole heap of perseverance.

There are a lot of fantastically talented and inspirational musicians out there who have failed miserably at what they could have been. A key example is Iggy Pop and the Stooges, who despite influencing countless musicians across almost a half-dozen decades, they never hit huge. Whilst KISS who basically everyone knows isn't the most musically talented band is ridiculously world famous, not because of talent but because of life-long hard work and not drug addled binges.

He doesn't know, but many many people have composed a lot of music, many with as much passion as the OP has put into computers; but Mozart and a handful of others stand out as something above and beyond. What, if not talent, is what separates the great from the very-good?

According to a study done with violin players, highly structured practice is what separates the great from the very-good. Those that were very good but didn't practice as much ended up becoming violin teachers: http://imgur.com/Wxjqa.png.

What's also striking is that amateurs practice far, far less than the best: http://imgur.com/vIB6i.png. While they may have practiced for the same number of years (e.g., from 4 years old to 20 years old), the amount per day was substantially less.

This is from "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance": http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/EricssonDeliberatePracti..., pages 17 and 21, respectively.

Well, what’s wrong with practicing your whole life to only be in the very-good, the excellent? There’s only 5-10 people who are absolute heroes in any discipline.

It’s like saying: "I’m not going to be Einstein, so why bother learning physics if I’ll only author 60 papers?"(insert correct number)

There is nothing wrong with it. The OP says "there is no talent." I was just agreeing with the argument that talent, in fact, does exist (and matter).

I could try my entire life and I will never be able to sing like Josh Groban

Have you tried the experiment? The really striking thing about K. Anders Ericsson's research


(which is the research underlying many articles and blog posts on this subject) is that Ericsson found results that no other researcher predicted before trying the experiments. In one case, Ericsson developed a training program for undergraduates to increase their "digit span" from the typical seven digits to more than 100 digits. That's a striking result, because "digit span" used to be regarded as a reliable proxy for IQ. (There are still IQ tests that have a digit span item as part of the item content.) Scientists who obtain surprising, replicated results show that sometimes our intuition about how the world works needs correction from factual observations.

I agree with you. I don't know why some people have no trouble believing that you have to be the right size to be a top weight lifter, and that you have to be the different right size to be a top marathon runner, but then they believe that everyone has got what it takes to be a top musician or top mathematician.

This is not strictly an opinion; this is backed by experiment and logic.

It might be arguable that there are two main areas of talent; and success in a field is a function of passion in a field and the underlying aptitude in those two modes of talent.

Those areas being linear and parallel thinking. A really strong linear thinker may be able to be equally successful as a mathematician, programmer, or mechanical engineer; and a strong parallel thinker might a great poet, painter or social worker.

There are two categories mentioned. Josh Groban and Mozart are based on some level of "skill" where Strongest Man and Tour de france have a physiological or genetic component. That may or may not be present within singing. As mentioned in my other response, deliberate practice and coaching are what seem to determine skill level. Also discussed in talent is overrated is the notion that deliberate practice seems to have a lifetime cumulative effect. So you probably can't catch up with a Groban or Tiger Woods simply because they have such a large cumulative head start in their fields.

Genetic potential is something else entirely. It's hard to say how much of being a strong man or winning the tour de france is genetic, but likely the effect of genetics is less than we typically think. As an example in the book mentioned, they discuss the change in mile times since the four minute barrier was broken. The amount of people who can run a four minute mile now cannot be due to evolutionary changes in that brief period but is much more likely to be caused by improvements in teaching and training methods.

Anyway again, I highly recommend "Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin. These issues are covered in depth.

Or outrun Usain Bolt

True, but he has little talent, and his success is almost purely a combination genetics and hard work (eating + training).

You don't think that there is significant technique to be mastered in world-class athletics like that?

There are of course some techniques like how you set up at the line, but running is one of our most basic functions. I am not a professional runner, but I really would expect high level running technique to consist mostly of fundamental 'dos' and 'donts' (i.e. what many sports would call 'good form'), rather than secret techniques and tricks that take old sages decades to master.

That's mostly the trainer's job, I would think.

Mostly the trainer's job to hone technique, despite not competing? That doesn't sound right. You might want to make your point more explicitly.

I don't the think this article is 100% incorrect. Here's why: the author of the article is, in actuality, talentless. He has no talent. That part is true. He even states that the people impressed with his computer skills are those without any skills themselves. They were simply impressed by the 'magic' he was able to do with something they didn't understand. He's correct in understanding this his feeble skills are no indicative of any real talent. He is average in every sense of the word. He got that right.

This viewpoint always annoys me. It's great to think that work is all there is to it, but that's not true.

You can become great at anything with practice, I do believe that.

What I don't believe is that there's no such thing as talent. Take chess. You really think Magnus Carlsen has practiced less in his life than Anand? Practice is necessary to become great. Talent is necessary to become the best.

good points - but haven't many of the "best" chess players beaten each other at different points? This suggests that there is no best - but best at a point in time - which suggests that practice and passion are what it is ;)

What annoys me most isn't the idea that anyone can do anything if they try hard enough. It's the corollary to it: if someone isn't successful, then they just aren't trying hard enough. People tend to underestimate the impact that outside influences can have.

I'm sure most of the people hanging out on HN have had experience with the word "computer genius". It's one of those terms I love to hate. People who make that assessment typically have no skill in the area so really have no basis for comparison. When someone calls someone else a computer genius I typically roll my eyes mentally, because those of us in the field understand it's mostly hard work and interest.

However passion isn't the only thing. The amount and type of practice/tinkering is deeply important. My favorite book on this subject is "Talent is overrated" by Geoff Colvin. It directly covers this issue. He breaks it down into time spent working on the fundamentals in a specific way - called deliberate practice and coaching. So the sheer amount of time isn't the fundamental issue, it's the amount of time spent practicing in a specific way and how good the quality of instruction you have access to. It's a fantastic read, but it will deeply challenge many assumptions that are culturally embedded in the U.S. It's amazing how addicted to the notion of talent people are. It helps people make sense of the world, it gives them excuses for not being world class. Yet at the end of the day, talent is overrated will strip that excuse from you and leave you with the question how much do you really want it?

This book really resonated with me as well. The part I found most amazing was the story about the man (I forgot his name) who claimed he could "make a chess grand master," put out a classified ad saying the same, found a woman who agreed and then proceeded to have children and groomed them into chess champions. Anecdotal, but it's definitely food for thought.

re: "computer genius"

"Sometimes men come by the name of genius in the same way that certain insects come by the name of centipede; not because they have a hundred feet, but because most people cannot count above fourteen"

- http://lesswrong.com/lw/10o/rationality_quotes_june_2009/

There is such a thing as talent.

Talent is a natural aptitude for an activity.

Sometimes a person's physical and psychological make-up naturally aligns with the requirements for a specific task or group of tasks; it's entirely reasonable to state that such a person has talent.

Passion is important - it's what makes your journey seem less like work, and is what will keep you focused regardless of results.

However, the world is (and always will be) an unfair place. Some people have a head-start on the others. These are the people with talent.

Nothing is impossible - and I believe we can always overcome adversity .. but some people will have to fight harder.

Would you say being 6.9 feet tall is a talent for a basketball player?

Sure. I'd say that, all other things being equal, being tall gives an advantage to a basketball player. Therefore under lwhi's definition of talent, it counts. Why wouldn't it?

I realize this may not match up with what people usually mean when they say talent, but I think this definition is more consistent and useful.

So would you say being born from rich parents is a talent?

No; height is a physical attribute.

When a group of physical and psychological attributes or characteristics, combine to achieve favourable performance in a specific activity - talent can be a result.

EDIT: although passion (or interest) is key too.

>No; height is a physical attribute.

What are our brains made of again?

Do you ever refer to a person's brain size or weight?

I don't understand your point. Sure, our brains are made out of matter - and are physical organs. However, the interesting thing about a brain is the way it functions; I think it very necessary to think in terms of physical prowess and mental or psychological prowess when considering whether someone's naturally talented.

Being tall isn't a talent - it's an attribute that could give an advantage to a person who plays basket-ball. If the sum total of that person's other characteristics are also conducive to being good at basketball - that person would probably be known as a talented player.

An AMD K6 and a Core i7@2.67Ghz are roughly the same size and weight too.

Why the up votes? I still don't understand.

Under the basketball metaphor: a shorter player may outrebound a taller player. If you play sports, you know that there are some people who seem to react faster to everything, who seem to know where the ball is going, who naturally position themselves where they need to be before they know where the ball is going. You can teach some of this, but a lot of it is just that Money Ball intangible stuff.

Indeed .. in that case, being shorter and faster would lead to a favourable outcome.

I think this goes triple for mathematics. When people say that I'm good at math, I sometimes tell them, "Well, you know, I've been studying math and little else for the majority of the past ten years. Almost anyone who works at something that long eventually gets the hang of it."

Hmm, of the mathematics grad students I've met, I don't actually notice a huge correlation between diligent, hardworking students and the most successful students. Some of the most diligent are just... not great at coming up with independent, novel mathematics, though they can do okay on exams. And there are some vaguely slackerly types who do great, novel work. Of course, some effort is a prerequisite, so the most slackerly just fail out of grad school entirely. But past some threshhold sufficient to be able to do the work at all, it sure looks like some sort of natural talent, or aptitude acquired at a previous stage of life, is what differentiates the mediocre from the great grad students. I can't say for certain, but unless I know totally unrepresentative people, it doesn't seem to be a matter of who puts in 80 hrs/wk versus 40 (or even 30); some of those on the low end of hours spent are very good and produce impactful theses, while some who work all the time are just not great at it.

I think the definitions are simply wrong.

Talent is the genetic (and nurtured) predisposition toward something.

Being great at something - often conversationally referred to as "talent" - is the combination of predisposition and practice. 10 000 hours of practice is probably not far off mark for any given field, physical or mental.

While the middle of the talent curve for any given field can somewhat make up for predisposition variance with working harder, it is not a good value proposition for those at the lower end of the curve. It is often a waste of time to slog at something you are naturally geared for when the alternate is to work on something you are better suited for.

Passion, drive, curiosity, ambition and mental fortitude also highly variable among people. The "you could do it if you only made an effort"-sentiments really irritate me, even though they usually spring from the inability to understand different minds rather than any malice or sense of superiority.

Virtually everyone has a few talents, and the question is mostly of opportunity to discover them (which does not exist for everyone, even in wealthy societies), "passion" for it - which could less romantically simply be described as the perseverance to work at it through the highs and lows.

In other words, humbug.

A pleasant, useful, highly motivating lie.

And it flatly isn't true. There's people who've written ten times as many words as I ever have, and they're still not good writers. It's not fair, but it's what is.

It's great to see that someone else "gets" this. There's a lot of great research and evidence that supports your thesis, and I don't think that the majority of the population has any idea that it exists. People still seem to be enthralled with this idea that there are geniuses out there who never had to work hard or practice... as if Jimi Hendrix just picked up a guitar and played it to perfection without ever practicing for a second.

For anyone interested in the research in this area, there is a great piece from Harvard Business Review by K Anders Ericsson called The Making of an Expert. And Malcom Gladwell's Outliers is also a fun read on the topic.

I think we are currently demystifying the process of becoming "talented" at any given endeavor. The quicker we realize that we aren't "born to x" we can begin to put in the work necessary to make it look like we were "born to x."

There is some truth to what you say, judofyr, but talent is real. The problem is, the only way to find if you have talent is to put in a ton of hours. Sometimes talent shows up later in the learning process.

Trust me, I spent countless hours practicing my bass and yet I'm am still only mediocre.

I've been making this argument for years, its funny how many people just flat out dont agree with it. My stance is that there is no talent, just understanding and without physical limitations, anything could be understood by anyone.

I first came to this conclusion in art class when I was about 15. A girl asked me to draw a traffic light for her (I am a pretty decent artist) and I said no, but explained how to do it and she did a pretty damn good job at it.

I feel that if you ask anyone who is talented at anything, they may have to border having a passion for it, they'll be able to explain the how to you.

I tell my son this very thing and I feel that he approaches problems differently than if I told him "oh, that's a god-given talent, I dont know if you can do it."

Would love to hear your explanation. I'm a terrible drawer, and would love to become better.

Ha, it had something to do with drawing a 3d rectangle and erasing the inner lines, adding some ovals on the front face of it. Then drawing a straight line at the top of the oval as the top of the light cover and then drawing a skewed omega-like shape (Ω think hat brim) from the middle of the oval to line and on to the other side (like [this hat brim](http://www.faqs.org/photo-dict/photofiles/list/674/1084baseb...)

I think about that from time to time as it really changed my life. This past summer I helped my son create a video game from scratch (using scratch :), he was 8 at the time. All artwork, sounds, logic came from his head with my guidance. He kinda fears playing a new sport, but when we get the fundamentals down, that fear goes away. It's fun watching him grow, I learn a lot and it really supports my theory of "talent doesnt exist"

that difference... innate or easier understanding + the ability to execute it IS talent

I feel that things could be broken down so that anyone could understand. Those scenes in movies where the teacher finally breaks through to the kids by relating the subject matter to something that they care about may seem like bs, but I feel that approach really works. I think that is the foundation of the argument for smaller classroom sizes -- the teach can focus in on how to target each student's learning style instead of a watered down general approach. The desire to execute isn't something that could be given or taught to someone though.

I have the same feeling about luck as I do with talent. I read the famous quote "luck is when opportunity meets preparedness" and I've lived that way since.

Most people can learn to be OK at most things, with enough time or a "breakthrough". A significantly smaller number can be great at them.

Bingo. The comment with the highest signal-to-noise ratio on this thread.

Speaking for myself. I am (though don't do much directly along these lines anymore) a decent engineer and programmer. Nothing spectacular. But I definitely struggled with more advanced math and physics. I have no doubt that had I majored in, say, Math and spent the same amount of time I did on my engineering degree it would have been very difficult. Yet, I knew people who considered Math an "easy" degree at the same school.

So are you saying that talent is when a person has passion for a subject and works hard at it?

I'm interpreting it as genius being a subset of those who work hard enough to be good at something.

There are people who have absolutely no passion for a task, yet perform it expertly, without practice. One would have to conclude after reading this essay that these people are, in fact, talented [i.e. possess some innate ability].

it would be cool to have some examples of those people.

I can only offer you the following anecdotal example.

Back when I was doing my compulsory military service, I was really passionate about basketball. I used to play almost everyday, and there was a team in my neighbourhood with a coach I trained with twice a week. Then I met this guy in my platoon who, though shorter than me, trashed me soundly every time we played. I would have thought someone like that would need to constantly hone his skills, but he didn't. He just occasionally joined us for a game. For about a year before he completed his service I (and a couple of other guys in the platoon) trained to beat him, but never came close. The interesting thing was this one conversation we had where he confessed, "I don't like basketball. I only play because I am good."

What about curiosity?

Maybe you're wrapping that up in "passion", but I've seen people spend years using one program on the computer and never think to click on anything other than the buttons they're familiar with. I think curiosity plays a HUGE role in learning.

This is the old "Nature vs Nurture" debate unrolling again. The author is taking the side of Nurture: only training/time/study counts. And he is dead wrong.

Some people are better at some tasks than others. No amount of practice will allow a deaf (or even a tone-deaf) person to become a great musician. Tall people can clean the tops of refrigerators more easily than short people and that will always be true, no matter how much a short person practices.

Secondly, this obviousness extends to all genetic traits. We're (almost) all genetically different and it adds up to a tremendous difference in behavior.

This question really isn't worth discussing once identified: the "tabula rasa" theory supported by the OP is defunct.

Do people really believe that, in the Olympics for example, the winners don't have a genetic predisposition (i.e. talent) for the sport they won in?

For one thing, it's obvious that certain sports favor certain body types. This was discussed when Michael Phelps won all those swimming medals - his body structure was particularly well suited for swimming.

I think natural talent exists, and it manifests itself as an ability to know where to direct your focus when learning something new. Someone who lives in their head a lot may fare better at programming initially, for example. They're used to talking through things in their head.

But eventually the natural talent can't carry you any farther.

As others have said, this is just not really true. It is distorted thinking that is driven by a desire to see the tenets of egalitarianism in the real world.

It is as if (excuse the dorky analogy) we are all D&D characters with 100pts to spend on our qualities. In reality some people do just have more points than others.

On the other hand though, I am prepared to believe that most of the difference between individuals can be due to factors earlier in ones development, sometimes single turning points/epiphanies (e.g. having older brothers for sport, reading the right book when young ... etc.)

As many commenters have already stated, this essay clearly mischaracterizes both talent and passion.

In truth, both can coexist together. In fact, both are pieces of the same puzzle. As mechanical_fish pointed out, passionate but untalented people exist. And guess what? Talented but dispassionate people exist as well.

There was an article here on HN recently, discussing common creativity blocks. The article mentioned a certain study which found that, once a certain IQ threshold was reached, creativity no longer scaled with IQ. They became independent of one another. The same is likely true for passion and talent, with the ultimate effect being on ability. Once you reach a certain threshold for both, an increase in one will increase your ability to ultimately perform a task. This accounts for situations like those of the author, where a low perceived talent had little effect on his ability, as his passion was so great. It also accounts for situations like those described by mechanical_fish, where a person has not reached a certain natural talent threshold, and can therefore not increase his ability substantially through passion alone.

Most people have one in spades, and enough of the other. Those that have tons of both -- well, that explains savants.

It's easier to be passionate about something when you've always been successful at it.

Also, somewhat related: Dirty Jobs' Mike Rowe on how you shouldn't follow your passion but should go where everyone else didn't go. (link is a blog post discussing his TED Talk, which you should watch)


This was a great post. It really reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's 10000 hour rule.

So in relative terms (ex. rate of learning) I can be worse than others at something, but in absolute terms I can be much better.

Its a very interesting equation that seems to hold true for many things.


This is similar to John Nunemaker's fantastic talk/blog-post called I Have No Talent.

Here's his post: http://railstips.org/blog/archives/2010/01/12/i-have-no-tale... and slides: http://railstips.org/blog/archives/2010/04/18/i-have-no-tale...

Of course there is talent. Talent is when you're good at something without having done it before. Perseverance is required to become great, talent is optional. Being talented may trigger the passion required to persevere.

I agree. If you don't believe there is such a thing as talent, it means you never met anyone really talented.

"You will look around and find other people at your age who are way better than you at playing guitar, skating or singing. How can you possibly be as good as them? They must have a talent for it! But in reality, all they did was starting earlier than you or have been spending more time doing it."

Hogwash. I started singing and playing guitar at the same time as some friends of mine. We spent the same amount of time - if anything, I probably spent more time than they did. They got better. I didn't - well, not to the same degree as they did (I'm not bad but nowhere near what some of them can do).

Is it at least not possible that your friends used their learning time better than you? They push themselves harder, it was more active, present, focused time?

I was going to mention that. There's certainly something to the notion of "knowing how to practice" or more generally, "knowing how to learn". I think that's pretty obvious to most people, and further goes against the OP blanket statement that "spending more time doing it" yields the same results.

I've long thought talent was akin to "potential energy", some people do seem to have an aptitude for math, or music, or art, but it really doesn't go anywhere unless they work through and develop it. Talent is a yardstick for saying "you could go far doing this", but certainly has nothing to do with what people actually do. In a sense, its just a measure of peoples future disappointment with your "gift".

What people usually mean, when they talk "talent" is technical ability, and that is only achieved through practice. If someone has the discipline and patience to work through the painful parts of developing that skill.

Often, someone with "talent" will be called that because the early and introductory steps will seem easier for them than most people just being introduced to the subject, but that causes the paradox of being lazy by resting on their laurels. The difficult and advanced parts are still difficult, but the average person working through them will find it closer to a linear increase difficulty, whereas the one with "talent" for it will suddenly be at a steep curve, even if it is the same curve as for everyone, just because they have only been exposed to the easy parts so far.

Natually, this is a generalization, and some things (especially physical feats) really have a lot to do with genes and environment, but nothing in the end beats plain old practice.

I think the real talent is being able to find joy and fun in what you are doing so that the painful and tedious parts don't seem daunting at all. Or, at least surmountable.

I think some people do have predispositions toward certain classes of activity, but I think the message is right on: you get good by working, and working, and working.

Some people have a natural way of seeing things but like a muscle it only gets stronger with repetitive use.

I think an important aspect of this discussion is what your goal is. If you're measuring success by results achieved then some amount of talent is necessary though not sufficient. If you're measuring success by happiness then talent seems less important. If you enjoy spending time at something that you are terrible at and can sustain yourself, more power to you.

But what if you don't have talent to know how to be passionate about something? :)

Right amount of talent in right environment drives passion that further hones the talent. And the cycle continues.Somewhere down the line you have so much passion that right environment doesn't matter.

Arnold and Bill both like to sing. Arnold sings in several groups (including a chorus), takes voice and ear-training lessons, and continually strives to improve. Bill sings in the same chorus as Arnold, but otherwise he doesn't practice. Nevertheless, Bill is a much better singer than Arnold.

If you haven't ever seen this phenomenon, you simply don't have much experience with activities that require both talent and skill in order to excel. You can't reach the highest levels without practice—Bill could never compete with Charlie, who has Bill's talent and works as hard as Arnold—but that's not enough. Talent and practice are both necessary to be the best, but neither one alone is sufficient.

So this article says that every people is equal and things like savant syndrome doesn't exists ( http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=+savant&aq=f ).

Maybe given training anyone can recall 100 digits.

However, given an equal amount of training, some people will recall significantly more numbers than others.

"The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

I totally disagree with this article. Some people are naturally better at some things than others. Sure, it helps if you work at something and are focused. But when it comes to doing something of difficulty, some people just "get it" and others... not so much. For example, there are people who get math and those who don't. For the ones who don't it seems that no amount of trying will allow them to understand certain concepts. Based on personal observation.

My wife, suspecting that there is no such thing as inborn rather than developed talent, ran an experiment. She took something she was terrible at even after some fiddling -- drawing. She sucked at it. Her stick figures weren't very compelling.

She set out to learn how. Over the span of about two years with a lot of work she got to be amazing at it, and painting as well. She now all the time hears how she has such an amazing (previously undeveloped) talent.

The calculation experiment ignores the learning curve effect Something like this would provide a more accurate result.


Formulas don't make for good blogging though.

As for the talent angle: I'd rather phrase it as "talent exists, but its useless unless applied in conjunction with effort & passion".

This is exactly why smart people can sometimes be surpassed by their intellectual inferiors in fields that they don't care about.

I don't really buy the statement that "there is no talent." The fact of the matter is, some people pick up on a given skill and attain a higher level of competence at it more easily than others. But this doesn't matter all that much, because being "merely" competent rather than "talented" is usually good enough for most things in life.

Actually, this expertise is a rather well studied topic in cognitive psychology. If I remember correctly, people become experts after 10,000 hours of practice.

Additionally, there is very little variation due to talent. Most "talent" comes purely from practice.

Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, this just what I remember from lecture in my cog psych class.

This kid must be so young so as not to have learned about diminishing marginal returns. The average cost curve of computer skill acquisition is decreasing once you get on the back end of it (the "expert" range) so of course your average cost per skill is higher than someone who has less skill.

> I’ve spent tons of hours in front of my computer and very often I don’t learn anything new or create something different.

Law of diminishing returns...you've already picked all the low-hanging fruit, so of course it's going to take more time for you to learn something new.

This dog did not lift weights for 10,000 hours in order to look like this.


I was giving my neighbors tech support for their computer when I was 2 and a half. Is that because of all the pre-natal time I spend in front of an Apple IIe?

Just because this guy doesn't think he has a talent doesn't mean that nobody does.

results = talent x effort

Or maybe, in the line of thinking in this essay:

results = effort x time

Yes, but according to my experience, this essay is incorrect in assuming that talent doesn't matter [1].

So if you really want to be more precise:

   results = talent x effort x time
Which means, talent is multiplier. If you take multiple people with different amounts of talent, let them work for equal amount of time on something with equal intensity and focus, you will get very different results.


[1] All people from my surroundings that are top performers are both incredibly talented and put in insane amounts of efforts.

Actually, I really do agree with your equation. So more effort can overcome some lack of talent, or talent can overcome lack of time, etc. And like you mentioned, the top post said most of us will never sing like Josh Groban ... so true. Same with athletics. Same with science/math/computers. Some people just don't have the same talents, some effort can overcome that, but it's not a cure-all if, say, you just simply can't sing.

I agree with the equation as well. Effort can make up for less talent the same way talented people may require less effort than others to achieve the same result.

Put a zero in any of those and it all goes away.

results = 0 x effort x time results = talent x 0 x time ... etc will still be zero

No effort (or very little) even if you have talent or no talent (or very little) even if you make a huge effort will probably not get you very far.

"Talent is a Multiplier", I think that sums up this topic quite nicely, you don't need it, but it's nice to have sum so speed things along ;)

results = log(effort x time)

your talent 'for computers' drove you to the computers in the first place. you speak of computer knowledge you acquired.

This is not much different from the blog post yesterday about the semantics of "entrepreneurship". Who cares? JFDI

“Wow, you really have a passion there!”

Only Zuul.

Before we can begin to discuss "what exists" we must first discuss "what".

That is to say. We must first discuss what is talent? What counts as talent? What doesn't? because until then I feel that many of our ideas are going to be based on our own slight understanding and ideas about talent.

For me, I have no idea what talent is the same way i have no idea what a skill is because it all seems so arbitrary.

I have the same feeling. There's another comment that says "[Usain Bolt] has little talent, and his success is almost purely a combination genetics and hard work (eating + training)." To me, once you take out genetics, eating, and training, there's nothing left.

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