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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:

  http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html
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".




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