Recently I have been researching a topic that I find very interesting: how our culture perceives and treats ‘talent’.
Before reading some books and articles on the subject, I thought of talent as being akin to a plant you were gifted as a child; everyone was given one, and some people’s may have been bigger or leafier to begin with, but ultimately your ‘talent’ plant will only reach its full growth potential if it is consistently watered and replenished and pruned. If you stop nurturing even the hardiest plant, it will wither. If you tend lovingly to an initially unremarkable plant, it will flourish.
From what I have read and heard from others, most people’s take on talent differs slightly from this – the reigning view in western cultures seems to be that some people are gifted with ‘innate talent’ from birth, and that it is this genetic (or seemingly magical) gift that will determine a person’s success. However, from doing some reading into the subject, it has become apparent that this idea is verging on mythical: there is shockingly little scientific evidence to support the idea of ‘innate talent’.
In this post I will cover some of the information I found interesting in my reading, and relate this to the pursuit of musical learning so that you can use it to your advantage in your practice. It’s a long read, but hopefully you’ll find it as interesting as I do!
Where does the idea of ‘talent’ come from?
In ancient Greece, a ‘talent’ was a unit of weight, and also the term for the value of money equal to that weight. As the word was passed on through time and various languages, its meaning evolved through ‘will, inclination, desire’ to today’s definition of someone who has ‘a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught’. ‘Talent’ is used to refer to both the skill and the person who possesses it.
In a couple of the books I’ve read, there has been a connection made between our cultural romanticising of ‘talent’ and a shift in public thinking during the Romantic era. In his brilliant book Happy, Derren Brown talks of the Romantic reaction against the ‘strict rules and cold reason’ of classical art, saying that the ‘artist himself gained a cultish repute of untouchable genius which lingers to this day’ (Derren Brown, Happy: Why More Or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine, p.151).
Nature or nurture?
Even just by looking up a definition of the word ‘talent’, the same few phrases crop up that point towards nature being the source of remarkable abilities. We often hear that certain people are ‘gifted’ or ‘naturals’ in their field, that their skills are ‘God-given’, or that they were ‘born to do’ whatever it is they’re good at.
However, there is usually more to it than is first apparent. An example commonly referred to is the classical composer and child prodigy Wolfgang Mozart, who was famously stunning audiences and touring as a pianist by the age of six. It may seem obvious that he was born with a natural innate talent, however his success seems almost inevitable when you take into account his extraordinary childhood. Mozart’s father was a renowned musician and expert pedagogue who began training his son intensely from the age of three. In his book Genius Explained, the psychologist Michael Howe estimates that by the time young Mozart was six years old, he had probably completed around three and a half thousand hours of intentional practice.
Learning about Mozart’s early achievements is disheartening for many musicians, as it can be discouraging to be less competent at your chosen discipline than someone so much younger than yourself. However, we make the big mistake of comparing people based on years of age rather than hours of practice. By the time Mozart was twenty-three, he had spent two whole decades refining his musical skills for hours each week; to compare him to other twenty-three year olds who did not get the same access to musical opportunities and resources is a disservice to everybody, as it fails to acknowledge both Mozart’s extreme privilege and also the amount of hard work he put in. (It is also relevant to note here that Mozart’s sister Maria showed just as much promise as her brother, and even received top billing on several occasions when the family toured various European cities, however she was prevented from developing her musical career any further by their father when she reached a ‘marriageable’ age. Her brother, meanwhile, was free to flourish.)
An anecdote that I found very interesting is described in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. During an ice hockey game in Canada in the 1980s, a psychologist was amazed when his observant wife noticed a strange pattern in the players’ details listed in the programme: the majority of the players had birthdays in January, February or March. This phenomenon is known as the ‘relative age effect’ (RAE) and can also be seen in some other sports and in academia; it is nothing to do with ‘talent’. The explanation is simply that the intake cut-off date for youth hockey programmes in Canada is the start of the calendar year. This means that the oldest children in each year group are those born in the first months of the year. While this may not seem like much of an advantage to adults, being a few months older than your peers as a nine or ten year old makes a huge difference in terms of coordination, maturity and body size. When talent scouts witness these groups of children in action, the individuals who stand out to them are more often than not the eldest members of the group who are the largest and most confident in their movements. These children then get identified as possessing ‘talent’, and are subsequently given access to extra resources and training that the younger children are denied.
An arbitrary difference in birth date sets in train a cascade of consequences that, within a matter of a few years, has created an unbridgeable chasm between those who, in the beginning, were equally well equipped for sporting stardom.
Why is the idea of ‘talent’ potentially damaging?
Here are some ways in which the notion of innate talent can have a negative effect on us.
Students can give up their training too quickly (or not really start at all) if they don’t believe they are capable of achieving their desired ability level. This attitude of ‘I’m not talented so why bother?’ can hold people back from exploring their potential, and becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
We mistake things that are within the realms of our control (effort and focus, for example) for being out of our hands, and vice versa. We also mistake cause and effect. People often attribute a lack of success to a lack of ‘talent’, when in actuality they were denied access to resources that ‘successful’ people were afforded. This leads us to blame ourselves for things we had no control over, and discourages us from developing the things we can control; it also encourages the ‘talented’ to believe that they are special or remarkable in some way, when really a large part of success is down to a set of remarkable circumstances.
Parents and teachers can prematurely remove funding and support if a child doesn’t show early promise in a certain activity. Children identified as ‘gifted and talented’ are often placed on special programmes in school where they are given access to additional resources. A child who performs better than their peers in music, for example, might get the opportunity to join their school or county orchestra – this experience will accelerate progress due to an increased number of practice hours and guided training. (The reason that a child stands out in the first place is almost always due to early opportunities and experiences. From the point of ‘talent’ identification onwards, the gap between them and their peers will only widen.) Conversely, I have heard of several instances of parents who have stopped paying for their child’s music lessons because they didn’t judge their child to be ‘talented’ at their instrument, even though the child was developing perfectly well for the amount of time they had been learning so far.
Believing that future success is determined by your genetics only produces an unhelpful ‘fixed mindset’. This way of thinking leads to lack of patience, commitment and tenacity, which in turn reduces your chances of mastering a skill. In a 1978 experiment by the influential psychologist and Stanford professor Carol Dweck, over three hundred eleven and twelve year olds were quizzed on their beliefs about talent and intelligence, and sorted into two groups: the first group were described as having a ‘fixed mindset’ as they believed that talent was a predetermined and unchangeable genetic trait; the second group displayed a ‘growth mindset’ as they believed that factors such as effort could improve intelligence. Both groups were then presented with a series of puzzles ranging from simple to very difficult. Dweck found that despite no initial difference in performance level between the two groups, the ‘fixed mindset’ children quickly began to lose faith in their abilities and experienced deteriorating results. The vast majority of the children with the ‘growth mindset’, however, either maintained or improved their performance in the tasks over time. Both groups were equally matched in terms of intellect and motivation (they were allowed to choose their own prize as an incentive), but as Dweck noted, ‘the students in the fixed mindset group blamed their intelligence when they hit failure’, while the ‘growth mindset’ group ‘did not blame anything. They didn’t focus on reasons for the failures. In fact, they didn’t even consider themselves to be failing’. This, alongside the other follow-up studies conducted by Dweck, demonstrates how considerably we can impede ourselves by subscribing too faithfully to the idea of talent.
We devalue hard work and the effort of skill acquisition. This is especially apparent in music, where the ‘talented’ are bestowed an almost divine ‘genius’ status, and musicians who are open about having studied for years are looked down on for being too ‘try-hard’ or not ‘natural’ musicians. This is unhelpful of course, because anyone who reaches a high skill level has done so through thousands of hours of practice, regardless of whether they knew that they were practising or not. You may be familiar with the concept of the ’Iceberg Illusion’, a brainchild of the esteemed Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson (there are various illustrations of this idea online, including this great annotated image by Sylvia Duckworth). The analogy likens success to an iceberg: only a small portion at the top is visible from above sea level, while the majority of the iceberg is out of sight under the surface. When we witness the work of great performer, we must be mindful that we are only seeing them at their very best. We do not get to see the hours of practice, their many failures and disappointments, or the determination that was required to achieve the results we see and hear. We do witness our own failures, however, and over time we can fall into the trap of believing that we make more mistakes than other people, which can wrongfully discourage us from persisting with our training. Even more unhelpfully, successful people usually choose to tell their stories in a way that shows them in a good light and omits their failures or missteps. (Matthew Syed calls this ‘the autobiographical bias’, and warns of its negative effects in Bounce.)
We can be excluded from pursuits we might find joy in. When I was a child, I was certainly not identified as being ‘talented’ in any kind of sport or physical activity – on the contrary, I was much worse in this area than my peers, and believed that my talents just lay elsewhere. (Looking back, I did very little physical outdoor play, which probably accounts for my poor performance and lack of physical confidence throughout childhood. Other children I knew had swimming lessons and went to dance or gymnastics clubs, while I went to music lessons instead.) As an adult, however, I have discovered a surprising new joy in various physical activities, and enjoy forms of exercise that I never would have imagined I could participate in as a child. Looking back, I’m disappointed that I wrote myself off and didn’t discover these joys sooner. I know that many other people have experienced something similar in different subjects (my mum has discovered an interest in history as an adult, despite hating those lessons at school). Of course, by the time we reach adulthood we are behind by hundreds or thousands of hours of practice compared to some others of our own age. As mentioned before however, we should avoid comparing ourselves with those people, and embrace our novice status while it lasts. There are young children who have better flexibility and strength than me, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t or shouldn’t continue to enjoy exercise. The same goes for my students – I would hate for anyone to feel excluded from making music because they came to it later in life, as I know how much pleasure there is to be had from it. We should feel free to participate in and enjoy activities we are ‘bad’ at!
We can feel discouraged from connecting with our culture. In many older cultures across the world, musical and artistic expression was and is universal within the community and participated in by all. Think about the community-focused nature of Christmas carols and hymns, folk songs and dances, sea shanties and work songs, etc. In our western cultures we still see remnants of this in our celebratory customs such as religious holidays and weddings, however mass participation in music-making and the arts seems to be increasingly confined to these instances. One significant contributor to this effect could be the popularity of TV talent shows, in which contestants are only allowed to partake seriously if they are deemed to be ‘talented’ by whatever criteria the show prescribes; anybody who misses the mark is shamed into silence. This attitude certainly seems to have bled into our thinking as a society (this is noticeable to me when talking to primary school-aged children who watch a lot of those kinds of programmes), and the effect is that we are increasingly more likely to deny ourselves the joy of musical participation due to a crippling fear of being judged. Children get to a certain age when they become so self-conscious and afraid of not fitting in that they stop singing freely, and many quit their instrument at this stage, which is such a shame. (Most of my adult students, incidentally, have decided to take up an instrument later in life after having regrettably given one up as a child.)
As a cultural belief, however, the idea that an adult brain cannot change was (and is) part of a ‘talent’ barrier, discouraging late developers from believing that they have a chance to develop a skill.
What happens when a child is or isn’t identified as ‘talented’?
In his book, Matthew Syed talks about a ‘talent barrier’ that forms between those who are identified as talented and those who aren’t. I’ve seen a couple of different flowcharts and diagrams illustrating this: below is my own take that is more specific to musical learning.
The left side of this diagram tallies with my own experience of musical learning. When I was very young (probably around three years old), I was given a small keyboard to play with, and I have memories of my mum (who is not a musician now but did learn the violin for several years at school) spending time teaching me how to play simple melodies on it, which I loved. This meant that by the time my ‘talent’ was identified at around six or seven, I had gained a significant amount of musical experience more than most of my classmates. My class teacher noticed that I was doing well in group recorder lessons, and gave me the opportunity to begin clarinet lessons. It is from this point of ‘talent’ identification onwards that the gap in skill level between children begins to widen significantly, making it much harder for ‘non-talented’ children to catch up, even though they would probably progress just as well if granted access to further resources.
How to succeed in mastering a skill, ‘talented’ or not
We’ve learned that our cultural beliefs about talent may be constricting our personal progress, but how can we use this knowledge to our advantage?
Consistently put in the hours. The author Malcolm Gladwell popularised the idea of the ’10,000 hour rule’ for mastering a discipline, and even though this number can be viewed as arbitrary, studies show that the amount of regular hours you spend on your chosen skill really does make a difference. Another study by Anders Ericsson and colleagues, this time at the Music Academy of West Berlin in 1991, found that the biggest factor in the success and ranking of violinists studying at the institution was the number of hours they practised for. Having split the cohort into three groups based on proficiency (ranging from the ‘supertalented’ potential soloists down to competent players who were studying for non-performance qualifications), Ericsson interviewed the students for biographical information, and asked questions about their training. He found that their life experiences did not differ much at all across the groups, but that there was a significant difference in the number of hours they’d dedicated to violin in their lifetimes thus far. The top tier of players had clocked up over ten thousand hours each, while the middle and lower groups averaged out at around eight thousand and four thousand hours respectively. Furthermore, he found that no player was an exception to the rule: nobody had reached the top set without having put in their ten thousand (ish) hours, and nobody in the second or third tiers had put in the amount of hours seen in the first. In the words of Matthew Syed in his recounting of the study, ‘Purposeful practice was the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest’.
Practise deliberately. Performing familiar actions without a clear intention to improve will not accomplish very much; aims need to be clearly defined, at least in your own mind, so that your actions have a purpose. We are not practising for the sake of it, but to specifically get better at a particular technique or piece. Using a notebook to keep track of your goals and achievements is effective (I have a post on that topic here).
Dive head first into the tricky parts. It’s tempting to stay in our comfort zones by playing through things we already know and are good at, but this does not lead to fast progress. By avoiding working on areas you struggle with, you are delaying your improvement in those areas. Tackle the most difficult parts straight away. I heard a great analogy recently – if you notice that you have missed a bit when ironing a shirt, you go back only to iron the stray crease. To iron the whole shirt again is a waste of your time, and it’s possible that you could miss the same spot the second time round. Take this approach with your practice: rather than start from the beginning every time, find where the ‘creases’ are and target those directly.
Look out for patterns and ways to chunk information. As you progress on your instrument, you will begin noticing recurring patterns. Our brains process information by sorting things into recognisable categories; somebody who can sight read well on the piano, for example, recognises more musical categories through experience, and so can make sense of the notational information they are presented with faster. They may notice that all the notes in one bar form a rising G major arpeggio, and in doing so their mind has grouped together several notes into one larger ‘chunk’ that is far easier to read at speed. Try to actively look out for patterns and recurring combinations as you learn new pieces in order to recognise them quicker when they appear elsewhere. (Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky talks entertainingly about the human brain’s ways of categorising information in his Introduction To Human Behavioral Biology lecture which can be watched on YouTube here.)
Neural and physiological attributes that aid activity often come about as a result of doing that activity a lot, as opposed to being a prerequisite for it. Our minds and bodies adapt to the actions we perform repeatedly; my point here is that you shouldn’t let any perceived lack of ‘suitability’ for an activity discourage you from pursuing it. There are plenty of virtuoso pianists who do not have long-fingered ‘piano hands’, and lots of very competent musicians who started off thinking that they were ‘tone deaf’ or had a poor sense of rhythm. As Matthew Syed says, ‘the tragedy is that most of us are still living with flawed assumptions: in particular, we are labouring under the illusion that expertise is reserved for special people with special talents, inaccessible to the rest of us’. (Bounce, p. 29.)
Try to give praise based on effort rather than talent. In a 1998 study by Carol Dweck (and in later repetitions of the experiment) it was found that children who were praised based on the effort they put in to a task pushed themselves further and performed ultimately better at a series of problems than children who were praised for their intelligence. Both groups were given just six words of praise, but what those words were made the difference between how the two groups reacted to failure. The effort-based group were not as phased by failures and persevered at the tasks for longer; the intelligence-based group, on the other hand, saw failure as proof of their lack of natural ability and chose easier tasks over challenging ones for fear of losing their ‘intelligent’ label. Furthermore, Dweck found that the latter group were more compelled to lie about their test results to make themselves appear more intelligent. Over time, the way in which a person is praised really makes a difference to their habitual thinking patterns and mindset. We don’t have much control over how we are praised by others, and we certainly cannot change what was said to us as children, but we can control how we talk to ourselves. Make a point of positively acknowledging the effort you’re putting in to your practice rather than viewing success as a reflection of your natural ability – you will set yourself up with a much healthier attitude to learning, and prevent your own mindset from becoming an obstacle to progression.
Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.
Our cultural notion of ‘talent’ is incredibly subjective and is not backed up by science.
Nurture accounts for far more of a person’s success than we give credit for.
Identifying certain people as ‘talented’ early on sets in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy in which those who have had the most experience and opportunities are given more, and those who had the least are denied those resources, leading to an ever-widening chasm that is hard to close.
Believing that only a few people are ‘gifted’ with certain abilities discourages others from participating in activities that may give them pleasure or connect them with their culture.
Whether you have previously considered yourself as ‘talented’ or not, you can certainly start moving towards a greater level of proficiency in any skill. You can even overtake the ‘naturals’ who have stopped practising deliberately or who have developed a fixed mindset.
Books and Articles Referenced
Brown, D., 2017: Happy: Why More Or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine (Great Britain: Corgi Books)
Downey, G., 2009: ‘Talent: A Difference That Makes A Difference’ in Neuroanthropology, https://neuroanthropology.net/2009/05/20/talent-a-difference-that-makes-a-difference/ (accessed July 2020)
Gladwell, M., 2009: Outliers: The Story of Success (Great Britain: Penguin Books)
Howe, M., 1999: Genius Explained (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press)
Syed, M., 2010: Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice (Great Britain: Harper Collins UK)
Other Reference Material
BBC Reel, 2020: ‘Is Innate Talent A Myth?’ in BBC Ideas, https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/is-innate-talent-a-myth/p086wjwk (accessed July 2020)
Ericsson, K. A., Prietula, M. J. and Cokely, E. T., 2007: ‘The Making Of An Expert’ in Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert (accessed July 2020)
Stanford, 2011: ‘1. Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNnIGh9g6fA (accessed July 2020)
White, F., 2019: ‘The Quiet Genius of Maria Anna Mozart’ in History Answers, https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/the-quiet-genius-of-maria-anna-mozart/ (accessed July 2020)
Wikipedia: Relative Age Effect (RAE), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_age_effect#:~:text=The%20term%20relative%20age%20effect,amongst%20those%20born%20late%20in (accessed July 2020)