Shortly after our book Peak was first published in Spring 2016, the British newspaper Daily Mail reviewed it, and while the review itself was quite good and accurate, the headline (oh, those pesky headline writers) promised that readers would learn “why there is no such thing as natural talent.” Not surprisingly, lots of commenters on the Daily Mail’s website took issue with that statement, and it didn’t matter that the review itself never claimed that our book said that.
Since that time I’ve noticed a number of other people make the same mistake, either in published reviews and commentaries or in e-mails and other communications. They assume, I guess, that because our book focuses on how expertise is developed through long hours of a specific sort of practice, we must believe that inborn genetic traits — what most people would simply call “talent” — play no role. But it is not that simple.
So today I’m going to talk a bit about natural talent. It’s an issue I will certainly return to again and again on this blog, but for now I simply want to make it clear what Peak’s take on natural talent is.
The central claim that we (I and my co-author Anders Ericsson) make in the book is that if you want to understand what differentiates expert performers — those people who are among the best in the world at what they do — from the rest of us, the key factor is the amount of purposeful practice that they have put in to developing their skill. Please notice exactly what I am saying here BECAUSE THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT: We are talking about expert performers specifically. We are not talking about people who took up tennis six months ago or who have been playing the piano for a year. The situation is quite different for them.
If you look at people who are just starting out in an area, the evidence clearly shows that some of them will pick up the skill — playing tennis, drawing, doing math, whatever—more quickly than others. It happens. And when it happens, the natural tendency is to conclude that those people who pick it up more quickly have more natural talent for that particular skill. If that’s what you mean by “natural talent” — some group of factors that leads certain people to pick up a skill more quickly than others when they first get started—then, fine, natural talent exists. But before you get too comfortable with that conclusion, let me offer some additional information for your consideration.
To begin with, there is no hard evidence that this sort of initial advantage — being able to pick up a skill more quickly in the early going — translates into a long-term advantage. And, indeed, what scientific evidence does exist generally points to a very different opposite conclusion: that having an initial advantage in the early days of learning a skill does not mean you will have an innate advantage over the long term.
My favorite study on this issue is one we described in our book. Researchers watched the progression of a group of young chess players as they went from beginners to more experienced players. In the beginning, the kids with a high IQ were more likely to be among the best in their group, probably because people with higher IQs tend to learn new things more quickly, so the high-IQ beginning chess players had an easier time learning and remembering the rules and the basic strategies they were taught than the low-IQ kids. As a result, if you focused only on this point in time, it would appear that the high-IQ kids had more “talent” for chess than the low-IQ kids. However, over time the high-IQ advantage disappeared, and the top players were instead those who had practiced the most. And, strangely enough, among the older group the better chess players actually had a slightly lower IQ on average. What seems to have happened was that the low-IQ kids, finding themselves at a disadvantage early on, worked harder to improve and eventually surpassed the high-IQ kids.
Generally speaking, among chess grandmasters there is no relationship between IQ and chess ability. The “talent” for chess that can be seen among chess beginners plays absolutely no role in how good a chess player is by the time he or she becomes a grandmaster.
For those of us who grew up thinking that anyone who is really good at something must have great natural talent for it — and, in particular, thinking that chess is an intellectual sport that takes a high IQ to excel at — this lack of connection between IQ and a chess grandmaster’s level of play is astounding. What is going on here? If it’s not native intelligence, then exactly what does separate the greatest chess players — the Bobby Fischers and the Magnus Carlsens of the world — from those who are merely really good?
Here is what we know: Chess grandmasters — and, indeed, the top performers in pretty much every highly developed field — have spent thousands of hours developing their skill by the time they reach the top of their field. As we detail in Peak, this practice results in overwhelming changes in the brain (and, when involved, the body) that make possible the tremendous skills exhibited by these expert performers. And here is the key fact: These practice-induced changes are so profound that they tend to completely eclipse any differences that may have existed between individuals when they were first starting out. Yes, Ian may have seemed to be naturally more “talented” than James when they were both starting out with chess (or music or math or sports or whatever), but by the time one or both of them become expert performers, the differences between them will be due mostly to their training.
There are exceptions to this general pattern. Sometimes differences in initial performance can lead to a selection effect that favors the seemingly more talented individuals and makes it more likely that they will go on and develop that “talent.” But even these exceptions, as they say, prove the rule.
What happens is this: People who pick something up more quickly in the beginning are assumed to be more “talented” and thus are encouraged in various ways to keep going. Their teachers and coaches tend to give them more attention and more encouragement. They are more likely to get greater pleasure and less frustration from their new skill since they get better faster than their peers, and they more quickly get to the point where playing tennis or producing drawings or doing math is fun rather than a chore. Their friends and peers also tend to get into the act, letting them know how impressive it is that they are so good at whatever it is that they are practicing. All of these factors combine to make it likely that the “more talented” individuals will keep practicing and keep getting better, while the “less talented” one are more likely to spend less and less time practicing and eventually quit.
So we get a self-fulfilling prophecy: The belief in innate talent creates a widening separation between the initial fast learners and the initial slow learners. However, if someone who initially struggles to learn something can overcome these obstacles and keep working and practicing, all of the evidence we have indicates that their practice will eventually prevail over the initial differences.
So exactly what role does talent play? Science does not yet have anything close to a complete answer to that question, but there are certain things that we do know — or that we strongly suspect.
First, as we argue in our book, there are very few areas where it has been proved that there are genetically determined traits that limit performance — that is, that keep people from becoming exceptionally good at something. There are at least two that we know of: height and body size. Both of these have a large genetic component, and both can limit one’s ultimate performance in certain physical activities. Beyond that, we know of no genetically determined trait that has been proved to limit one’s performance in a particular field. PLEASE NOTE: We are not claiming that such genetically determined traits do not exist, only that we have not seen any convincing scientific proof that they do. Such proof may eventually appear. We don’t know.
Second, as I said above, there are certain genetically linked characteristics — IQ, for example — that seem to have an influence on initial performance. There is no evidence that these characteristics play a role in how good a person can become in a field after many years of practice.
Third, we believe that if there are genes that influence how far one can go in developing a certain ability — “talent genes,” if you will — they are most likely to exert their influence by affecting some aspect of practice. They may, for example, make it more likely that a person engages in a certain type of practice. Some people may find it inherently more pleasurable to, say, draw or work with numbers than others do; these people might then be more likely to engage in such practice on their own and to continue to engage in practice once they have started. There could conceivably be genes that influence how well or how long a person can focus on a task; people who are inherently better able to focus could benefit more from practice and develop abilities more quickly than those who cannot focus so well. It is perhaps even possible that people’s brains respond differently to deliberate practice; if so, then different people could start from the same point and practice in exactly the same way and still end up with different amounts of improvement. All of these things are sheer speculation, but we believe that if you are looking for differences in “talent,” the most promising place to look is at genes that influence how likely a person is to engage in practice, how effectively a person can practice, or how practice affects a person’s brain or body.
Finally, given these first three points, we believe strongly that it is best to focus on what can be accomplished with practice rather than on what a given person’s innate “talent” may or may not be. A focus on “talent” leads to a situation in which some people give up — or are given up on — before they even start. Of course it’s true that not everyone who dedicates himself to mastering the piano will end up playing with the Berlin Philharmonic or the London Symphony Orchestra, just as not everyone who devotes her life to science will end up winning a Nobel Prize. But if you practice hard in the right way for a long enough period of time, you will improve — and improve to a far greater degree than you can probably imagine — no matter what sort of “talent” you might have been born with.
That is the message of Peak. It is not a negative one — that talent doesn’t exist. It is a positive one — that through deliberate practice we can create our own potential and build our lives in the direction we desire.
The Daily Mail book review can be found at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-3564203/Why-no-thing-natural-talent-practising-perfect-best-way-better-music-sports.html.