We've all heard the stories: Mozart composed his first symphony at age 4. Bobby Fischer was a chess grandmaster by 15. Nadia Comăneci scored a perfect 10 in gymnastics at 14. Child prodigies surround us on TV shows, competitions, and in beauty pageants. Audiences are transfixed at the virtuosic displays of skill, and whisper to each other "What a talented young lady!" or "He has such talent!"
What the casual observer forgets is that many of the skills displayed involve countless hours of hard work. A person may have natural ability in a given field, but true mastery is the result of laborious hours honing a set of skills.
Natural Ability vs. Developed Skill
Most children easily pick up new skills. The plasticity of a child's brain is remarkable; it's what allows young children to become bi or tri-lingual with ease. Sports, activities, musical instruments, and other complex tasks come more quickly to young children than adult learners. There's no immediate switch to an "adult brain" at a particular age, but according to BrainFacts.org, it is known that "the prefrontal cortex increases in volume during childhood, peaks in adolescence, and then starts to decrease. This decline continues throughout the 20s."
It's safe to say that by age 30, the brain has reached "adult" stage and no longer possesses the incredible capacity for learning that a child's brain has.
What does this have to do with our perception of talent?
Consider a child's primary source of knowledge: Their parents. In Mozart's case, his father was Leopold Mozart, renowned composer and violinist: He wrote the textbook of the day on violin playing. Mozart undoubtedly grew up in a highly musical environment. Even as an infant, Mozart was surrounded by other musicians, his father composing at the piano, and hours of violin practice. Mozart of course needed to have a natural inclination toward music, and children don't always possess the same natural talents as their parents. But without the structure of Leopold's instruction, and his constant supervision of Mozart's development, one has to question if the name Mozart would be so well known today.
Is that to say a child's potential rests solely on their parents? No, there are plenty of examples of children overcoming rough circumstances and emerging as successful masters of a skill set. The argument is not against the idea of natural potential and ability. It is that talent alone is not enough for success.
Talent AND Tenacity Are Key
Many people who are "talented" run into trouble when they reach the outer limits of natural ability. Having been praised for their innate abilities and gone through life believing their success came naturally, these people hit the wall of hard work and don't know what to do. They may question their "naturally gifted" status, and begin to feel inferior. It can be a difficult lesson to learn, that talent has a limit and often ends where tenacious practice and effort begins.
Children may beg a parent to quit baseball, piano lessons, or whatever activity is no longer easy. As young adults, they may switch jobs, go back to school in a different field, or find another way to avoid the painfully difficult work of growth.
Talent In The Workplace
In the early aughts, Enron's scandalous demise was front and center in the business world. The charismatic and "talented" leaders of a promising, successful company had spiraled quickly into cooking the books and jail time. The company culture had focused so heavily on acquiring employees with perceived "talent" that it forgot an organization needs all kinds of people to thrive. Poaching among departments was common at Enron, and as many as fifty employees could transfer departments simultaneously without comment or pushback from upper management. It was perceived as a hip, new way to do business: but at what cost?
One has to question the psychological effects on the employees themselves, as well. If someone is being poached and is constantly in demand among different departments, they may well begin to feel invincible. That sort of attitude is what led to the reckless business practices that ultimately killed Enron. Is there a connection? This author would venture to say so.
Am I Talented? Does It Matter?
The verdict in the scientific community seems to be in line with Aesop's fable: The tortoise beats the hare, but only because the hare took a nap. Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work. Still, most people who attain high levels of mastery in a given craft, from violinists to computer programmers, have spent an average of 10,000 hours practicing and honing their skill. Even hares have to put in the time!
It's safe to assume there will always be someone out there who is more talented than you. With 7 billion people and counting, the world is a big place. Don't waste your time feeling inadequate because someone else is a "natural" at something when you're not. Be a tortoise if you aren't a hare. There's undoubtedly several hares napping on the side of the road that you can pass with diligent work. Focus on what you can do, and the steps you can take to strengthen a weak "muscle" in your skill set. You'll be a much more valuable member to your team.
Knote publishes great ideas for how to be more productive every day. Get on the mailing list for the Best Of. And sign up for Knotable, the app we made that lets you bring people and messages together in one place -- so you have fewer meetings, less email, and you can get back to work.