If you have bought into the prevailing idea that being a writer is something you “are,” a function of your “self,”then the concept of “talent” probably lurks in your mind, threatening to overwhelm your fragile self-confidence. Most people believe that great writers are born, not made; that they are special individuals gifted at birth with a magical ability for putting words on paper.
In general, when we ask the question, “What makes certain people really great at what they do?” we are all likely to give the same answer: talent. When we think of a world-class athlete like Ted Williams, or a major composer, like Mozart, we assume that their greatness is the result of talent they were born with. It’s an easy assumption to make, for it has deep roots in our culture and our educational system.
There’s just one problem: it’s not true.
There’s a scientific field of studies known as “expertise research.” Scientists in this field are preoccupied with the question, “What makes certain people really great at what they do?” After decades of studying experts in a number of fields—nursing, business, art, writing, music—they’ve come to the conclusion that expertise is not the result of innate talent. Three British researchers in the field have concluded: “The evidence we have surveyed…does not support the [notion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.”
To put this another way: Talent, that innate natural gift, that ability to achieve great results without effort, is a myth.
So if it isn’t innate talent that makes certain people great, what is it?
The factor that seems to explain the most about great performance is something the researchers call deliberate practice.
When I first encountered that sentence, I had been teaching practice-based writing workshops for several years. The sentence jumped out at me from a book I’d picked up while browsing in a Cambridge bookstore: Talent is Overrated: What REALLY Separates Great Performers from Everyone Else, by Geoff Colvin, a senior editor at Fortune magazine. I stared at that sentence; I read it again.
"Deliberate practice?" I thought. "Why that's exactly what my book is about!"
So, I took Colvin's book home and began to read. There I learned about a man named K. Anders Ericsson, the pre-eminent researcher in the field of expertise development. Ericsson, now a professor in Florida, has spent three decades studying great performers in many fields. In one study, he and some colleagues studied violin students at a prominent music school in Berlin. The students had been divided by their teachers into three groups, according to their present abilities: in the top group were the students who would go on to careers as top solo performers; in the bottom group were the ones who would not be performers but would teach music in schools. Ericsson wanted to find out what it was that landed each student into one of these groups rather than the others. What, in other words, made some of these students into great performers while the others were not?
The answer, it turned out, was quite simple: what differentiated the best violinists from those not so good was how much time they spent practicing. The students had all begun their study of the violin at around the same age—six or seven. But by the age of twelve, those students who would end up in the top group were practicing an average of two hours a day. The students who ended up in the bottom group practiced only about fifteen minutes a day. And those disparities only increased as the students got older: by the time they were in their early twenties, the students in the bottom group had spent 4,000 hours in practicing; the students in the top group had spent almost three times that much.
Ericsson has done many other studies of this kind, and in every case, he and his colleagues found that what distinguishes people who are great at what they do is their dedication to deliberate practice.
I was fascinated by these findings, and I went on to read other books, and to learn more about Professor Ericsson and his work. If you want to understand the practice approach to learning any skill, I highly recommend Geoff Colvin's book. If you'd like to learn more, I've listed below some of the other resources I've found useful.
With all this information in support of my intuitions, I was now sure that I needed to further develop my practice-based approach to teaching writing. It took me many years to refine this approach, which now informs all my teaching, as well as my books and articles. Because I think this approach is so helpful to writers, I decided to produce this series of lessons, so that anyone who wants to can begin a journey on the Mastery Path.
The Talent Myth: Resources
Geoff Colvin. Talent is Overrated: what REALLY separates world-class performers from everyone else.
Daniel Coyle. The Talent Code.
Malcolm Gladwell. Outliers.
George Leonard. Mastery: the keys to success and long-term fulfillment.
David Shenk. The Genius in All of Us.
Twyla Tharp. The Creative Habit.
The Talent Myth: Online articles
Geoff Colvin, "What It Takes to Be Great," Fortune, October 19, 2006. This article provided Colvin with the seeds of his book.
David Dobbs, "E=mc2 (and a lot of hard work)," The Age, October 16, 2006. Article about Ericsson's research.
Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, "A Star is Made," New York Times Magazine, May 7, 2006. Article about Ericsson and his work.
Shelley Gare, "Success is All in the Mind," The Australian, January 24, 2009. Profile of Ericsson.
Dwyer Gunn, "The Science of Genius: interview with David Shenk." Freakonomics blog, April 26, 2010.
The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need
May 2, 2014
June 27, 2014 1:35 PM EDTThis sounds about right. The word talent is defined as a gift of monetary value and the biblical story of the distribution of talents was according to three servants abilities. And, it turned out, the one that was most able produced more than the 2nd one, but still, the 2nd produced twice as much given to him. The 3rd, sad to say, did not practice doing anything and so angered the master, because he was lazy. That's the story, but it does follow that if one is given a talent and practices improving on that talent then it will make everybody happy!
June 30, 2014 4:03 PM EDTThanks, Carol. It certainly is true that to devote oneself to practice usually involves overcoming some mental inertia.
July 9, 2014 12:07 PM EDT'Deliberate Practice' needs to be more specifically defined. This seems to be The Key, and hopefully will be discussed in the lessons that follow.
January 30, 2015 2:15 AM EST"Delibrate Practice", two words that need to become part of me on the journey. I am following you Barbara.
January 30, 2015 2:33 PM ESTIt will be. And the more you do the practices, the more you'll understand how deliberate practice works.
January 30, 2015 2:35 PM ESTThanks for letting me know, Skeifo. I hope you will feel free to describe your experiences with the practices or ask questions.
August 12, 2015 7:00 PM EDTI've just begun a journey down your Mastery Path, Barbara. As a violinist and teacher, I often borrowed Vince Lombardi's famous words, and I thought you might appreciate them:
Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom!
August 18, 2015 9:17 PM EDTThis sounds like a "nature vs nurture" debate. I've read Outliers but not the other books. I've also read a great deal about Howard Gardner and his Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Honestly I believe that talent or expertise is a result of both. I believe that we all have special gifts that can be assets in developing individual talent. I am on board with the belief that practicing anything will increase your performance value though. I'm open to learning more, so I'll keep reading.
April 30, 2016 7:52 PM EDTMy grandmother used to tell my dad, “If you really want it and you work hard enough, you can do it.”
You've hooked me with the truth about talent being a myth. I’ve no doubt about the fact that skill emerges from practice. Whatever happened to internships and apprenticeships? You have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty to be good at doing anything. Developing skill is a matter of “doing, doing, doing” and then refining such doing, over and over again.
You have no idea how refreshing it is to find a teacher who lays the foundation for learning with such wisdom and basic practical steps and exercises—-all presented in the perfect learning gradient.
I’ve been working as a commercial writer for close to 15 years now, and I found your site because I’ve become inspired to write a novel and storytelling is the skill I want to develop. While at the age where most people retire, I’m passionate about the fact I have insights and worthwhile ideas to share.
Practice and hard work turn into joy when you master a skill. Thank you so much for the sensible tools. I’m excited about doing the work.
May 1, 2016 6:31 PM EDTTo K.M. and Meg: Thank you for your comments (with which I agree), and I apologize for not responding sooner. For reasons I don't understand, I'm not being notified of new comments.
May 1, 2016 6:33 PM EDTLyn,
Thanks for your comments. It's never too late to learn new skills--in fact, as I'm sure you know, continual learning is one of the things that keeps our brains alive.