There is no doubt that people differ in levels of expertise and performance in various fields that most consider to be very difficult…
… music, art, sports, chess, math, physics… to name but a few.
And there is a widespread belief that there are a rare few individuals who “have it” and a vast majority of ordinary people who “don’t”.
Those who are deemed to “have it” are considered special, fundamentally different from the rest. They are called “gifted”, “talented”, “geniuses”, “naturals”.
What are the rest of us… we mere mortals… those without perfect pitch, photographic memories, off the chart IQs, and exceptional hand-eye coordination… supposed to do?
learn more… The Nature-Nurture Conundrum
The Nature-Nurture Debate
The fact that some people can do certain things that most others cannot (at least not yet) does not prove the existence of some innate gift.
Such differences may be explained by any number of contributing factors: motivation, personality, character traits, prior knowledge, problem-solving experience, access to excellent teachers and mentors, social supports, social pressures, work ethic, competitiveness, self-confidence, as well as the time, health, and safety to pursue one’s interests… to name but a few.
It is typically not possible to know from someone’s performance alone how they attained their level of competence. Are they an innately-gifted rarity, a socially-gifted rarity, a highly-motivated rarity, or all of the above?
To illustrate the point, consider this: Mozart is held up as an exemplar of the truly gifted prodigy, the “proof” that you either have it or you don’t. But the lesser-known fact is that he was born into a richly musical and privileged household. Wolfgang Amadeus was born special, but there is absolutely no doubt that was he was also raised special.
Mozart’s genius blossomed in an exceptionally nurturing environment that provided both a highly-focused education and unconstrained freedom to pursue his music. Imagine what kind of music Mozart may (or may not) have made if his DNA was born dirt-poor in ancient Greece, on 52nd Street as Thelonius Monk’s younger brother, or to an Aboriginal tribe in the present day.
And is his innate musical brain was trapped in a girl’s body in Salzburg in 1756, we would have never heard of her.
Our goal here is not to deny that exceptional talents really do exist…
Neither are we here to settle the nature-nurture debate. It is clear from our thought experiment in the previous lesson, that both matter deeply.
But what we can do is reframe our notions of talent, opportunity, and success… in the context music and life in general. Let’s begin by embracing the following attitudes…
- It is a mistake to define “talent” only in terms of performance rather than potential. Performance is easy to see, but seeing potential takes love and commitment. Perhaps that is why “talent” seems so rare.
- It is a mistake to define “talent” only in terms of inherited predispositions rather than the capacity to learn. Most talents are latent, waiting to be discovered and unleashed given the right kind of support.
- It is a mistake to define “talent” only in terms of narrowly-defined capabilities rather than a view of the whole person. What, for example, is the fruit of categorizing people based on an IQ test?
- It is a mistake to define “talent” only in terms of observable skills rather than character traits. Why are curiosity, enthusiasm, industry, sensitivity, passion, empathy, discipline, courage, perseverance, honesty, kindness, compassion, and optimism not considered talents?
- It is a mistake to use the word “talent” to discount or diminish the hard-won accomplishments of successful people.
- It is a mistake to use one’s supposed lack of “talent” as a crutch, as justification for one’s lack of accomplishment.
learn more… Celebration
Let’s consider another case study of exceptional talent… Michael Jordan. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at Michael and say, “I bet he can dunk a basketball.” No doubt, we are each born into this world with certain biological predispositions, but there is so much more to the story.
Unfortunately, our materialistic, celebrity culture promotes a narrow definition of success by rewarding results, not efforts. MJ was lavished with wealth and fame for winning championships and for the superhuman grace with which he flew through the air, but he should really be honored for his discipline and work ethic… for the countless hours he spent off the court… logging miles, lifting weights, studying his opponents, restructuring his mind to deal with adversity, practicing his free throws, working on his dribbling, his bank shot, his passing, and so many other skills… so much so that he could perform them all while dead-tired and under pressure.
I suggest that the monument to Michael Jordan is all wrong. It should not be a larger-than-life god timelessly suspended above the rim. It should be a down-to-earth likeness showing his grimacing face, burning muscles, and pouring sweat in a dingy gym when nobody was looking.
learn more… Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
“If you think you can,
or think you can’t,
– Henry Ford
True or false, let’s define “talent” as some rare and special gift bestowed by the gods upon a select and fortunate few. Then, let’s consider the dangers that flow from this possibly erroneous belief…
- Students who believe that they are “untalented” may believe that
- effort is pointless and give up trying.
- they are not special and therefore not worthy of doing important things.
- they are not special and therefore not responsible for doing important things.
- While students who are labelled “talented” are often accorded special opportunities that are denied to those who are not, they too are in danger…
- Those who are rewarded for their “talents” may adapt their behavior to maintain such rewards. Such dependency on extrinsic motivators is not necessarily in their interest.
- Being labelled as “talented” may make one a slave to one’s gifts, instilling expectations that lead to unhealthy perfectionism and competition with others.
As you can see, labeling people has profound implications for everyone… “talented” or not.
learn more… Dreams
No matter how rich or poor my genetic and environmental endowment, I can be genuinely happy and successful only if I embrace the following beliefs and ethics:
- Everyone has talents.
- Every talent is valuable.
- A “big” talent does not make me better than others… and a “small” talent does not make me less.
- Having a talent does not make me important… My value as a human being is what I choose to do with my talent.
- Happiness ensues from using my talents in service to others.
- Service to others is an essential ingredient of authentic dreams.
- Large or small, what matters is that they are my dreams… dreams that flow naturally from my core values, not material ambitions.
- Success has far more to do with opportunity and hard work than any inborn “talent”.
- Opportunity is something to be grateful for.
- Talent can be developed by hard work.
- The obstacle to success is not lack of talent… The obstacle to success is lack of an authentic dream.
- An authentic dream (the “big” thing) will propel me to do the “small” things everyday.
- If my dream is authentic, it will pull me towards it… teaching me, giving me courage, enabling me to persevere through every obstacle (and there will be many).
- In pursuit of that dream, I will discover many latent talents in the process.
- My dreams unlived will be a source of frustration until I act to make them a reality.
- So, what am I waiting for?