Talent is irrelevant

Mark Vernooij
June 4th, 2019
Article by: Mark Vernooij
Talent is irrelevant

We are all sometimes jealous of an Olympic athlete who wins a medal, a colleague who delivers a top performance, or a prodigy who speaks her fifth and six languages. But by declaring these achievements as innate talent, you don’t do them justice. Success appears to depend on completely different things.


Whoever wants to become good at something must practice. That may seem like a open door, but studies have shown that people who have really become good at something have practiced hard for it.


In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell popularized the idea that performers such as Bill Gates and the Beatles have had 10,000 hours of exercise (that is, 40 hours a week for five years). This insight comes from research by Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University who specializes in expertise development. Ericsson looked, among other things, at how many years Mozart had been composing before he "suddenly" became successful, how an ordinary man learned to remember a series 82 numbers, and how the brains of London taxi drivers change as a result of their profession.


Yet, making the hours is not enough. There are enough people who have finished their 10,000 hours of practice and still show no improvement in what they can do: the manager who never gets better at listening, the colleague in the choir who still misses her high notes after 10 years, or the player in the veteran team whose game just never progressed.


What Ericsson found was that it’s not 10,000 hours of practice, but 10,000 hours of, what he calls, deliberate practice that is the key to success. This deliberate practice consists of defining specific objectives, applying focus, leaving your comfort zone, and getting constant feedback from a coach.


In addition, there are two more requirements. First, the exercise must be in a field that is already well developed, or in which there are people who are clearly better and can therefore form a benchmark. Secondly, the coach must have the knowledge and experience to give the student effective exercises to improve their performance. In football, for example, there are clearly players who are better than others and there are many well-developed training techniques for developing people in this sport.

talent is irrelevant
It’s not 10,000 hours of practice, but 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that is the key to success. #practice #success #leader #talent #leadership Click To Tweet

Mental models

By consciously practicing, you build up mental models. A mental model works as follows: if you read the word “Eiffel Tower”, you probably think of the steel tower in Paris and a picture forms in your brain with associations. This is a mental model. Mental models are structures in the brain’s long-term memory that correlate with pictures, memories, movements, or other things that the brain has stored. These models help the short-term memory respond quickly in situations. That way, your brain doesn’t have to learn that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris every time.

Mental models are a key to success. For example, chess players have stored large numbers of models of moves, patterns of moves, and possible alternatives so that they do not have to analyze the entire board every time. In the same way, professional football players develop a rich set of complicated models of how the ball can move around the field. They can use this to predict in a fraction of a second how quickly a ball will fall where with which spin and how to take it.

We see the same in organizations. Napoleon had models of complete battles in mind and was therefore able to quickly adjust his strategy in the event of surprises. Intel CEO Andy Grove had a technology industry model in his head and Intel was able to adapt to it and Bill Gates also worked in this way, allowing him to anticipate the rise of the PC.

Practice makes perfect and one of the benefits of deliberate practice is to build up these complicated mental models.

Yet, practice is only part of the puzzle. A meta-study of 88 research projects on deliberate practice by Princeton University also concluded that deliberate practice is important, but at the same time shows that it is not everything and very dependent on the domain in which the exercise takes place. The researchers found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in games, 21% in music, 18% in sports, and only 4% in education.

Despite the fact that it was not immediately clear which other factors contribute to the management of skills, the researchers stated that genetic influences such as muscle growth speed and psychological factors such as self-confidence can certainly play a role in success.

In his book The Click Moment, Frans Johansson states that deliberate practice mainly correlates with success in stable domains such as football, chess, and classical music. In less stable domains such as entrepreneurship and rock-n-roll, this would be less the case. Richard Branson, for example, started his career selling records but soon entered other industries. His organization Virgin is now a conglomerate with hundreds of companies in sectors such as travel and leisure, telecom, media, music, entertainment, and financial services. And what about the English punk band Sex Pistols, who had worldwide success while Sid Vicious could barely play bass?

talent is irrelevant
Mental models are key to success. They help the short-term memory respond quickly in situations. #mentalmodels #leadership #success #mindset Click To Tweet

The needle in the haystack

When Google was around nine months old, Larry Page and Sergey Brin realized they had to choose between Google and graduating from Stanford. They decided to opt for Stanford and offered Yahoo to buy Google for one million dollars. Yahoo refused this offer, which made them feel compelled to continue working on Google – and afterwards they would not be angry about it. Starbucks sold loose coffee and coffee equipment until Howard Schultz drank his first latte in a café in Milan. Nike was busy inventing a running shoe without spikes until a running coach poured latex over a waffle iron.

These examples from Johansson’s book make it clear that success is also about serendipity. Serendipity is like looking for a needle in a haystack and finding a nice farmer’s son or farmer’s daughter. What if success is indeed much more random than we think? Can you increase the chance of it? Can you force happiness?

It seems like one can consciously increase the chance of success for these apparently random events. Johansson states that looking for people outside your organization, outside your department, or from other countries and cultures can help you gain new insights and see new opportunities. But also making many attempts helps. Angry Birds was the 52nd game from game producer Rovio; hardly anyone knows the other 51 games.

According to Anthony Chan, CEO and Managing Partner of venture capital firm Cue Ball, there are three qualities that make some people luckier: Modesty helps to be open to meetings with new people and to learn from them. Curiosity creates connection with those same people and exposes opportunities. And finally, optimism provides energy to keep on trying and seize new opportunities every time.

talent is irrelevant
There are three qualities that make some people luckier: modesty, curiosity, and optimism. #leadership #curiosity #curious #modesty #optimism #positive #mindset Click To Tweet

Does talent exist?

There is no evidence that talent really exists. There are many biographers who describe Mozart’s talent by indicating that he composed his first music around the age of six. However, there is evidence that this earlier work may not have been his, but his father’s. And it is clear that he wrote his masterpieces “only” in his teenage years, after at least 10 years of practice under the guidance of his father, who was an experienced composer. In his case, talent does not seem innate.

There are people who insist that talent does exist. They often refer to prodigies who speak, read, or make music at a very young age. However, in most cases, this concerns parents who have devoted an extraordinary amount of time to developing these skills and many of these prodigies do not achieve great success as adults in the field in which they once excelled.

Of course, there are certain qualities that are innate, such as height, build, and specific forms of intelligence. But these characteristics often define more what a person does not do than what he or she does: someone of 1.60 meters will probably not become a basketball player and a heavily built person of 2.10 meters will probably not become a cyclist. But even these restrictions prove less relevant than you might think. A British study, for example, showed that IQ was correlated with less success among young, very good chess players. And indeed, among the international chess grandmasters, there are a couple with an IQ in their 90s.

Not everyone can excel. And certainly not in everything. But the good thing is that excellence is not only for a limited number of talented people. We have control over how and how much we practice and whether we actively open up to create luck.


A Dutch version of this article originally appeared in MT Insights.

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