The Myth of Natural Talent (part one)

*This is one of a four-part series.  The rest can be found here:

The Myth of Natural Talent, (part two) – deliberate practice

The Myth of Natural Talent (part three) – How Failure Leads to Success

The Myth of Natural Talent (and ability, and intelligence, and personality, and…) – part four – Mindset

027 talent

I mentioned yesterday that I’ve been researching what it would take to help my two oldest children reach their goals of becoming professional musicians.* To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether it could really happen for them.  They both started music lessons at an older age, while most professional violinists who perform as soloists start young (usually by age six or seven.  World-class violinists generally start even earlier, and I don’t know of any who started after the age of 9.)  Furthermore, neither of them seem to be particularly gifted in this area… they don’t effortlessly learn a new song or seem to have a natural talent for their instruments.  As I’ve been reading more on the subject, however, I’ve learned some interesting things about so-called “talent.”  As one article states, “the myth of natural talent is one of the most poisonous forces in the Universe.  It’s poisonous because your Ego uses it to stop you from progressing at something you really want to achieve.”

Wow!  I couldn’t help but be intrigued.  After I read that article, I dug a little deeper, checking out other websites and a few books from the library, and what I found is fascinating.  The myth of natural talent tells us that in order to become successful at something, we have to be born with some type of innate ability to do certain things.  Without that inborn ability, we have no hope of being at the top of any field.  But is this really true?

According to research, there are several things that separate the “greats” from everyone else.  Those things are:

  1. Opportunity
  2. People who believe in and encourage them
    3.  A great teacher or teachers
    4.  The will to practice
  3. Regular, deliberate practice time (more on this, here.)

Two of the most interesting things I found in my studies are:

  1. The “10,000 hour rule.”  Research has shown that “to get to be world class at any discipline you need to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.”
    2. In the studies that were done of this so-called “10,000 hour rule,” there were no such things as “naturals.”  There were no performers who were able to get to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.  Nor were there any performers who worked harder than everyone else, but just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks.  None.

One of the most interesting studies showing the correlation between practice and achievement was a study done in the early 1990’s by the psychologist K. Anders Erisson and two colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music:

“With the help of the Academy’s professors, they divided the school’s violinists into three groups.  In the first group were the students with the potential to become world-class soloists.  In the second were those judged to be merely ‘good.’  In the third were students who were unlikely to ever play professionally and who only intended to be music teachers in the public school system.  All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?
Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly the same age, around five years old.  In those first few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week (about 30 minutes per day.)  But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge.  The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine (1 hour each day), eight hours a week by age twelve (1 1/2 hours per day), sixteen hours a week by age fourteen (2 1/2 hours a day), and up and up until, by the age of twenty they were practicing – that is purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better – well over thirty hours a week (that’s five hours per day.)  In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice.  By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.” (1)

Studies in other fields confirm this, as well.  Whether it’s violin or piano, basketball or business, it seems that to become world class at any discipline, 10,000 hours of practice is a necessity.

With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why most world class musicians start by age 5 or 6.  Take a five year old and give him a regular, daily practice time of 30 minutes until he’s nine, then increase it to an hour per day and by the time he’s 12, he’s accumulated (if my math skills still serve me) almost 2,000 hours over the course of 7 years.  A child starting at age ten would have to practice over two hours each day from the very beginning in order to catch up by the time he or she is 12.  I doubt that any music teacher is going to advise that or that any ten year old is going to be able to do it without experiencing burn out after the first few weeks.  That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless for the ten year old, however.  But it does mean that, assuming they start out at 30 minutes per day like the other beginners, they are going to have to increase their time more quickly than the others, and continue to put in longer hours than others of the same age until they catch up.  What it DOESN’T mean is that the child who started at age 5 is more “talented” than the one starting at age 10.  It means that he has accumulated many, many more of the necessary practice hours needed to become a world-class musician.  And it means that those for whom music (or baseball, or painting) doesn’t come naturally can become great through discipline.

“Ted Williams, baseballs greatest hitter, would practice hitting until his hands bled.  Pete Maravich, whose college basketball records still stand after more than thirty years, would go to the gym when it opened in the morning and shoot baskets until it closed at night.” (2)  Tiger Woods was given his first golf club at 8 months of age, and was hitting balls at the driving range with his father by age two.  Mozart’s father – the pre-eminent musical pedagogue in Western Europe at that time in history – began teaching him before the age of two.  “When you examine their stories, these child prodigies, these examples of ‘natural talent’, turn out to be further examples of talents that weren’t handed down from the gods, but instead were honed by a combination of great teaching and thousands of hours of sheer, hard bloody work.” (3)

This isn’t to say there is no such a thing as “natural talent” (I believe there is), nor that anyone can become an elite gymnast or the next Michael Jordan.  Some people have physical limitations that make certain skills impossible.  But that is to say that anyone can become better at what they want to do, if they’re willing to work at it.  And it’s also to say that “natural talent” may not be as important as we think it is.  Remember, in Erissons study of musicians at Berlin’s Academy of Music there were no musicians who were able to become top performers without putting in the necessary practice time.  Nor were there any who put in the necessary practice time and didn’t become top performers.

Personally, I don’t care whether my girls ever become “top performers” or not.  But what is important to me – and I hope becomes important to them – is that, as Paul Wolfe states:

If you want to get better at ANYTHING, then you can.



  • I don’t know whether the girls’ goal to become professionals is one they will continue to have, or even whether they even have a full understanding of what it means (all they know right now is that they want to grow up to be like their teachers!)  But when my husband and I decided to take their goals seriously, I took it upon myself to find out what we would need to do in order to support them in their goals.
  1. Excerpt from the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
  2. From the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
  3. From the web article “Do You Believe In Natural Talent” by Paul Wolfe


Related Articles

The Myth of Natural Talent, (part two) – deliberate practice

The Myth of Natural Talent (part three) – How Failure Leads to Success

The Myth of Natural Talent (and ability, and intelligence, and personality, and…) – part four – Mindset

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5 Responses to The Myth of Natural Talent (part one)

  1. That is incredible stuff to know.

  2. Pingback: The Myth of Natural Talent (part two) – Deliberate Practice | Rina Marie

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