Continuation of an old blog post: what talent truly is

This is a continuation of a blog post I wrote a few months ago (you can find it here). I got into a discussion with a friend who’d read the post and didn’t agree with me. The essence of her response was: “If talent doesn’t exist, how do you explain Mozart getting to be a proficient piano player at seven?” So I thought the previous post could use an expansion.

What my old post was saying: when people see success in a certain craft or profession, they assume it’s a result of a god-given gift, and someone was simply born with a cache of skill at their disposal. They don’t see it for what it is: a product of thousands of hours of practice, learning and meditating on the subject, allowing it to seep into their every neuron.

What my old post was not saying: that people have no natural affinities.

Of course, some people are better at some things than others, a result of natural selection, nourishing environment, favourable economical level and a myriad of other tiny factors. But no matter how “talented” a person might be, he or she would achieve nothing without dedication and effort.

Let’s take Mozart again. No matter how much natural affinity he possessed or how nourishing his environment for learning music was, if he didn’t actually sat down and put his fingers on the keyboard, he would not’ve been known as he is today. He would’ve been a mediocre player at best unless he spent a lot of time of that silly little chair.

So Mozart got to be great at playing the piano because he spent a lot of time practicing. Great. So all I have to do to is sit down, start practicing and in twenty years, I will be as great a player as he was.

Not exactly.

Let’s say myself and Mozart are complete novices at playing piano (humor me). Neither of us has ever touched the keyboard and we both start to practice on a given day. Logic says that if we both begin at the same time, our skills will be matched at any given time.

Right.

Because I do not possess the same affinity for music as Mozart, I will most likely not find the learning process as enjoyable as he did. That means I will not progress as fast as he. The speed at which his skill would progress, would be greater than the speed of my advancement. It’s not just about the time spent on practice. It’s also about the rate of learning per unit of time.

Can we measure the learning rate? Not exactly but we can imagine it, using a cute gaming concept: experience points (humor me yet again). Now the learning process is not simply about the man-hours spent on practice, it’s about the gathered experience points. One can have a slow rate of learning but can spend more time on it, or one can have a high rate of learning and not need as much time as the first one.

So what increases the rate of gathered experience points per unit of time? Simple: having fun.

The key to learning is making the learning process enjoyable. If it is enjoyable, not only will the student inevitably spend more time practicing, he/she will also acquire experience points quicker, resulting in greater skill faster. That is why children learn by playing or pretending. Because it’s fun.

One caveat: you cannot convince yourself that you’re having fun doing something. That is why it’s pointless to be invest your time into a skill that you do not relish. If you’re in it for the money and prestige (I’m talking to all you doctors and lawyers) and if you’re not enjoying it, someone will probably come along who does enjoy it and beat you at your own game.

The result? Well, when one talks about Mozart, they also tend to mention Salieri.

To recap: people call it “talent” when they see an accumulation of experience points turning someone into a master of their craft. Yet even if that master had a great rate of progress, they still had to invest an enormous amount of time and effort to be where they are. So “talent” as a magical property remains a myth and all the Mozarts out there do not disprove that fact.

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