Being Referred to as ‘Talented’ is Demeaning (part 7) *

Throughout history we have believed that to reach the highest levels in any field, you had to start with an underlying talent, and combine it with a motivation to succeed. As a result, businesses, teams, orchestras, etc. all tried to identify people with the natural abilities perceived to be necessary in their respective field. Once they found these ‘talented” individuals, they sought to motivate them.

If you were looking for top violinists, you would look for people with an ear for music. If you were looking for an accountant, you would look for someone who was good with numbers. If you were looking for an athlete, you would look for someone with strength and agility. Unfortunately, recent evidence has shown that this approach appears to be backwards.

Experts have recently begun to put together a mountain of compelling evidence that suggests that interest precedes the development of what has long been perceived as natural talent. Without interest it is unlikely that anyone would ever put in the amount of work necessary to become exceptional at something. The one possible exception is the overbearing parent, who forces their dream onto their child (think of someone like Andre Agassi). Even in most of these cases, the child develops a liking of the attention their excelling has provided, if not outright love of the endeavor.

Part of the mountain of evidence I referred to above was a study where they tried to identify what traits led to success in top violinists. They started by looking for children with two specific traits: 1) Children who have an ear for music and 2) Children who are good at math. What they found out was that there was no correlation to either of these traits that were assumed to show potential for music genius. They went on to test other common assumptions about traits that led people to be great violinists, and again failed miserably.

In the end they found only two things that were indicative of future success playing the violin: 1) When asked the question how long do plan on playing the violin, the longer time frame in their answer to this question, the more success the person had and 2) The amount of time they practiced per day. Everyone who practiced at least two hours a day reached the elite level and no one who practiced less did.

Deliberate practice is what develops skills, it is hard to do and that’s why interest must come first. Deliberate practice is also usually done for a long time (out of sight from others) before someone attaches the label of talented to you. In fact, most people that end up at the top of their respective fields, showed no evidence of being exceptional as youths and were originally thought to have lacked ‘talent.’

Most people just assume that basketball players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were born to play basketball because they do things so effortlessly on the court. What they don’t see are the hours upon hours of work they put in on improving their games, and I’m relatively certain if you asked each of them how much work they put in on their game, their answers would shock you.

When Tiger Woods dominated professional golf you often heard about how he was a prodigy that started playing as soon as he could hold a club. But did you know that he bragged about being the first player on the practice green in the morning and the last one to leave at the end of the day?

As business writer George Anders points out, “If you decide to champion great talent, you will be picking one of the most altruistic things a person can do. In any given year, quick-hit operators may make more money and win more recognition, at least briefly. Over time, though, that dynamic reverses.” Clearly, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Tiger Woods do not fit the former, and are fine examples of the latter.

We live in a society that loves labels and we fail to realize that many of the labels we aspire to end up undercutting our success. If you want to reach your full potential in any field, ignore any labels others try to attach to you, and then go about deliberately practicing whatever it is that you love to do.


You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc

* = This article originally appeared as a guest column under the title “Enjoyment, Plus Lots of Deliberate Practice Equals “Talent” on February 29, 2016 here –

Comments are closed.