Despite Claims, There Were No Gifted/Talented Olympians in Rio

If you watched any of the Olympics in Rio over the past couple of weeks, you probably saw several post competition interviews with athletes. It is also quite likely that in a large percentage of those interviews, you heard the athlete credit their “gift” or “the talent they were blessed with.”

I realize these are widely used and accepted phrases in our society, but they are no different than phrases related to the existence of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. They are based on old stories and not fact. Through decades of research, we have learned of no genetic link to any gift or talent for any discipline, be it Math, Music, Athletics etc.

The only specific genetic components to have been found that have any influence are those involving your size. You don’t see 7’gymnasts or 4’8” professional basketball players. However, even this genetic component is not determinative. There are plenty of 4’8” people who are not good gymnasts and plenty of (but far less) 7’ non-professional basketball players.

After the Olympic marathon a reporter asked American Meb Keflezighi how he was still able to compete at such a high level at the age of 41. His response was something to the effect of he was blessed with this talent starting in the 7th grade. Initially his comment drove me crazy because I love Meb and all the good things he represents. Despite my disappointment in hearing Meb fall into this common trap, I realized it was also instructive.

To become exceptional at nearly anything, you have to love it enough to put in the hours of hard work it takes to develop any skill. Clearly he had some initial success in 7th grade and that was enough to buoy him to work hard at getting better. I like to tell my clients, ‘the only real gift or talent is the same one we are all born with, the ability to develop whatever we choose to focus on.’

How many times have you heard someone say ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I’m not good at math, sports, etc.’ In most cases these people were not as good as their peers when introduced to these endeavors and jumped to the conclusion that they didn’t have “talent” for that venture. This zapped their interest in pursuing it any further and became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

All achievement starts with believing. If you think you can or can’t you are probably right. So if you don’t believe you are good at something (often simply because others are better initially) you likely won’t stay with it long enough to test your assumption. If you are like most people you simply move on to something else where you think you can shine.

Many people think the common misconception about talent or gifts are just as harmless as belief in the Tooth Fairy, but I disagree. There’s really no downside to believing the in the Tooth Fairy (and a pretty good upside-money under your pillow). Conversely, not believing in the Tooth Fairy won’t prevent your baby teeth from falling out. Believing in pre-ordained talent or gifts stops many people from ever trying to develop skills in a multitude of disciplines.

We will never know how many scientific discoveries, disease cures, great musicians and transformative athletes we have missed seeing and experiencing because people erroneously believed they lacked the talent for those endeavors. Imagine if Jonas Salk thought he had a gift for music rather than science. How many more people would have been afflicted with Polio before they found a cure? What if Michael Jordan felt his gift was for math and not basketball?

We rightly celebrate the achievements of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Simone Biles and all the other Olympic athletes. However, be careful not to diminish the hard work and dedication they put in, by saying how gifted or talented they are, as that would be an injustice to all of them. Rather, be thankful they dedicated themselves to the pursuits they chose to focus on, and developed enough skill to do the things they did on the world stage.

Most importantly, for those of you that have children, do not discourage your children if they do not have immediate success in the endeavors they enjoy. If they are as passionate about what they are doing as the Olympic athletes we just watched performing, they may end up on the world stage in their chosen field.


You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc


Comments are closed.