the dirty secret truth about talent — and how to grow it

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A writing teacher told me that although it’s easy for her to recognize the students with “talent”, she’s learned that it’s impossible to predict who will develop and succeed as a writer and who will not (the “talented ones”, she said, “tend to disappear and you never hear from them again”).

She told me how she’s witnessed students have “major breakthroughs” and, after years of struggle, suddenly start “writing at a publishable level” – students she never would have thought “had it in them to do that”.  Because of that, she says, she would never, ever tell someone that they lack talent, that their dreams are a waste of time.

She said,  You just can’t predict these things.

Which might make someone question how we define ‘talent’ in the first place.

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According to writers like Carol Dweck, Daniel Coyne, and George Leonard, you maybe can predict who is likely to achieve and who won’t, but it has less to do with obvious ‘talent’ and everything to do with concepts like

mindset and deep (or deliberate) practice and something in the brain called myelin.

Carol Dweck talks about the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset”:

The fixed mindset believes that your levels of intelligence and talent are carved in stone.  They are fixed, unchanging quantities.
From an article in Forbes:

We either have a talent for something or we don’t. You have artistic ability or not; you have language skills or not; you are a great natural leader or not. There is nothing in between, nor is there the possibility for serious personal development and growth. Why put a lot of effort into learning something you’ll never be able to master anyway? Time and energy are better spent further honing your existing skills.

The dangers in thinking and behaving this way are as varied as they are predictable. It means success is all about showing how smart or talented you are. It’s all about validating yourself.

….On the other end of the spectrum is the growth mindset. If you have a full-on growth mindset, anything and everything is possible. If there is something you have an interest in yet don’t know how to do, you do whatever it takes to learn it. By stretching your comfort zone, you are able to continually develop yourself and define your own levels of success. With this mindset, even failure and criticism become opportunities to learn and grow.

People with a fixed mindset stay away from challenges, for fear of being exposed as not very talented or not very smart.  It’s all about taking the course that nets you the easy A.  You need to prove yourself over and over again.  You’re either somebody or you’re nobody; there’s nothing in between, and there’s no movement from one to the other.   Because people with a fixed mindset are so invested in protecting their ego, in being a ‘somebody’ or being ‘special’, it’s difficult for them to take charge of their own learning process.  If they don’t do well on a test, they blame the stupid teacher who never liked them anyway.  If their manuscript is rejected, they blame the stupid agent or the know-nothing editor or the soulless marketplace.

People with a growth mindset don’t think like this.  If they don’t do well on a test, it’s not the end of the world; they simply change their approach to studying.  If their manuscript is rejected, it’s not the end of the world; they simply send it out again, or revise it, or junk it and start something new, with the understanding that the more they write, collect feedback, and revise, the closer they move toward their goals.  It’s not a question of not being good enough…just of not being good enough yet.

Most of us are not fully one mindset or the other; we tend to be fixed in some areas and growth-oriented in others.  Carol Dweck trots out a number of real-life examples of CEOS and athletes who are fixed-mindset (Lee Iacocca, John McEnroe) and growth-mindset (Jack Welch, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods).

What quickly becomes apparent is the different approach the two mindsets take toward the idea of  practice.  If you have a fixed mindset, practice is irrelevant.  You shouldn’t have to work hard at anything; you either have ‘it’ or you don’t, and ‘it’ should come easily.  ‘It’ marks you out as different, special, better than the rest.

People with growth-mindset are all about the practice.  Athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are known not just for their performance but for their discipline, their love of practice, being the first one to arrive and the last one to leave.

And it turns out that practice is the key to becoming truly excellent at anything.  Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “ten thousand hours” rule – to become expert at something requires ten thousand hours, or about ten years, of practice – but turns out that’s only part of the story.

What truly accelerates your learning is something called deliberate practice or deep practice: committed, challenging, goal-oriented practice that pushes you to the edges of your ability and forces you to stumble, make mistakes, learn from them, go slowly, slowly, slowly.

Deep practice isn’t about breezing through a task…it’s about struggling.

In THE TALENT CODE Coyne lays out the reasons why.

See, there’s this thing called myelin.  As explained by Wisegeek:

Nerves are like an electrical wire. Current (the message) must be conducted along a path (the nerve) to successfully get from point A to point B (the brain to a fingertip). The electrical current must travel without being corrupted, scrambled, diverted from the proper path, or leaking energy….myelin is like the layer of plastic insulation surrounding an interior wire, which is the nerve….myelin speeds the conduction, so it’s also analogous to a secondary coating on the wire that reduces the resistance facing an electrical current. The interior wire represents the series of axons and nerve cells that relay the electrical impulse.

When you struggle, you’re forced to go slow, to pay deep attention to what you’re doing.  This causes your brain to literally alter its circuitry; myelin

responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed.  The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become….

It’s universal; everyone can grow it.  It’s indiscriminate: its growth enables all manner of skills, mental and physical…” (from THE TALENT CODE, Daniel Coyne).

Myelin is the ultimate mental bandwidth.

Coyne points out that you can’t feel myelin growing.  But every time you struggle with a new skill, every time you push yourself,  you’re firing the right signals through the right neural channels.  Myelin adds itself to your neural circuitry…until one day the skill comes so “naturally” that it looks and seems effortless.  You are “talented”. But that “breakthrough” you experienced didn’t come out of nowhere.  It’s not a gift from the gods.  It’s akin to hammering a geode over and over, seeing no results, thinking you’re not getting anywhere….until you hammer it one more time and the geode breaks open and reveals the treasure of crystals inside.

In his book MASTERY:The Keys to Success & Long-Term Fulfillment, George Leonard talks about the importance of “learning to love the plateau.”  Learning, he points out, is not a steady climb from one skill to another.  It happens in spurts.  You breakthrough…then you plateau, and for a while you don’t seem to be getting anywhere…until you breakthrough again, and then you plateau, and for a while you don’t seem to be getting anywhere…until you breakthrough to a still higher level of ability and achievement.

Those breakthroughs seem like magic.  They can stun the people around you, who look at you and wonder, Where did that come from? I never would have predicted that she’d turn out so talented…

But talent isn’t just about what you can do well in that particular moment; it also seems wrapped up with drive, curiosity, and the urge to mastersomething, to “bleed for it”, to be so in love with the process that you’re willing to struggle and fail, struggle and fail, until one day you struggle – and succeed.  (And then start struggling again.)

Common wisdom has it that we’re passionate about the things we’re naturally good it, but it’s possible that it’s the other way around: we become “naturally” good at the things we’re truly passionate – and obsessive – about.

What ignites this kind of motivation is another question entirely.

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Mar 17, 2010
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39 comments · Add Yours

Thanks for this post. I’m glad you wrote it so that it applies to more than writing. I rad about the 10,000 hour idea, but not about the myelin sheath one which I think gives a really good visual idea for what happens (even if the science is a bit romanticized). Keep ‘em coming.

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This is all too deep for me. I rather crawl in my shell and write.

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Really brilliant stuff!

Thankyou

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I’ve seen this in action, both in my own life (visual arts), and in the fiction I’ve read.

In both two-dimensional and three-dimensional art I had a very, very tough time understanding how to make things look volumetric and/or 3-dimensional (how to paint or draw so that the objects seemed to be round rather than flat; in sculpture, how to make things that were round and dimensional, rather than simply carving flat “drawings” onto a stone). I struggled with both of these, and in both areas there was a definite “click”: I went from an inability to create volume/3-dimensionality, to suddenly knowing how and being able to do it. It really was quite stunning to bang my head against the wall for so long and then all of a sudden, it’s there. I could do it.

Fiction: One of my favorite fiction writers is James Ellroy. I’d read American Tabloid, and the series that L.A. Confidential was a part of, and loved the writing, the pace, the voice. I then picked up one of his first novels and it was so lacking. I couldn’t get past the first page or two. From the first sentence it was just not “good writing.” I don’t know if it’s true or not, but my impression was that: oh, OK, the publishing company wanted to make some more money off of his name, so they went back and published the sub-par writing he did before he learned to write so well. It was remarkable how stilted and off the writing was in the old stuff compared to his successful later work.

So I do think there is that moment where it all clicks.

It’s nice to read something about the phenomenon.

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The fixed v. growth mindset is, I believe, addressed from a childhood development standpoint in a chapter of Nurture Shock, which I’ve had on my list forever.

From the book: “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’”

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Great post. I’ve never felt that I was particularly talented at anything. But, with perseverance, I’ve managed to achieve my goals, however impossible they seemed initially. Here’s hoping it will be the same with fiction writing.

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Yes, and that’s also a result of how kids are raised. If kids are praised for their effort, “oh you tried so hard at that, well done,” they’ll learn to learn, to put value on the effort they put in. If they’re told “oh you’re so clever,” they learn to become results-driven, to focus on how “clever” they can be, and look to impress rather than to learn.

I grew up afraid to make mistakes and afraid to look incompetent. It has been greatly freeing to realise that mistakes are the process of learning, not me being “wrong.” I hope that I am able to reverse the mindset I was brought up in, but it is a long road!

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I’m struggling out from under a fixed mindset. Because I’m ‘smart’ and ‘naturally talented’ at many things (schoolwork, of course), it should translate to everything, right? This is why I struggle with revision, as I’ve said. I’ll complete a draft of a novel and not know what to do because it should be good and done. I never learned how to fix things because I’ve never *had* to fix things. Not that I chose courses with easy A’s; I like having to work for my grade. Gave me something to do, right? But there was still that mentality of getting it right the first time.

So now that I recognize it doesn’t work like that, I’m unequipped to do anything about it. I flail. :/

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J-
Can’t help but wonder if I know the teacher you are reffering to- that being said I fear that I could be one of the ones who has passion and breakthroughs but may never actually accomplish completing a publishable project…Actually- f#ck that.

Determination and time have to be in my corner. The other option is just too depressing, that my love and struggles with writing are just a gilrs hobby.

Wish me luck. Thanks for the post and adding a spark of learning motivation to my subconscious.

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“It’s akin to hammering a geode over and over, seeing no results, thinking you’re not getting anywhere….until you hammer it one more time and the geode breaks open and reveals the treasure of crystals inside.”

I dang near cried after I read that! I’ve been struggling with this very issue lately. Your article was just what I needed right now. You’ve helped so many by posting it.

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that works too :)

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great examples, thanks…interesting about ellroy (and reminder to self to finally go read him, which I haven’t, although LA Confidential one of the best movies ever and I’ve wanted to read Black Dahlia for ages…)

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My son has that tendency — he’s five and it’s very important to him that he’s good, the best at things, so when he isn’t he stops trying. I’m really stressing hard work and practice, how it’s the tough things that make you really good at something…and already I’ve seen a bit of a change in his attitude. He’s not there yet, but he’s starting to look at things a little differently…

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I always had deep, genuine passion and driving curiosity for the things I was good at (writing, reading, etc.) so being told how smart I was didn’t hurt me there…but it did hurt me in the subjects that did not come naturally (math, science) where I just basically shrugged my shoulders and thought, My talent is in that and not in this, so why bother with this? Somehow the fact that I was tuning out in class and not bothering to do my homework didn’t really register as consequential to my performance. (My ADD didn’t help either, but I *did* have the ability to hyperfocus when I got truly interested in something.)

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That perseverance and work ethic and humility will, in the long run, serve you a lot better and get you a lot further than ‘natural talent’ will get others, who inevitably hit that point where hard work is required of them if they want to progress (or compete), but they’re not quite prepared for that.

good piece here applying the above to fiction writing: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/01/opinion/01brooks.html?_r=1

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Been there. I didn’t go for the easy A’s either — if it wasn’t interesting to me, I just couldn’t do it — but I collected praise for my writing from a very young age and as a result I had trouble grasping the whole ‘revision’ concept when it was introduced to me in my mid to late teens.

Repeat after me: the first draft is about getting it *down*, which is difficult enough in itself!!! Revision is for getting it *right*.

Do you have a writing mentor, someone you can go to for feedback, constructive criticism? That is a crucial step in your development as a writer and will accelerate your progress bigtime.

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F#ck that over and over. Don’t be crazy, woman. You’re one of the most motivated writers I’ve ever seen. Breakthroughs aren’t luck or chance — you just have to bleed for it, which you are definitely doing, and find a high-quality kick-ass teacher/mentor, which you already have…You’re doing everything right.

Motivation is an interesting question in and of itself — Coyne talks about that — about what he calls the “ignition” moment, when something inside a person gets triggered so that he or she is willing to struggle and bleed for something…Something got triggered in you bigtime, I’d love to know if you know exactly what and when it was….

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God, thank you so much. That means so much and gives me a big warm fuzzy. :)

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Oh — and re: the writing teacher in question — I’ve actually heard several writing teachers say more or less the same thing (and I’ve had this discussion more than once because it fascinates me) so in truth I actually could have been referring to a small number of people…

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I’m in the middle camp- ability+effort=success. I can say with certainty, after years of practice, that I am not ‘meant’ to be a pianist. But writing, I can do that. I could write touching stories before I made the decision to ‘be’ a writer. But I can’t write a novel and make it special enough to get published (the odds are a teensy bit depressing, aren’t they?) without putting in the time.

I always learn something/think hard reading your blog. Thanks! -Kelly

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A really interesting post. I do wonder, though, if there isn’t some confusion between the concepts of talent and skill. Or perhaps one could argue that skill is acquired talent. Talent seems akin to genotype, whereas skill is akin to phenotype, i.e. nature vs nurture. Either can produce good results to a degree, but nurturing a superior genotype has a stronger likelihood of producing a superior phenotype.

In any case, I concur that those who make the most progress and succeed (at anything) are the ones that don’t take their ability for granted, but rather cultivate their abilities with committed effort and rigorous practice.

Thanks for the time in putting this article together.

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I’ve thought about that too — talent and skill — and I think there’s a point where the two blend together to such an extent that you can’t really tell one from the other — Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player who ever lived, yet he was cut from his high school JV, so whatever talent he had clearly wasn’t manifesting itself then. Yet can you say that the guy is ‘only’ skilled? Obviously there are outliers, who have the great talent without having to put in the same kind of struggle as other people, but I think they are few and far between (John McEnroe type talents).

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Just to add — Coyne addresses the nature vs nurture question in his book, and on its own it doesn’t seem enough to explain why some people become truly great and surprise the hell out of those around them who knew them when they were ‘ordinary’. The nature/nurture thing probably explains a lot more about why people become *motivated* (or not) to pursue greatness in the first place. Deep practice is *hard*. To do it day in, day out, with the kind of fervent intensity required to become a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods — that, I think, is the real talent, and not a lot of people are capable of it, or willing to make the sacrifices necessary to adhere to it for at least a decade and most likely longer.

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I think that time is the greatest challenge for adults- at least I know it is for me. When I was young and driven I had little responsibilty beyond myself or school work. I had time and was expected to practice, dancing, tennis, volleyball, writing and homework- and always made time for practice beyond the prescribed.

As an adult the reality of managing a life, family, and desire can dull an artistic ache because I ask myslef where will I get the energy to do it? Or is some of my quieter time better suited to connecting with my husband?

I think practice, a great teacher and determination are required. I don’t think you can teach determination. I’m not sure it can be learned, I think it can be mimicked- but if it does not come from within then I don’t think it will have the stamina to last. And I believe that in order to be great at something on the level of a Tiger, that something is sacraficed- that thing is up to the individual- but you can’t maintain such great focus and intensity without injuring the things that come second.

Love this post- love the comments- rock on

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The movie that best visualizes what you’re talking about (and one I’ve used as an example over and over) is The Matrix.

It’s the frustration/fun barrier.

Neo starts out by falling off a building, smashing into the pavement and getting his ass kicked.

Every now and then he demonstrates some kind of ability — but no more than the rest of the people around him. He knows he’s not good enough, and he’s frustrated.

Right at the end — he breaks through. Suddenly he can see how everything works, how all the pieces come together.

I think the thing that separates the great from the also-rans is the willingness to chisel at the gigantic block of ice for months on end, showing very little progress, until the entire ice shelf falls off into the ocean.

I have no idea what makes people want to do that though. It’s borderline obsessive behavior… some people want to do it, some people don’t.

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Thanks for sharing these ideas – and linking to related information! I find that writing in particular falls into the can/can’t category. The truth is, whether you seem to have talent or not, writing is hard work!

I’m interested to learn about myelin, and I’m going to definitely read more. In my professional life, I always look for new challenges and things to learn. That struggle phase is fascinating to me. I also love sports and often try something new just to push my brain and body through the “this feels so unnatural” phase to see where it leads. I feel like this is what life is all about: reaching in new directions and learning all I can.

Your writing is always interesting. Thanks for sharing!

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Great post. Talent is all fine and well, but it can’t make up for discipline and passion. That’s one of the great things about writing – you don’t have to be brilliant from the get-go. It’s most definitely a learnable skill.

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Nice! I’ve been thinking about deliberate practice quite a bit recently, and been figuring out how I can apply this to my art.

I think there are a couple things to it. The first is that deliberate practice is hard to keep up unless I’m doing something I love to do.

Second, I find I have to have a little faith in the process, and a belief that it will work, and I will see results over time.

Good stuff.

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Thank you for writing this. I took a psych class last year and a philosophy class this year, and this article really solidified my guesses. It is a very comforting post.

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Another great post! You know, many people pay a lot of money to get information like this. Thanks again for sharing!

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Thanks. Unfortunately, not really. I have someone who I respect who encourages me, but I haven’t found someone I can show the work to yet.

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Really interesting post – I’m all about the practice, practice, practice. Crossing my fingers, hoping that it pays off one day!

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Agreed: I fail more than succeed. because I try more.

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This is one of the most thought out and thoroughly researched articles about growing talent, I’ve ever came across. Keep up the good work.
Randy

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Deacon! Nice seeing you hanging out over here. Thanks for turning me on to “Talent is Overrated.” It stays on my bedside table, I’ve read it through once, going back through it a second time.

I concur: I need a little faith in the process too.

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As I mentioned to Deacon, I have Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated” at hand pretty much all the time. Between that and Mastery (which is floating around my apartment somewhere), I have to say, my thinking on talent, skill and ability have been completely overturned.

The key is understanding that it’s not hard work alone, it’s the kind of hard work that’s important. That’s something I’ve missed in the past. Fixing that right now. It’s life changing.

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Thanks for sharing this site.

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It is very usefully for me.

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