21 Jan There Is No Such Thing As Natural Talent
When I’m painting in the streets I get into a lot of conversations. Tourists, homeless people, police, OAPs, school children, business people and anyone else you can imagine will stop and chat. Shout out to the van drivers that yell at us too, and for the record – no, I’m not Banksy.
The most common thing I hear in these conversations is “you’re so talented”.
Now, checking my ego at the door, this is lovely, and I really appreciate the sentiment, especially when I’m putting myself out there in public like that. It’s almost always followed by “I can’t draw a stickman”, “I wish I was creative” or “I’m not naturally good at art”.
Ninety per cent of the time I’m too busy to get into it, plus I’ve started to realise that people think I’m weird for saying it, but every now and then I’ll reply: “you are good at art, you just haven’t practiced.”
I get instant push-back. They explain that their sister is the arty one, or describe some sort of paint related disaster they’ve experienced. When I first started painting graffiti in 2000, I sucked, for many years. Now it’s how I pay my mortgage. I’m an ‘average’ person, I wasn’t born with a special set of skills, I got a C at GCSE art and I dropped out of college. I got good, like, really good, because I practiced relentlessly. Is natural talent a myth? I didn’t used to think it was, but now I believe that you can get to a high level at anything you want, if you reallywant.
It’s not magic!
It’s romantic to think that some people are born with natural ability. That allows us to put the ‘special’ ones in a box and let ourselves off the hook. If we weren’t born with magic skills then there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.
There is no such thing as ‘naturally talented’ or ‘gifted’, there’s no magic, there’s no hack. To get good – there is only hard work.
I have never played an instrument in my life and I can’t read music. Yet, I know with absolute certainty, if I decided I wanted to be a high level concert violinist, I could be. All I would need is time and desire. Any person that has built a talent has managed to push through the crushing boredom of practice because they had the desire to become an expert. I will never be a professional violin player… because I don’t really want to be. To become an expert is really hard, harder than you’d imagine, and takes more than most are willing to give.
Practice makes perfect but not immediately; the 10,000 hour rule is a theory that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become truly great at anything. In his book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ Cal Newport notes that those who excel are also experts of practice. Practice is a skill in itself, where the subject is able to push to the limit of her skill set each practice. You often find that an expert in one discipline will pick another skill up with relative ease. We all know one annoying person that good at *everything*, maybe it’s because she’s well practiced at practicing.
I’ve seen some people online get really angry with anyone that dare challenge the talent fairy tale. They call in the Dream Team: Mozart and Michael Jordan.
“But what about Mozart?”
Mozart was not born a genius, he became one through hard work. His father was a composer, surrounding baby Wolfgang with music from day one. Mozart developed his passion, obsession and eventual mastery with extreme self-discipline, he know that practice was important, it was everything. Fuelled by jealousy of his older sister’s playing ability, he would practice difficult pieces over and over again until he conquered them. He had a desire that was far greater that most people that have ever lived and if you look into it, experts believe that it took ten years (or 87, 600 hours) of practice before he gained mastery.
Sports are where there’s an asterisk. Yes, I grant you that, without his genetics, Michael Jordan would most likely not be the icon he is today. Some people are born with amazing eyesight and excel at baseball, others with incredible fast twitch muscle fibres and become a top performer in athletics. If you’re born with physical advantages it can help immensely in the steep learning curve of becoming an athlete.
However, let’s look at Anthony ‘Spud’ Webb is 5’7”, he played in the NBA for 13 years and holds the record for the shortest player ever to win a dunk competition.
Those that don’t have the natural gifts can still excel if they work to develop skills so staggering that they can’t be ignored. In these cases, saying that it takes hard work would be an understatement.
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
What if I’m wrong?
Is natural talent a real thing? Let’s say that I’m wrong and some people are born with a magical gift. Whatever the field, you will find people that showed no natural talent but reached great heights due to passion, desire, hard work and self-discipline. If I’m wrong about the magic, I’m not wrong about the hard work. Are you going to use the fact that you weren’t born talented, with a ‘gift’, as an excuse to not do the work?