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Talent Is Underrated

Talent matters for creativity and the development of expertise.

Key points

  • Most bestselling books on success and greatness focus on the idea that talent is overrated.
  • We need a much more honest and nuanced discussion about the role of talent in life outcomes.
  • There are many ways in which creativity and performance involves more than practice.
  • Talent matters, and downplaying talent downplays individual potential.
Adam Weiss / Getty Images
Source: Adam Weiss / Getty Images

That’s right, I said talent is underrated.

It seems like most bestselling books on success and greatness focus on the idea that talent is overrated, that anyone who puts in a particular amount of practice and dedication can reach the same heights of greatness. These books downplay the role of genes and play up the importance of luck, opportunity, and the drive to reach high levels of expertise. These books make greatness accessible to everyone: If you just put in the work, you can be the best in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly agree that luck matters a lot. I’ve written about that here. I also think sustained practice (done the right way) matters a lot. But I think we need a much more honest and nuanced discussion about the role of talent in life outcomes. Because I also think that talent matters a lot (at least how I define it).

What is Talent, Anyway?

Let’s dispel immediately with the notion of “innate talent.” No one is born being able play a beautiful cello sonata or solving a complex math proof. Virtually every complex human skill and invention is developed over time. However, I still think we can still save the concept of talent.

I view talent as any package of personal characteristics that accelerate the acquisition of expertise or enhance performance given a certain amount of expertise (see this paper by Dean Keith Simonton for evidence supporting this view).

Note that our entire suite of personal characteristics—including our motivation to practice in the first place—is a complex mix of nature and nurture. What are some of these personal characteristics? People differ from one another in a multitude of ways. In addition to the motivation to engage with a particular domain of knowledge, there are cognitive abilities such as working memory, verbal fluency, fluid reasoning, and visual-spatial processing. Then there are other traits such as imagination, creativity, emotional intelligence, rationality, bodily-kinetic, musical, artistic, and practical life skills.

There's more. Research has shown that creative people tend to have a greater inclination toward nonconformity, unconventionality, independence, openness to experience, ego strength, risk taking, and even mild forms of psychopathology. These effects are not trivial (for instance, openness to experience is robustly predictive of creativity), and can't just be explained away by deliberate practice.

Of course, each creative domain will feature its own "X-Factor" of abilities and traits that are most essential for creativity in that domain. Scientific achievement seems to be associated with a higher IQ than artistic creative achievement, for instance. Nevertheless, there do appear to be some traits that are conductive to creativity across domains.

Then there are a host of traits that influence whether there will be cumulative effort over time, such as optimism, passion, inspiration, curiosity, goal commitment, need for achievement, self-efficacy, a growth orientation toward learning, self-regulation, self-discipline, self-control, conscientiousness, and grit.

Importantly, for all of these traits genes are relevant. Many writers on this topic dramatically pit deliberate practice against "innate talent". But this is a false dichotomy (I’ve already dispelled the notion of innate talent). Modern behavioral genetics has discovered that virtually every single psychological trait-- including the inclination and willingness to practice-- is influenced by innate genetic endowment.

This doesn't mean that genes determine our behavior. It just means that genes are relevant influences on our behavior, including our creative behaviors. Assuming that all of the individual differences that contribute to creativity have some genetic influence, Simonton estimated that somewhere between a quarter and a third of the differences in performance can be attributed to genetic factors. But it's also important to emphasize that this doesn't mean that environmental opportunities and luck are unimportant-- they are immensely important.

Nevertheless, viewed in this way, there is something very personal about talent. To downplay talent as unimportant, in my view, is to downplay a person’s individual potential. I mean, where do you think the motivation to master a domain comes from, anyway? It’s obviously not just environmental (although role models in our environment can certainly inspire us). We all differ in terms of what catches our attention and, more importantly, what we do with that attention.

The Formula for Expertise

In a paper I co-authored with the psychologist Angela Duckworth (author of Grit), we included the following formula:

Expertise (distance) = Talent (rate of learning) x Effort (time on task)*

The astute reader will notice that this formula takes a similar form to Newton's "Distance equals speed times time" formula. There are a bunch of implications of this formula, and I suggest you read this paper for the finer details. One implication is that achievement in the long-run depends more on effort than talent (you can see the math proof for this here.)

This could lead you to conclude -- "See, talent is overrated!" Well, not so fast. In this formula, expertise acquisition is a multiplicative (not additive) function of talent and effort. If your talent is very low, or close to zero, then zero times zero is… well… zero.

To me, the fact that talent matters is a good thing. We don't have to be scared of this. There is nothing here that says that talent is immutable or fixed at birth. I believe we can change our talent for things by changing our level of traits that are relevant to acquiring knowledge in a particular domain.

There is Much More to Creativity than Deliberate Practice

Many of you may have heard of the "10-Year Rule”, popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success. According to Gladwell, it takes ten years in any domain to get really good at something. Just practice for ten years, and you’ll get there.

Gladwell in fact misrepresents the science in that book. The argument is based on the research of the late psychologist K. Anders Ericsson (who was a personal friend of mine as well as a sparring partner). Ericsson himself set out later in his life to set the record straight about what his findings actually said but he couldn’t compete with Gladwell’s bestselling book.

Here’s the thing: Some people clearly get more bang for the buck out of a given training regimen. You can see this clearly with prodigies who master a domain before the age of ten! Clearly, the 10-year rule is not a rule. While Ericsson didn't present the variability statistics in his original paper on deliberate practice amongst musicians, other psychologists have done such an analysis.

When the great psychologist Dean Keith Simonton looked at his sample of 120 classical composers, he found that on average, nearly a decade of compositional practice was important before the first major works appeared, the standard deviation was almost as large, with the range exceeding three decades. Many composers took less than ten years, and even more took longer than ten years. Critically, the most lauded creators were those who took the least time compared to the average to acquire the necessary expertise.

This study suggests that fast rate of learning matters, but I do believe that we can discover and cultivate our talents at any point throughout our lives. Creativity doesn't have an expiration date. Creativity seems to happen when it's ready to happen. Sometimes, that’s late in life and sometimes that’s early in life.

At any rate, this counters the idea that creativity is only about deliberate practice. Expertise acquisition appears to be the least interesting aspect of creativity, as creators tend to be in a hurry to learn what exists so that they can go beyond what exists.


I hope I have convinced you that talent (as I've defined it) matters for expert development and that creators are not mere experts. Creativity does draw on a deep knowledge base, and deliberate practice can certainly contribute to many aspects of creativity. But ultimately, creativity involves much more than just deliberate practice— often bringing to the world a unique configuration of personal characteristics that help a person master a body of knowledge/skills and go past it.

Creators are not necessarily the most efficient, but their messy minds and messy processes often allow them to see things others have never seen, and to create new paths that future generations will deliberately practice. I believe that an accurate understanding of talent— even just acknowledging that it’s a real thing— is important for how we recognize, nurture, value, and ultimately, reward all different kind of minds across all sectors of society.

Note: Sections of this article were adapted from this piece I wrote in 2016 in Scientific American.

* This formula was first put forward by Angela Duckworth, Johannes Eichstaedt and Lyle Unger in their excellent paper "The Mechanics of Human Achievement".

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