What Is Talent?
A definition to avoid the extremes of nature vs. nurture.
Posted Aug 08, 2018
Talent is an oft-used word, and when it’s evoked we often nod in agreement that we know what someone means. In many cases, it might be a synonym for “intelligence” or in other domains it might mean “athleticism.” You can get away without pinpointing a precise definition for talent unless you are a scientist who is trying to explain performance. Then you want to know what precisely differentiates a world-class athlete, chess grandmaster, or anyone else at the pinnacle of their field.
I recently heard an excellent definition of talent, however, by Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania:
“Talent—when I use the word, I mean it as the rate at which you get better with effort. The rate at which you get better at soccer is your soccer talent. The rate at which you get better at math is your math talent. You know, given that you are putting forth a certain amount of effort. And I absolutely believe—and not everyone does, but I think most people do—that there are differences in talent among us: that we are not all equally talented” (Duckworth, 2016).
What I like about this definition of talent is that it allows us to see improvement as a product of both innateness and effort. We may be improving at a slower rate, but we can still improve with effort.
This definition of talent also helps us persist. For example, if we are trying to improve in some domain and have high aspirations, we are continually reaching the edge of our current skills. Whenever we sense we are at this “edge,” and our performance is judged relative to others, we can interpret the relative feedback as evidence for a lack of talent or instead think of talent as being our rate of improvement. The latter interpretation helps us persist, while still allowing for talent differences. It is the classic tortoise and the hare story—others may be speeding rabbits in our domain, but given that we aspire to excel, we may plod along like the tortoise, eventually reaching our goals with deliberate effort.
This is the story of numerous experts in Anders Ericsson’s book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. In domain after domain, Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist at Florida State University, finds those who engaged in persistent practice eventually reach the pinnacle of their field.
For Ericsson, practice and effort are at center stage. As he summarizes, “In the long run it is the ones who practice more who prevail, not the ones who had some initial advantage in intelligence or some other talent." Ericsson, a preeminent figure in the study of expertise whose research gave rise to the idea of the "10,000 rule" (i.e., that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert)* is on the side that we are more equal than we assume. This can make for frustrating reading, as in almost every instance, Ericsson dismisses talent for any individual, even Einstein. He describes how neuroscientists found that Einstein had a “significantly larger than average inferior parietal lobule,” which is thought to play a role in mathematical thinking. In response, Ericsson asks:
“Could it be that people like Einstein are simply born with beefier-than-usual inferior parietal lobules and thus have some innate capacity to be good at mathematical thinking? You might think so, but the researchers who carried out the study on the size of that part of the brain in mathematicians and nonmathematicians found that the longer someone had worked as a mathematician, the more gray matter he or she had in the right inferior parietal lobule—which would suggest that the increased size was a product of extended mathematical thinking, not something the person was born with."
As the book continues, however, the extremism begins to moderate, and Ericsson begins to allow for aspects of innate differences to play a role, but only as a second-fiddle to practice. As he summarizes:
“I suspect that such genetic differences—if they exist—are most likely to manifest themselves through the necessary practice and efforts that go into developing a skill. Perhaps, for example, some children are born with a suite of genes that cause them to get more pleasure from drawing or from making music."
Ericsson’s firm position on the value of practice has been the result of working to pinpoint exactly the differences between elite performers and average performers, with explanations of innate differences being elusive in most domains. With the definition of talent offered by Duckworth, however, we don’t have to choose between innateness or effort—both are important—and, if Ericsson’s countless studies of elite experts are any indication, effort is more important than we often assume.
* For an excellent overview of why this is not a “rule” exactly, and the many caveats needed after its popularization by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, see Ericsson & Poole, 2016, pp. 109-114.
Duckworth, A. (2016, July 25). Angela Duckworth on grit. EconTalk [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.econtalk.org/angela-duckworth-on-grit/
Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.