Does Talent Exist? Yes, But It’s Not What You Think.

“I have no talent in music,” people say, “I could never pick up the guitar and play. That’s SO beyond me.”

But is it?

The question of talent – of giftedness – is a loaded one. When we think of talent, we think of a fairy Godmother that waves her magic wand in a puff of glitter and *POW!* The lucky recipient is **TALENTED!!** The young artist can now paint in the impressionist style. They can play the jazz flute with zeal. They can write an award-winning novel. All without training.

The truth of talent is complicated. Talent is not just one thing. It’s a perfect storm – a cocktail, if you will – of genetics, environment, cognitive abilities, values, and disposition.

Researchers have considered this for decades. It’s well wedged within the nature vs. nurture debate. What makes someone artistically exceptional? What makes them come back to the easel day after day? What factors make them an innovator of bluegrass music?

Children at Home: The Future of Talent

According to the 2013 book by Scott Barry Kaufman titled “The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent or Practice”, Many great writers, artists, musicians, and innovators come from home environments that share distinct characteristics. They are raised in homes that offer intellectual, cultural, and aesthetic stimulation. They grow up surrounded by books, magazines, art prints, music recordings. Their parents took them on trips to faraway places, to museums, galleries, and concerts. Even if dysfunction plagues the household – divorce, alcoholism, abuse – the households were nonetheless founded on a bedrock of culture.

Before you draw the conclusion that talent is environmentally sculpted, think again. Researchers aren’t sure. After all, why do some parents create these rich home environments and others don’t?

Parents of successful creatives all ranked highest in the personality factor “openness to experience”. They are imaginative, curious, and open-minded (as opposed to being literal, closed-minded, and unwilling to try new things.) In other words, they’re intelligent. Their homes reflect their genetic personalities.

Born with an Innate Drive 

There is no doubt that environment plays a role in the successful realization of talent. After all, a child could be born with musical talent, but if his parents yell at him to shut up, if they never buy any instruments, and if they tell him that music is for “sissies”, than this child is less likely to realize his musical talent.

But not always. Jimi Hendrix, arguably the best guitar player in rock and roll history, grew up in an abusive, uncultured environment. His dad yelled at him to shut up when he sang. His parents were against purchasing a guitar. Nothing stopped young Jimi. His innate drive was so strong that he built his first guitar out of a garbage heap. His innate drive was stronger than his unsupportive environment.

A Child’s Nature Influences How He Is Nurtured.

Just as a parent’s chosen home environment is likely to reflect their genotype, so does the genetic cocktail of the child. Children are not passive recipients of events. They act upon their world, asking their parents for video games, music lessons, certain books and magazines, and to join sports teams. An otherwise non-musical parent might be surprised to find that her child shows promise as a pianist. A parent who has never had interest in sports might find herself bemused to sit in the bleachers as her child scores touchdown after touchdown.

Many parents of exceptionally skilled children report that their child showed intense interest from an early age. The child loved to snowboard. He was an excellent drummer at age three. She’s always loved to dance and perform. The supportive parent follows the will of the child, facilitating lessons, practice times, purchasing equipment, and driving to meets and functions.

The Route to Achievement: Focus, Practice, and Experience

According to studies, superior performance is acquired through experience and practice. Researcher J.R. Hayes (1993) maintains that 10 years of musical experience is necessary to compose an outstanding piece of music. In his study, musicians who began at ages younger than six did not write their first excellent composition until around age 16. Those who started between 6 and 9 wrote their first excellent piece around age 22.
It comes as no surprise: many years go by between an artist’s first work, and her best work.  You cannot become successful or accomplished without regular improvement, practice, and focus.

According to a 1993 study published in the Psychological Review,

“many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.”

Genetic giftedness does exist. You just have to open the gift, and keep playing with it.

Talented People Get Better Faster

As artists, writers, and musicians paint, type, and strum away, there will be years of difference between skill levels. Why? Because some are more genetically gifted than others.

A Japanese study sought to educate twenty four school children perfect musical pitch – the ability to name a musical note by hearing it  – a skill that many assume “cannot be taught”. By the end of the study, all twenty four children appeared to have perfect pitch, but there was a huge variation in the amount of time it took each child. Some kids had perfect pitch by the second year. For others, it took eight.

This shows us that while we can all work hard to become aerospace engineers, some of us might be more proficient than others. Some of us learn certain things faster than others. This is where the perfect cocktail of talent steps in. The genetics, environment, and disposition of a child can speed up the learning process and slow it down in others.

Practice isn’t Enough. Neither is talent.

Michelangelo, the Italian sculptor, painter, and architect had unparalleled influence on the development of Western art. In one sentence, he spells out the recipe to creative excellence:

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”