Don’t believe in talent

There was a moment
during their 2003 interview when journalist Martin Bashir asked the late
Michael Jackson to explain the source of his musical abilities. Without
hesitation, Jackson replied that it all “just comes”. It was clear Jackson
believed that his ability to sing and dance so well were awarded at birth, a
magical gift written upon his DNA. By Jackson’s telling, he only had to pick up
a microphone, slip on that sequined glove, and the hits followed.

Most people probably
would agree with Jackson’s assessment because it fits with one of the most
popular human mythologies of all. Conventional wisdom has long said that those
who do a thing extraordinarily well are gifted, born with innate talents that
enabled or destined them to be great. Today, however, science is telling a very
different story indeed.

It is no longer
sensible to assume that some people are naturally smarter at birth and others
less so. Nor is it defensible to hold the belief that some people are born to
be great at particular sports while others are born to be great chemists or
violin players. This may be the popular view of how the world works, but it is
wrong. We now understand that human potential and achievement can be hindered
or supported by a long list of factors, many of them difficult to detect in
every day life. So no one can say who has greatness within at birth and who
does not. Maybe we all do. The sooner we rid ourselves of this flawed view of
human potential and limits, the better off our world can be.

Fortunately, science
has made big strides in recent years toward correcting flawed beliefs about the
origins of what we call “talent” and “genius”. It is now clear, for example,
that genes are nothing like the rigid blueprints that determine the upper
limits of one’s ability as was commonly believed in the last century. It turns
out that genes are less like prisons of destiny and more like a vast collection
of “possibilities” or “switches”, to be turned on or off by the environment.
And “environment” means a lot more than the weather. One’s “environment” begins
in the womb, well before birth. It then extends to how one is loved and
nurtured, how well one eats, how many words one hears in their home during
infancy and early childhood, how much and what kind of physical activity one
engages in, and many more factors throughout life.

What about Tiger Woods,
Michael Jordan, Mozart, and other great ones? The mythology attached to their
bios always includes the suggestion that they were born geniuses. Were they?

The real story behind
the success of great achievers comes into focus once we burn away the fog of
talent belief that obscures the facts. While no one has ever managed to show us
a “golf greatness gene”, a “basketball star gene”, or a “piano maestro gene”,
it has been shown repeatedly that the great ones all have one thing in common:
they work harder than everyone else. Tiger Woods logged more hours on the green
before he reached middle school than most golfers do in a lifetime. He was
encouraged/pushed by a father and he practiced obsessively. If you want to know
how Tiger became so good, forget his DNA and study his childhood.

I saw Michael Jordan
play during his prime and he was entrancing, a stunning image of athletic
greatness. But he wasn’t always a star. He was no child prodigy and was even
cut from his high school basketball team. Countless hours of practice, however,
turned him into a good player and eventually a great player. People who don’t
know Jordan talk about his innate genius and his “gifts”. Those who knew him
during his NBA career, however, talk about his laser focus, determination, and
work ethic. Numerous teammates, coaches, opponents, and friends describe Jordan
as the hardest working player in the NBA.

Some 250 years ago
Amadeus Mozart publicly bragged about practicing at his piano more than anyone
else who ever lived. Today, however, everyone seems to only think of him as a
robot that was programmed at conception to compose and play “Piano Sonata in
B-flat”. Gifted? Innate talent? If so, then why did he have to work so hard? It
may surprise those who believe in the Mozart myth of inborn greatness to learn
that his father was a highly accomplished musician who specifically set out to
make his child into a great composer. Virtually from birth, little Mozart was
on the job every day with daddy right behind him. Much is made about his
abilities as a child, but what is missed is that the young Mozart had already
put in enough hours of work to match or surpass most adult musicians. The
evidence strongly suggests that Mozart was made, not born.

Let’s revisit late
pop star Michael Jackson. How can anyone, including Jackson, be so naïve to
credit inherited genetic talent for his singing and dancing abilities? Jackson
himself described a tyrannical father who was determined to make his children
into a successful music group by any means necessary. From the age of four or
five, Michael was forced to practice singing and dancing at the expense of
childhood play and under threat of physical violence. It was those thousands of
hours of practice demanded by a bullying father that dragged Michael Jackson to
greatness. There is nothing to suggest that he was pushed there by genes.

Far too much human
potential has been discouraged and squandered over the centuries at the altar
of hollow beliefs about talent and genius. Genes matter, of course, but they
are not the destiny written in stone so many imagine them to be. It is the
world, the opportunities we are given, the choices we make, and the work we
commit to that determine who becomes great and who does not.

Guy is the author of
“Race and Reality” and
“50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God”.
Contact him at [email protected]

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