Talent? (Or How We Get Good At What We Want To Do)

“I have no musical talent.”

“You don’t want to hear me sing!”

“My sister has all the talent in our family.”

As a music teacher, I hear these kinds of statements often. The speaker is resigned to the fact that they are not musical. The assumption is, that you either have talent, or you don’t.

It can be convenient to view musical ability this way. However, as someone who has spent a lifetime in the field, I know it is more complex. How do we get good at what we want to do?

Author Anders Ericsson, in his book Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise, describes his research on this subject. His work demonstrates that natural talent is overrated and that, without hard work, no one is great at anything. Ericsson states “with the right kind of training any individual will be able to acquire abilities that were thought to be attainable only if you had the right kind of genetic talent”.

We’ve heard of Mozart’s astonishing abilities as a child: his perfect pitch, writing a symphony at age eight. These stories lead us to believe that he arrived in the world as a fully formed musician. Less known is that Mozart’s father began to teach him music very early with the intentions of making him famous.

Recently, a group of elite violin students, in their early twenties, were asked to estimate the number of hours they had practiced. The average practice time for these students was 10,000 hours. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, seized upon this number of 10,000 hours, as the amount of practice time it takes to become great at something.

Not everyone will have that much time in their calendar. For most people, being good would be enough. Is your sister really the only one with talent? In the next installment, I’d like to explore some specific things we can do, to become better at what we want to do.


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