Natural talent versus hard work

I could have been an All Black. I would have been one of those zippy fullbacks, but I missed out because I never actually played rugby.

I also never liked maths, so I continue to not be a world champion accountant.

A psychologist called Anders Ericsson once posed a theory that challenges conventional wisdom about natural talent. If you want to build a champion all you have to do is to make someone do 10,000 hours, or ten years, of practice.

This applies to any field – sports, arts, business. Experts are regularly shown to have served at least ten years of dedicated training before achieving world class status. A really good book on this is Bounce: How Champions are Made by Matthew Syed.

If the 10,000 hours theory has weight then the implications are both encouraging (the world truly is your oyster) and dispiriting (you’re still ten years away from excellence).

I was reminded of all this recently when reading Andre Agassi’s incredible 2010 memoir Open. Not a book I’d normally pick up, but I highly recommend it as a page turner.

Open Andre Agassi

Open begins with Agassi’s confession that he has always hated tennis. Reading further, you learn that his father used to stand him in front of a pimped up tennis ball machine every day. Largely out of terror, Agassi hit hundreds of thousands more balls than most kids, which laid the foundation for his future excellence.

Is it that simple? If you practice really hard for ten years will you automatically make it to the top?

The concept seems reductionist and counter intuitive. Other factors must surely contribute to a person’s success. Circumstance, opportunity, upbringing and plain dumb luck spring to mind.

There’s also the mysterious X factor, the thing we call natural talent, whatever that may be.

I have an ongoing debate with myself about whether or not talent is something we are born with. It’s something I find myself thinking about whenever I see my five year old exercising his artistic genius, which is pretty much every day now. I’d love to take credit for his ability but I suspect it’s all him.

The X Factor NZ is prime time’s current search for who has the most talent. Or, in television terms, who has the most fans. (This week Cassie Henderson didn’t.)

I’ve fond of scorning X Factor-type shows for the way they manufacture instant limelight. It’s television first, talent quest second. But those who make it to the final episodes deserve their moment. They’ve been working on their craft long before the first audition.

I spent many years (and probably most of my parents’ income) learning to play the piano. I’m totally at home on a piano but I find myself bristling ever so slightly when people tell me I’m talented. This is not false modesty, it’s a reaction against the suggestion that I have some kind of innate advantage over them. As though it’s easy. The reality is that I’ve spent thousands of hours playing the piano and they haven’t.

And that’s okay. They’ve no doubt spent more time than I have becoming a master builder or a computer programmer.

Everything that looks effortless has a long history of hard work behind it. All the natural talent in the world will get you nowhere without practice.

If you want to be a writer then you must write, write, write! If you want to be a musician then you must play, play, play! If you want to be a lawyer then you must charge, charge, charge! And so on.

I prefer the word ‘skill’ to ‘talent’. Any skill can be acquired, but it takes work. When skill crosses over into talent? Well, I guess that’s the X factor.

(For a blatant skite, I show off my piano skills here.)


First published in Bay of Plenty Times 12 July 2013. Reproduced with permission.