What is Talent?

The word “talent” is not always used consistently in the English language. Often, it is used interchangeably with the word “skill” to denote a level of accomplishment, such as, “Michael is a talented translator.” However, most people will admit that it is something distinct from mere skill, which can be acquired.

“Talent” communicates something deeper than the result of practice – something is at least partly inherent in the subject. At the same time, it is impossible to discern talent in the absence of outcomes which include skill development. Nobody will recognize the talent of an artist who has not produced work of beauty by at least some comparative measure.

Even a child, who is working at a level much lower than an adult, can be called talented by comparing his outcomes relative to his peers. Hidden talent is indistinguishable from mediocrity. It’s not just “a gift” – something has to be produced.

With that in mind, I would like to define talent as a combination of potential and velocity that leads to excellence in a field or discipline.

Potential

Potential is very important, particularly in the realm of physical activities such as sport, but we should recognize that the differences between potentials in individuals might be minimal in some fields. In other words, talent raises the level of the final outcome, but not always by a large margin.

Looking at activities that utilize the body specifically, this potential difference can be quite obvious. No matter how much I may practice, no matter what drive I have, I won’t play in the NFL, even if I were to start over again at the age of 14 with that goal in mind. It’s not even like basketball, where my “diminutive” stature of 6 feet 1 inch would be a near-automatic elimination from competitive play. My body is simply not designed to play football at the level of a professional athlete.

By body, I mean not just my muscularity, or my bone structure, but also hand-eye coordination, cardiovascular capacity and efficiency, and the mental/neurological arrangement to engage in fast, brutal play.

Sports is such a great example of this difference of potential. Likely you have heard stories of (or experienced yourself) the star high school athlete who makes all-state, only to show up to practice and realize he’s the worst on the team. The big fish in the pond is suddenly a minnow in the ocean. That’s the real shock of talent.

I went to college and shared a class with a star athlete named Melvin Ely. He was an All-Star player and at 6’10” an incredibly dominant center who led his team to the NCAA tournament multiple times.

He went to the NBA and was too short to play center. He played power forward from the LA Clippers bench.

That’s an example of talent. The guy wasn’t sitting on the bench for lack of practice – the talent jump from the NCAA to the NBA was just that big.

There’s always a bigger fish.

It isn’t just limited to athletics, though athletics is one of the places with the most obvious and immutable differences in potential. A kid who dominates his chess club with ease can find himself losing quickly in a real chess tournament with the geniuses who excel at the game at the highest levels. It doesn’t mean he’s a lousy chess player. There can just be a huge jump between the 98th percentile and the 99th.

Velocity

In this context, velocity means the speed at which a person progresses through skill levels. A person who is highly talented in a given area will learn the requisite skills faster. Practice will be more effective. Outputs will gain more momentum.

In other words, it comes easier.

Being a teacher for, at this point, nearly two decades, I have seen large numbers of students that have confirmed the reality of talent as a form of skill velocity. Some students pick up a guitar and are blasting through the introductory material fast enough that a method book is almost a waste within a few weeks of study. Other students struggle to learn to play on three strings with six weeks of practice.

Likewise, when it comes to writing, some people are able to write competent stories as soon as they set themselves to trying, others need lots of iterations and practice before they can execute a story to their satisfaction.

You’ve probably heard stories about people who just seem to be “naturals.” A guy joins a dojo and is beating all the long-time students within a few weeks. A kid takes up boxing and is giving young amateurs a hard a time within a few weeks.

The combination and the pursuit of excellence

It’s important to note a few things here:

  1. Potential is often never reached.
  2. Velocity in skill gain is not linear nor is it constant.
  3. Talent is not automatic

There are many things that hold a person back from reaching his true potential. A person with high potential could burn out before hitting their peak. I’ve personally seen many musicians suffer this, especially in youth or young adulthood. The pressure becomes to great, or the practice regimen becomes too overwhelming, the grind too boring, and they quit. The only way we know their potential is by knowing where they were on the skill curve relative to others.

There may also be external factors that prevent someone from reaching his potential – such as personal problems like addiction or trouble with the law, or much more banal things, such as a distracting girlfriend or a general lack of focus.

There is also the possibility of the velocity itself halting progress. Sometimes a student that progresses quickly through skill sets has a crisis when he encounters a skill that is suddenly challenging. Having never had to do the same hard work as a “less talented” student, he falls off the train and pursues other interests. I’ve seen it happen. You don’t learn everything at the same rate or at the same ease. There are even people who never really get on the train to begin with because things are hard early on – who knows how many talented people are missing in action?

This really points to an important point – talent is not automatic. It’s not like having a superpower, where you can just do it. Nobody comes into this world knowing how to play guitar, or fence, or code, or do anything else, really. You learn through practice, and the reality is that no amount of natural “talent” will make up for a deficiency in practice, regardless of the skill set.

So this brings me back to my final point:

Talent is developed, not merely found.

This is why sports franchises call the lower leagues “development” leagues. The point is to develop the talent that isn’t ready for the big show, to maximize the players’ potential so that the very best can be identified and be brought into the highest level of competition.

What does this mean for you?

Well, there is simply no way for you to know what your potential is without hard work and persistence. The virtues from which success flows are indeed an important part of excellence.

Case Study: Mike Tyson

When people talk about the “Greatest Boxer of All Time” the name Mike Tyson is bound to come up. He’s not the fighter with the best record, or the longest winning streak, or the longest career. He’s a fighter that, when you watch him, especially in his prime, it is impossible to not be overwhelmed with a sense of extreme excellence. The speed and the power he brought to the sport are legendary. Even watching him explain simple motions as an instructor gives off a certain sense – this man is dangerous.

At the same time, you can make a good argument for the fact that Tyson never reached his true potential.

He had a terrible childhood. That childhood created the traits he needed to be great. It put him in a position where he, with his natural talent and body, could develop his skills with intense focus. Mike Tyson never lacked for practice with his craft. He learned quickly and achieved excellence at a young age. He was an Olympic gold medalist. He became heavyweight champion. And he did it while almost always being the smaller man in the ring.

At the same time, that childhood trauma crippled his character, and contributed to him engaging in criminal behavior, which sabotaged his career at its height. He was also unprepared for the realities of fame and fortune, and his character hadn’t developed at the same rate as his incredible skills.

He also, according to some (such as Teddy Atlus), was unable to overcome real challenges, as evidenced by some of his losses. When he went into the ring with men who were on the same level as him, he wasn’t the same dominant, dangerous fighter as he was in his youth, and he lost.

This is not to take anything away from Mike. He’s often mentioned as the greatest for good reason, but almost always with some modifier – “in his prime” etc. The reality is that the best of the best are there not because of a “gift,” but because they had trained the hardest, practiced with the most intensity, AND had high potential and skill velocity (a “knack” for it). Even then, you are probably only the best for a limited time.

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