Contemplating Natural Talent

While catching up on some reading in my RSS aggregator, I discovered a post that Tom Johnson wrote about Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers.” About an hour later, while looking at Seth Godin’s blog feed, I discovered he’d responded to Gladwell’s book back in December.

Reading both of them, and having a strong reaction to both, prompted me to pull “Outliers” out of the middle of my to-read stack and read it. In arguing that natural talent isn’t much more than a myth, Gladwell states that:

  * Your success is greatly determined by where and when you were born.
  * Superstardom is achieved with 10,000 hours of hard work.
  * Where you were born + when you were born + working 10,000 hours (or more) > (is greater than) natural talent.

I know people with natural talent at something who’ve never gone anywhere with it because they lacked ambition and possessed an aversion to (or fear of) hard work. I know people who created extraordinary lives for themselves with their talent. There’s little doubt in my mind that work and experience can help you hone and harness natural talent. But it can’t replace it. Maybe I’ve hung around too many musicians and artists, but I believe there’s an intangible “something” that natural talent brings to the equation that simply cannot be matched by learned skill.

Talent exists at a cellular level. It affects how you experience the world with your five senses. Natural talent frames, from the start, how you see the world and all that’s in it. It frames how you process information for your own understanding, how you interpret what you see, how you transform what you know into something that the world—or some part thereof—can subsequently use. Natural talent overrides many of the objections to pursuing an activity that someone not similarly talented would have to beginning the pursuit. Someone with talent for neurosurgery has no reservations about the years of education, training, expense, and sacrifice that are required to become a surgeon. Someone who is capable of learning to be a surgeon—but who lacks a natural talent for it—would be overwhelmed by the work and not interested in pursuing it.

To say that something can be achieved with hours upon hours upon hours upon hours of hard work, and not so much by natural talent, is an oversimplification of a complex human process that is driven by intelligence, creativity, emotion, psychology, desire, and so on. A person born with a gift for language and communication, even with 10,000 hours of work, will not be nearly as effective in a career in biostatistics as they would be in a career that calls upon their talents. Using his logic, I could have been a successful computer programmer except that I would have been miserable at a personal level, because I would have been doing something that ran counter to the gifts I was born with. I didn’t enjoy my programming courses. I worked hard for the grades I got and felt out of my element. Sure, I could have stuck with it, overcome initial challenges, and made a living at it.

But I didn’t want to.

Which brings me back to my earlier point—that natural talent drives desire, fuels passion, feeds energy, defines goals, maps a course. It makes Gladwell’s 10,000 hours look manageable, not insurmountable. It makes challenges look like welcome creative opportunities. It makes Gladwell’s 10,000 hours look like a darn fine way to spend a life.

To deny the importance—even the existence—of natural talent is to devalue the singular contributions made by the people through whom ideas and visions and theories came. It is to say that anyone could have done what Albert Einstein did, that anyone could have seen the world in the same way that he did—he simply got there first.

What Gladwell’s book should offer all of us is another opportunity for self-reflection, the kind that Tom Johnson openly engaged in on his blog. An opportunity to recount and document our individual journeys, the crossroads we’ve navigated, the decisions that we regret or revel in. A “how did I get here from there” analysis can make us more comfortable with and accepting of who we are, where we are, the decisions we’ve made, the value we offer, and where we are headed. If it doesn’t lead to greater self-acceptance, it should lead to greater self-awareness. Such analysis can dispel any victim myths we may have been telling ourselves (and, likely, others), where we’ve been too passive, where we’ve clearly been “working in flow” (read: on our path), and what things make our hearts sing or sink. It can illustrate for us whether we need a course correction.

This lifeline/timeline analysis is one that every career and life coach makes you do when you go to them to “sort things out.” In Tom’s case, his analysis proved to be a validation that he is where he wants to be and, maybe, is “supposed” to be. For others, the analysis may lead to an entirely different conclusion about their own lives. In either case, the folks doing this analysis become more conscious of what they’re doing, thereby kicking themselves off auto-pilot. Extending the analysis to look at the activities and decisions of people we respect and admire—without comparing ourselves to them—and being aware of our reactions to them is almost as telling as self-reflection. Does watching a former colleague turn being laid off into a launching pad for their own business or career change stir up envy, or old dreams and goals of your own? Or does it help you reaffirm why you’re content—consciously content—with where you are and what you’re doing?

Like Seth Godin, I may not always agree with Gladwell but I can always count on him to provoke thought, to make me, if not change my beliefs and opinions, reaffirm to myself why I formed them in the first place.


  1. Janet Swisher

    Think about how long it actually takes to put in 10,000 hours at some pursuit: At 40 hours a week, it takes 5 years. Most people who have been doing something full-time for 5 years aren’t superstars, or even masters. They’re competent practitioners.

    So, talent and luck are also necessary.

  2. Melanie

    10,000 hours, 5 years. That’s not much.

    Makes you wonder if Gladwell really considered those numbers when he wrote his book. It takes time to establish credibility as a pro or an expert — in many fields (but not all), credibility comes with longevity. For the superstar status, the kind that leads to a recognizable brand and large bank balance, can that really be achieved in 5 years?

  3. Art

    The best way to understand Gladwell is to think about his thesis in reference to practicing an instrument. If you have practiced an instrument you’ll know that there is a difference between everyday practice and meaningful practice. The same applies for workforce. 40 hours a week for 5 years does not account for much if it’s not meaningful practice. Many of us simply do our jobs and go home. We are there for the pay check, not for the learning experience. The beetles put in meaningful practice. Bill Gates put in meaningful practice. This is on account of their desire to do so. Potsus is correct in that desire makes a difference.