The danger of relying on natural talent

Piano and piano stool

The debate around nature v nurture has fascinated us since John Locke. We now know that nature and nurture are both important, and are in fact inextricably linked.

I have recently come to think that believing you are naturally talented at something may in fact be detrimental to your development.

These thoughts crystallised after I read this article by Jennifer Aldrich. It focuses on the role of natural talent on being a successful designer — but in reality it is applicable to anything.

I chatted with the head of the learning enrichment program at her school, and she mentioned that kids who have natural skill at music, art, or academics, are often told that they’re naturally talented so often that they stop pushing themselves to grow their skillsets. Then when they encountered people more skilled than they are as they get older, they get discouraged and they quit since their natural skills don’t measure up.

She mentioned that to combat this, it’s important to explain to kids, both kids with natural talent, and kids without, that natural talent is a fantastic thing to have, but that hard work by a person without it can often help them catch up or surpass the person with natural skills. I thought this was an incredibly powerful explanation of why people in general, not just kids, should focus on becoming life long learners.

This reminds me a lot of growing up playing the piano. I was told by a few people that I was a naturally gifted musician. Perhaps I was, because I remember finding it reasonably easy for the first few years.

Slowly, I reached a point where it wasn’t so effortless. I resented having to practice. I stopped enjoying it. I became worse. I lost motivation. And then I gave up. I haven’t really played a musical instrument properly for 14 years.

Since I found my own way in adulthood, I have discovered this. The things I have become good at have involved receiving a piece of good luck, then working hard to make the most of the opportunity. It’s no use having natural talent if I don’t work hard to build on it.

Some people worry about imposter syndrome, whereby you begin to fear you are not as good as you think you should be. But I have come to think of it as a useful check against complacency. It’s a reminder that you need to work hard to get good, then keep working hard to stay good.

If you believe you’re great, you’re on your way to becoming bad.

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