The Consoling Myth of The Natural

by F.

Seed has a little article on talent and its relative contribution to outstanding achievement. Is talent just a matter of practice (or mostly a matter of practice)?

Two obvious rebuttals to the argument that talent is just a matter of learning by doing are Mozart and Tiger Woods. Mozart famously began composing symphonies as an eight-year-old, and Woods was the world’s best golfer at 21. But do they really contradict the “learning by doing” principle?

Not so much. Mozart began playing at two, and if he averaged 35 hours of practice a week— his father was known as a stern taskmaster—he would, by the age of eight, have accumulated Ericsson’s golden number of 10,000 hours of practice. In addition, Mozart’s early symphonies are not nearly as accomplished as his later works. John Hayes of Carnegie Mellon has shown that modern symphony orchestras almost never perform or record Mozart’s childhood compositions, and argues that Mozart’s early works would have long ago been forgotten, were it not for his mature masterpieces. In other words, Mozart’s genius wasn’t innate or instantaneous—he learned how to write immortal symphonies by writing lots of mediocre ones.

Chalking outstanding performance up to “natural talent” may be a means of preserving our psychological equilibrium. Human beings have a documented tendency to preserve their mental health by (a) taking credit when things go well and (b) blaming an outside force (God’s will, the enemy, the weather) when they don’t. Blaming poor achievement on a “lack of talent” may be an instance of (b). After all, it’s hard work being Tiger Woods, and when you can’t put in those 10,000 hours, you need an excuse.

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