Why There Is No Such Thing As Talent (the 10,000 hour rule)

Steve Vai - there is no such thing as talent 10000 hours

Talent is a funny old word. Everyone thinks they know what it means but at the same time almost all of us use it as a lazy way of describing ones skill level. It’s easy to look at someone who is at the top of their profession and immediately attribute their success to some form of superpower that we mere mortals were born without.

We also use it as a way of an excuse when we struggle to do something. “Oh I can’t play guitar, I have no musical talent”.

It’s the ultimate get out clause.

I would guess that every single person reading this right now has something that they can do better than anyone they know. It could be something impressive like being able to speak several languages or play a musical instrument. It could also be something really trivial like being able to recite the alphabet backwards (guilty). Regardless of what it is, this feat will seem impressive to some people, especially if they have a strong desire to one day emulate this ability for themselves.

Not the alphabet thing though. Only an idiot would want to do that…

The point is that to a lot of people being able to do something that requires a high skill level will seem like magic and wizardry. The simple reason being is that they don’t get to see behind the scenes and what it took to achieve this ability. That is the key here.

The 10,000 hour rule

You may have heard about the 10,000 hour rule before. If you haven’t I’ll give you a quick summary. Basically there is a theory that all experts in their particular field have put in at least 10,000 hours of meaningful dedicated practice to get where they are.  A book was written by Malcolm Gladwell on this very subject titled ‘outliers’, and while the theory is controversial, I definitely believe the findings were not only spot on but were logical and displayed a lot of common sense.

As written about in the book, Gladwell focuses on one of Dr K. Anders Ericsson’s key studies on violinists at Berlin’s Academy of Music. Most of the students had begun playing at around five years of age, all putting in similar practice times, but by age eight, the practice times began to differentiate, some practising more than others. By the time these musicians reached the age of 20, the elite performers totalled 10,000 hours of practice each, while the merely good students had totalled 8,000 hours, and the lesser-able performers had just over 4,000 hours of practice.

Also a similar pattern was discovered in professional and amateur pianists. By the age of twenty, amateurs had put in 2,000 hours of practice, whereas professionals had done considerably more; reaching 10,000 hours, in fact Gladwell states, “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise.”

So does talent exist at all?

Yes and no. If we are talking about sports then you could say that it is impossible to be a 100m runner if you aren’t born with the right proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres. This is obvious and some people call this talent but I just call this good genetics. The myth of talent creeps up when we use it to describe skills that humans weren’t meant to have. We were never meant to play the guitar or to juggle chainsaws, thus we simply do not have a natural innate ability to do these things. Purely cognitive skills such as these are made, not from genetics, but from countless hours of focused practice and repetition.

There is no us and them

So what does this say about these people that are at the world class level in their chosen career? How are they different from the rest of us? It is their refusal to accept anything but second best. The desire to succeed and to improve themselves keeps them going hour after hour, day after day, and at the point when most of us choose to give up and go down the pub, they are still putting in those hours.

It really doesn’t matter what the subject is, nobody is born world class. Everyone is the same; we are all normal human beings with the same opportunity for greatness, but it is how we choose to spend our days that will determine if our potential will ever be achieved.

Are you a struggling actor who dreams of being the next De Niro? That’s great but what have you done today to help realise that dream? How many hours have you practised your craft? How many auditions have you been to? Are you looking for excuses or are you looking for ways to improve?

Without dedication you have nothing

This is what it boils down to. How much do you really want it? Mastering your art isn’t something that is done part time when there is nothing to watch on the TV, it is something that you need to embrace day in day out regardless of how you are feeling. You need to become the person you wish to be.

If you aren’t practising with dedication and consistency then you will struggle to improve. There really isn’t any special hidden insider knowledge to any of this. You think that those students who achieve a distinction in their degree are any cleverer than you? No of course they aren’t, it’s because they put more hours into their studies than you did. They put more effort into it and in doing so, they reaped the rewards. You get out what you put in and there are no shortcuts.

  • Are you out of shape? It’s because you aren’t dedicated to your diet and training
  • Are you stuck in a dead end job? It’s because you aren’t trying hard enough to leave
  • Is your relationship faltering? It’s because you aren’t putting everything into it
  • Are your grades slipping? It’s because you aren’t studying enough

This really can be used in any area of your life. If something isn’t up to scratch then you simply aren’t putting in the required time and effort into improving it. With the above 4 examples, the people who don’t worry about these things are the people who work on them every day and strive to maintain their standards.

You point of this article was to hammer home that nothing comes easy. Everything that is worth doing is hard and that is the beauty of it. That is where the satisfaction comes from and if everything was easy, well how boring would life be? Whether you are striving for a career in sports or simply looking to earn a higher income. If you aren’t working on yourself every day then how can you ever hope to improve? It just won’t happen.

Don’t be lazy.

Don’t moan.

Just put the effort in.

Leave the excuses behind and give yourself a huge kick up the ass and whatever it is that you want to be better at, start doing it more often. There is no such thing as talent, it’s all about hard work, work toward those 10,000 hours.

So ask yourself this.

What did I do today?

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About Jamie

Jamie is a guitar teacher and writer who hates the typical 9-5 existence. After quitting his job to enter the world of guitar tuition, he created this blog to document his thoughts and struggles as he takes on societies norms armed with nothing more than his cheeky wit and undeniable charm - Give his Facebook page a like, add him on Twitter or follow his Google+ page and he will repay you with even more awesome words!

Comments

  1. Well that was very timely for me. A friend and I were just talking about Caldwell’s theory of the 10,000 hours. It was because I am labelling myself Personal Transition Specialist and I decided Personal Transition Coach. I have put my time in. It was a great article and I do appreciate the fact that you say it like it is. Great site.

  2. Hey Jamie, well said. I think talent, this intoxicating word just feeds the ego, however people don’t want to hear that. I denouncing what talent is; you realize how small we all truly are. Society doesn’t want to hear that. So Sad. Great post.

  3. Absolutely agree: there is no such thing as talent.
    Particuarly important: you made the distinction between skills that humans were not “meant” (more accurately, evolved) to have, versus having good physical characteristics, which genetics and evolution DO determine.

    Nevertheless, far too many of those who make the no-talent-exist argument then go off into libertarian ideology, making the false conclusion that people still have control over whether they will become great at some particular activity. That’s BS.

    Hard work and environment are the 2 factors that determine success.
    The universe is a big place: why wouldn’t it be the biggest factor?
    We’ve already eliminated the other factor – talent – over which we have no control. Why wouldn’t we eliminate environment?

    People are successful mostly (99%) because they are lucky enough to grow up with the environment, technology, physical comforts that allow them to succeed. The remaining 1% is that 10,000 hours of hard work.
    By technology, I include biological evolution (each organism is a piece of technology). How could a world class violinist play a violin if there was no wood to make violins?

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