The Myth of Natural Talent: Prodigies, Savants, and the Real Role Inborn Qualities Play in Elite Performance
Sam Snead was one of the greatest golf players of all time. His success was attributed to natural talent; people literally called him the best natural player ever.
Snead himself didn’t agree. In an interview with Golf Digest, he said, “People always said I had a natural swing. They thought I wasn’t a hard worker. But when I was young, I’d play and practice all day, then practice more at night by my car’s headlights. My hands bled. Nobody worked harder at golf than I did.”
Greatness isn’t born; it’s made. It’s the story of hard work, not talent. That’s what we concluded in the previous two articles. (Here and here.)
Anders Ericsson, a leading researcher in the science of expertise, sums it up in Peak, “Expert performers develop their extraordinary abilities through years and years of dedicated practice, improving step by step in a long, laborious process. There are no shortcuts.”
Fine, you might think. But still, aren’t there some people who don’t have to work as hard to become world-class? And aren’t there some people who are born without any talent for something, and they can try very hard, yet they’ll never get any good at it?
This belief in natural talent – the idea of “naturals” who possess a “gift” that makes them different from the rest of us – is one of the most enduring convictions about human nature. It’s also deeply flawed.
The truth is, innate abilities and traits play a much smaller role than you would assume.
The Myth of Natural Prodigies
One reason why people believe in the myth of natural talent is the apparent existence of “natural prodigies” – people who display extraordinary skills with little or no training. Think: Mozart, Picasso, Bobby Fischer, or Tiger Woods.
In Peak, Anders Ericsson dispels this myth: “As it happens, I have made it a hobby to investigate the stories of such prodigies, and I can report with confidence that I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.”
Consider Mozart, who was so accomplished at such a young age that there seems to be no way to explain it other than assuming he was born with a divine spark.
Upon closer inspection, however, Mozart’s spectacular abilities aren’t that inexplicable. For one thing, it’s not uncommon nowadays to have four-year-olds playing musical instruments with remarkable facility and better than most adults. Many of these “natural prodigies” start practice as early as age two. Mozart himself probably began his training before the age of four.
What about his compositions? Well, turns out his first serious compositions were written when he was fifteen or sixteen – after more than ten years of practice under his father. A father who was a famous music teacher at the time and pushed Wolfgang from a tender age.
So there goes Mozart’s legend of being a natural. As Anders Ericsson concludes, “…while there is no doubt that Mozart would become an extraordinary musician and composer, there is no evidence for – and plenty of evidence against – the claim that he was a prodigy whose accomplishments cannot be understood as the result of practice and must therefore be attributed to innate talent.”
The same can be said for other “prodigies.” While normal kids play in the sandbox, they are practicing. They tend to start incredibly early and have parents who push them into inhumane practice schedules. It’s not a story of talent, but of hard work.
The Myth of Savants
Another often-mentioned display of natural talent are so-called savants. These individuals tend to struggle to function in the world – some of them are autistic, most score low on IQ tests, and some can barely interact with other people.
Yet, almost as if to compensate, they were born with exceptional talents – or so goes the narrative.
Consider a child who has the ability to solve any jigsaw puzzle placed in front of him picture side down. Just by looking at the shapes of the pieces, he can put the puzzle together, and fast. Or take another savant, blind from birth, who supposedly played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 flawlessly from beginning to end, having heard it just once. Or the infamous Donny, an autistic savant who can provide the day of the week for any particular date within a second of hearing the date.
According to Anders Ericsson, none of this is magical or needs innate talent to be explained. Rather, he says, these are highly developed skills that are the result of thousands of hours of practice. (Sound familiar?)
In Peak, he concludes, “…studies of savants’ abilities indicate that these are primarily acquired skills, which in turn implies that the savants develop those abilities in ways that are very similar to how other experts do it. That is, they practice in a way that engages their brain’s adaptability, which in turn changes their brains in ways that lead to their extraordinary abilities.”
No magic. No miraculous, God-given talent. Savants have to work for their remarkable abilities, just like everyone else.
The Myth of the Talentless
What about the flip side of prodigies? People who seem to display zero talent in certain endeavors? People who whole-heartedly claim they can’t sing, can’t do math, or can’t dance?
In those cases, the reason these people can’t sing, do math, or dance isn’t due to a lack of talent, but rather due to a lack of proper practice, resulting from the very belief in their talentlessness.
Take singing, for example. According to Ericsson there is “no evidence that large numbers of people are born without the innate ability to sing. Indeed, there are some cultures, such as the Anang Ibibio of Nigeria, where everyone is expected to sing, everyone is taught to sing, and everyone can sing. In our culture, the reason that most nonsingers cannot sing is simply that they never practiced in a way that led them to develop the ability to sing.”
The same goes for math, Ericsson argues: “…a number of successful efforts have shown that pretty much any child can learn math if it is taught in the right way.”
If you’re bad at math, singing, dancing, reading, gymnastics, or sports in general, it’s because you were never taught to do it properly. Perhaps you gave up too quickly. Perhaps you were afraid of embarrassment and withheld effort. Whatever the reason, the seeming talentlessness of people comes down to a lack of practice. No magic involved.
The Real Role of Innate Characteristics
Don’t get me wrong, innate characteristics do exist. Some people are born with a more optimistic outlook than others. Some are naturally more caring than others. Some are happier, friendlier, more organized. Some are more at risk for aggressive behavior or drug addiction. We are predisposed to act in certain ways and are born with a set of characteristics that are given. There’s no doubt about that.
(That is not to say we are at the mercy of our genetic blueprint, either. Just because someone has a predisposition to alcoholism, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily become an alcoholic. Our environment rules just as much influence on the shaping of our lives as our genes. In fact, probably much more.)
The truth is, the role of innate characteristics in shaping extraordinary performance is misunderstood by most of us. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as a “music gene” or “sports gene” or “math gene.” There’s no such thing as being naturally talented at music, sports, or math. Rather, the role of innate characteristics comes down to two things:
- Innate characteristics make a difference in the early stages of skill development
- Innate characteristics influence how much and how well people practice (and practice is what ultimately makes the difference)
Let’s tackle both roles in more detail.
Innate Characteristics and their Role in Early Skill Development
Consider research exploring the role of IQ in chess ability, which found that children with higher IQs find it easier to learn the rules of the game and to develop strategies, giving them an early advantage in winning at chess. But this is just in the beginning. Over the long run, the most significant predictor of chess skill isn’t IQ, it’s how much children practice.
In fact, when the researchers compared the IQs of elite players they found that those with lower IQs were, on average, slightly more skilled than those with higher IQs. The reason, according to the researchers, is that elite players with lower IQs tended to practice more, which improved their chess game to the point they out-played the high-IQ elite players.
IQ, which is in large part hereditary, plays a role in how fast we pick up new skills. It helps us learn and remember the rules and come up with initial strategies. It may give us confidence. And so IQ makes a difference in the first hours of skill development. However, once you get into the realm of expert performance, into hundreds and thousands of hours of practice, the role of IQ becomes nearly inexistent. After a certain point, the only real difference in performance is practice.
Think back to the violin study we discussed in this article. The difference in skill corresponded perfectly with the amount of accumulated practice. The best violinists accumulated 7,410 hours of practice till age 18, the second group 5,301 hours, and the lowest skilled group 3,420 hours.
The point is: people with certain innate characteristics – IQ, in the case of the chess study – seem to have an advantage when first learning a skill. An advantage, however, that gets smaller over time, and eventually becomes negligible as the amount and quality of practice is increased.
Innate Characteristics and How They Shape Practice Behavior
There is another mechanism innate characteristics may play in the development of expert performance. Certain genetic differences may manifest themselves in an indirect way by influencing how much and how well someone practices.
Some children, for example, may be born with genetic predispositions that cause them to get more pleasure from playing sports or making music. They are then more likely to spend more time playing sports or making music. Their parents may put them in tennis or music classes, where they’ll practice more than other kids because they get more enjoyment from it. In this way, it would be easier for these children to engage in the thousands of hours of practice necessary to become an elite performer.
It’s also possible to imagine genetic differences in children’s ability to concentrate. A higher ability to concentrate for long periods of time would put such a kid at an advantage because the best types of practice (think deliberate practice) require high amounts of concentration.
The point is this: If genetic differences play a role in shaping expert performance, it’s not likely by affecting the skills directly, but rather by affecting the amount and quality of practice someone engages in. In the end, it’s the amount and quality of practice that makes the difference.
Truth hurts, and truth liberates.
Natural, innate talent is highly overrated – that’s the truth. Greatness is the story of practice, not hard work. As Anders Ericsson says, “The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment.”
It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? On the one hand, it rips you of your excuses. You can no longer blame your genetics. You can no longer attribute greatness to “natural talent” or “giftedness.”
On the other hand, you’re equipped with a powerful piece of information now. You know that skill is a matter of effort. You can get better at anything you want. You can master anything you previously thought impossible. If you want to improve your social skills, your golf game, your writing, your public speaking – you can.
Do with this information as you please, but keep in mind what Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
This was the third article in a series on expert performance and deliberate practice. Here’s a full overview of all articles in the series.
- Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule & What Really Separates the Best From the Rest – A deep-dive into Anders Ericsson science of expertise, which shows that practice, not talent is the difference between elite performers and everyone else.
- The Road to Greatness: 3 Steps from Child to Best in the World – Explores what the road to greatness really looks like. Turns out it’s more about luck, interest, motivation, and passion, rather than talent.
- The Myth of Natural Talent: Prodigies, Savants, and the Real Role Inborn Qualities Play in Elite Performance – Goes into the details behind why “natural talent” has very little to do with expert performance and explains the role inborn qualities play in the acquisition of elite-level skills.
- The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice – A complete guide on the science of deliberate practice, which is the #1 predictor of elite performance and the most effective practice method for developing skills rapidly.
- 14 Real World Examples of Deliberate Practice in Action – Gives fourteen examples of how people are using deliberate practice right now to improve their skills and get an unfair advantage over their peers.
- How to Use the Principles of Deliberate Practice to Succeed at Anything You Want – A complete roadmap to using the principles of deliberate practice in your life, so you can improve any skill you want.
- 10 Things Elite Athletes, Musicians, and Intellectuals Do Differently – A compilation of ten things research has found elite performers do differently than the rest of us. (Hint: deliberate practice is one of the things.)
Incredibly sad to see no comments. By the way, I have a question.
“Some children, for example, may be born with genetic predispositions that cause them to get more pleasure from playing sports or making music.”
Do you suggest that some kids may be born without this predisposition and have zero interests at all?
I wouldn’t say “zero interests at all.” It’s just that some individuals get more pleasure from certain things, and because of that, they will be more interested in pursuing those things. That being said, every kid will have interests/motivation in certain things.. the difference is in how strongly interested/motivated they are. And, of course, the person who is more strongly motivated will be at an advantage compared to the person who is less motivated. Hope that makes sense 🙂
I was asking one guy about the genetic predisposition to like one thing over another, and he says that it was found out by American geneticist named G. Bruce Hines.
He says that the study found out that identical twins were four times more likely to be both chess players, than non-twin brothers.
Is that true?
I just found out, there isn’t any geneticist that is named G. Bruce Hines.
If it is true, I sadly have to take a bit more of your time for another question.
My opinion is that, without a doubt, natural talent plays a huge role in our abilities. The vast majority of experienced, accomplished tutors accept outright that some students are inherently less capable than others.
The work of Anders Ericsson has been examined and found to be deeply flawed in terms of methodology. His research by no means refuted the existence or importance of innate talent.
My two cents….
Heya there, Daniel. That depends entirely on how “natural talent” is conceptualized. If we include a person’s natural / inborn curiosity, ability to concentrate, perseverance, and such attributes, then yes, natural talent plays a big role. In general, I would say that “natural talent” plays its biggest role in determining if an individual is able to do deliberate practice for extended periods of time. The thing that ultimately determines the level of expertise is deliberate practice. But whether someone is able to put in the required time of deliberate practice.. that depends on “natural talent,” if you will.
Hope that makes sense! 🙂
I have shown that even those who do very large amounts of deliberate practice may not become highly skilled. So it is natural intelligence, and various inherited qualities combined with deliberate practice.But never just the result of deliberate practice.
i deliberately practiced piano 3 hours every day for 11 years. At least 10,000 hours of practice, and I could barely touch on intermediate level works. Anything advanced was vastly outside of my ability level. any attempt to improve by taking advice from experts was futile. No matter what was tried or suggested, no improvement was possible. I would have spent over 500 hours on 1 very small sub skill, to gain virtually no improvement. Other students could surpass my level after 1 year of practice at 2 hours per day.
Talent is definately inborn. Of that I am absolutely certain….
Again, I’d say it depends on the definition of talent. Our innate characteristics certainly influence how much and how well we are able to practice. And the more and the better we are able to practice, the better we’ll get. For example, a person with a set of genes that makes them very good at concentrating and makes them very intrinsically motivated.. such a person is at a massive advantage compared with a person who lacks such genes. If we view their concentration and motivation as “talent,” then yes, talent is in part (not 100%) inborn.
All I will say, is an individual has certain abilities, and another person will have different and perhaps more impressive abilities. Practising of any kind definately does not equalize those abilities. There are things totally seperate from practise or effort which determine skill levels.
I would agree with sentences 1 and 3, but not necessarily with sentence 2. Practice can equalize certain abilities.
Practice can equalize certain abilities perhaps, but certainly not the ability to play a piano, as I have long since proven.
What do you mean you have “proven” it?
I have proven it, by applying deliberate practice over many years, to find that it does not result in particularly high skill. I have read the studies, which have refuted the idea deliberate practice allows a person to excell.
Based on my years of observation, pre existing aptitude is indispensable as far as accomplishing great skill. Even 50 years of deliberate practice at 12 hours per day will not make a lot of people become good. Meanwhile, a talented person can do it in 4 or 5 years at 2 hours per day. This is why only talented people are picked by sports teams or music conservatories.Because randomly selected people cannot be trained to requisite standard.
Again, this strongly depends on how “talent” and “deliberate practice” are defined. If someone is able to actually do proper deliberate practice, they will improve their skills.
I’m not sure we have the same understanding of it. For example, researchers studying deliberate practice will tell you that it’s not possible to do it for more than 3-5 hours a day. Yet you mention 12 hours a day in your example.
They will improve their skills up to the point of their inherited limitations by practicing deliberately. This could be a quite modest level of skill for most people. There is no type or amount of practice that would make the average person achieve some competitive level of skill.
So you basically agree talent does exist, which goes against what you say in the article? Clearly 2 different people cannot get to the same skill level via deliberate practice, and savants and prodigies do exist and not as a result of enormous practice. I have seen a 4 year old play music that takes ordinarily 20 or more years for an adult to learn with the best instructor. How can talent be a myth?
If you read the article carefully, you’ll see that I’m not claiming that talent doesn’t exist. I’m saying talent is misunderstood. By many, it’s overrated. Yes, talent plays a role, but it’s not in the way most of us believe. The role talent plays is mainly in how it helps individuals do more or less deliberate practice. It’s practice that makes talent meaningful.
Talent is not overrated.Have it and you can excell. Don’t have it and you cannot excell. It’s quite simple. Your not going to become good by striving or some special way of practice. You must be born with specific traits, and they are mostly not related to the ability to practice “deliberately”.
Its also quite harmfull for people to believe that anybody has a similar capacity for greatness, because they will waste a great deal of time pursuing something they have no prospects of doing well at. They might blame things on themselves when in reality, there is nothing they could do to change the result.
Believing that we all possess the same capacity for “greatness” in all areas of life is indeed problematic. Individual differences are real, of course. And I don’t dispute that in this article.
That doesn’t mean that becoming very skillful at something is a waste of time unless one achieves “greatness” or accolades.
Blaming oneself is also almost always problematic. If we do the best we can under the given circumstances, there is, of course, no point in blaming ourselves. That understanding would indeed help a lot of people. But that’s another topic entirely and not what this article is about.
Given that Talent is the most critical conponent of success, why is it considered overrated? Given that a person cannot perform highly without it, why is it overrated? Why is something so rare and advantageous overrated?
The whole premise of the article is wrong. People should stop trying to convince others Talent doesn’t matter, or that it’s not important, or that it could be learned. It’s inborn, and cannot be replicated through training.
Theres numerous completely false suppositions in the article.It specifically says that their is no such thing as untalented individuals. The evidence clearly shows a massive variation in potential between individuals.
It says savants and prodigies are a myth. The scientific studies clearly show they are a reality.
Sorry, but the whole article is non factual. But who’s to blame for buying into the false assertions of Anders Ericcson.