Talent is overestimated

[ programming  learning  talent  ]


You have probably encountered some of the following sentences in your life:

  • “Amy has a gift for languages. She is speaking without any effort.”

  • “Tom is incredibly talented at painting. His brushstrokes are truly mesmerizing.”

  • “He’s a natural-born leader. His ability to inspire people and motivate others is exceptional.”

  • “Jane has a natural talent for singing. Her voice is captivating and effortless.”

These sentences emphasize the idea that talent is an inherent quality, suggesting that the person possesses a natural inclination or aptitude in a specific domain.

The belief that talent is an innate, fixed trait tends to be relatively common and widespread among people. This understanding suggests that individuals are born with specific abilities and that talent is a natural predisposition that cannot be significantly changed or improved upon.

I personally have a problem with that talent perception. Maybe it is not totally false but it is definitely harmful to how people perceive their learning opportunities.

Artificial category

The root of the problem is that a talent word is not clear. Its meaning is vague and can be interpreted very differently by people. The concept of talent can be a source of controversy, precisely because it is an artificial or socially constructed category, rather than a natural or objective one. The notion of talent is based on subjective judgments about what constitutes exceptional ability or potential, and these judgments may vary across cultures, societies, and historical periods. I can find at least five different interpretations for a talent word:

  1. Innate Ability: in that interpretation talent is viewed as an innate, inherent ability that certain people are born with. They believe that talent is a natural predisposition (for some people even predestination) or aptitude in a specific area, such as music, sports, or art. This perspective often implies that talent is fixed and unchangeable.

  2. Unique Combination of Abilities: some argue that talent is a combination of various abilities, such as intelligence, creativity, perseverance, and emotional intelligence. They believe that it is the unique blend of these attributes that leads to exceptional opportunities in a particular field.

  3. Passion and Motivation: Another perspective is that talent is closely tied to passion and motivation. People who are deeply interested and motivated in a specific area are often seen as having a natural talent for it. This perspective suggests that talent is nurtured through genuine enthusiasm and dedication.

  4. Cultural and Social Factors: Talent can also be viewed as a product of cultural and social factors. Some argue that talent is heavily influenced by opportunities, access to resources, quality education, and cultural support systems. They emphasize the role of the environment in nurturing talent.

  5. Skills and Expertise: talent is perceived as a result of developing exceptional skills and expertise through dedicated practice and effort. They believe that while individuals may have different starting points, talent emerges as a product of deliberate practice, experience, and learning.

Unfortunately, the idea of innate talent (#1) is quite common, including media portrayals of prodigies, societal narratives around exceptional talent, and the notion of “natural-born” geniuses in certain fields. This understanding can be deeply ingrained and influence how people perceive their own abilities and the abilities of others.

The purpose of any concept or category is to serve a practical function, whether it’s to explain phenomena, guide decision-making, or promote understanding. If a concept like talent is found to have negative implications, such as limiting individuals’ beliefs in their own potential or perpetuating inequalities, it may be necessary to reframe or replace it with alternative approaches that are more empowering and inclusive.

Personally, I think that talent is a combination of all the above interpretations except the first one. So talented people should have:

  • natural abilities (intelligence, personality, temperament) that would predispose them to develop skills in a given domain (#2 and #3)

  • social environment that gives an opportunity to learn and improve (#4)

These factors usually can direct a person to achieve expertise (#5) by working hard for a long time. However, the question is whether people without some of the above factors can still be successful in a given field. Probably yes, but they need much more effort and time in comparison to people who already have some personality traits and good circumstances in place. They need deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is a method of focused, purposeful, and systematic training that can help individuals develop their skills and expertise in a particular area. Anders Ericsson is the person that introduced that concept and carried out a lot of research in that field.

His research has shown that deliberate practice is a key factor in achieving high levels of skill and expertise in various domains, including music, sports, chess, and other areas. In fact, deliberate practice has been found to be a more important predictor of success than natural abilities alone.

Therefore, while some predisposition aspects can provide a helpful starting point, deliberate practice is essential for developing mastery in any skill or field. Through deliberate practice, individuals can identify their weaknesses, receive feedback, and work systematically to improve their performance and reach their full potential.

Here are some key assumptions or conditions associated with the deliberate practice:

  1. Clear Goals: Deliberate practice requires setting clear, specific, and challenging goals that define the desired outcome or skill to be developed. Having a clear direction helps focus efforts and provides a sense of progress.

  2. Feedback: Deliberate practice involves receiving regular and specific feedback on performance. Feedback helps identify areas for improvement, highlights strengths and weaknesses, and guides adjustments to the practice approach.

  3. Repetition and Intensity: Deliberate practice involves repeated and focused engagement with the specific skill or task. It requires sustained effort and intensity, pushing beyond one’s comfort zone to continuously challenge and stretch abilities.

  4. Purposeful Design: Deliberate practice is purposefully designed to target specific aspects or components of the skill being practiced. It involves breaking down complex tasks into manageable parts and systematically working on each component to improve overall performance.

  5. Effortful Engagement: Deliberate practice requires full and concentrated mental and physical engagement. It involves pushing oneself to the limits of current ability, maintaining concentration, and exerting effort to refine and improve performance.

  6. Adaptation and Iteration: Deliberate practice involves continuously adapting and adjusting the practice approach based on feedback and progress. It requires a willingness to reflect on weaknesses, experiments with different strategies, and make iterative improvements.

  7. Expert Guidance: Deliberate practice often benefits from expert guidance or coaching. Expert instructors can provide guidance, structure practice sessions effectively, and offer insights and strategies to help individuals improve more efficiently.

The following statements from Ericsson’s writings demonstrate the power of deliberate practice while downplaying the value of innate ability:

  • “We now understand that there is no such thing as a predetermined ability or talent. With the exception of a few basic physical limitations, most people can learn almost anything with the right kind of training and motivation.” (source)

  • “The most important point is that natural talent is not required for expert performance. Innate ability might determine how quickly a skill is learned initially, but deliberate practice is necessary for continued improvement.” (source)

  • “The idea that some people are born with a natural talent for a particular skill is a myth. What sets experts apart is not some mystical innate ability, but rather the amount and quality of their deliberate practice.” (source)

  • “Our research shows that deliberate practice is necessary for the development of expert performance, regardless of initial ability level. What sets experts apart is not their natural talent, but rather the quality and quantity of their deliberate practice.” (source)

Matt Syed in his inspirational book Bounce: The myth of talent and the power of practice highlights the importance of a growth mindset and purposeful practice but also emphasizes the role of environmental factors, such as access to quality coaching, resources, and opportunities, in nurturing talent and facilitating high achievement.

While deliberate practice is a powerful method for skill development, it does not guarantee that everyone can achieve expertise in a given domain. Deliberate practice is a demanding and challenging path that requires significant dedication, effort, and time commitment. So, there is no sports, music, or software gene. However, some natural abilities like great temperament, strong determination, and intelligence can make deliberate practice more straightforward and enjoyable.


The concept of talent can sometimes create the perception that certain abilities or domains are only accessible to a select few who are naturally gifted. This can be demotivating for individuals who believe they don’t possess those innate talents.

The children that are unable to “discover” their talents often become demotivated and suffer from low self-esteem. How talent is framed and discussed with children can have a profound impact on their mindset, motivation, and opportunities for growth. By promoting a growth-oriented perspective that emphasizes deliberate practice, effort, and inclusivity, we can support children in developing resilience, a love of learning, and the belief that they can achieve success in various domains through dedication and perseverance.

If you would like to dive deep into the topic I strongly recommend Anders Ericsson’s books and papers. Here you have also other articles that touch on this issue in a similar manner:

Written on May 23, 2023