In the month that has seen the world’s best footballers parade their skills on the global stage, a dramatic Wimbledon final between two of the greatest tennis players in history and the world’s best cyclists thunder through the streets of Yorkshire it is interesting to reflect upon the nature of talent.
We often talk about the natural gifts and talents that top performing people have. The innate ability of someone like Messi, Federer or Mozart. Usain Bolt, as we all know, was born to run; Tom Jones born with the voice of the valleys and Gary Kasparov has chess strategy running through his DNA.
There is something other worldly about watching performers at the highest level. Take the goal which Robin Van Persie scored against Spain, which was seen as the work of a magician.
What about demi-god Jess Ennis in London 2012. The ability to sustain a world class performance in seven events over two days. Was there ever such a natural athlete? This runs into other fields too, of course.
Top corporations spend huge sums in recruiting and retaining the most talented executives. In the business world talent counts, it could be what gives a company its competitive edge over rivals. In schools we talk of natural teachers; those who innately know what makes children tick.
We also talk about those who squander their talents.
Elite performance is therefore the preserve of the naturally gifted: talent (along with lots of effort of course) counts. Or does it? There is an alternative school of thought that has emerged over the last decade or so that questions what we think. Talent it is argued is a myth. These ideas are perhaps best articulated in the work of Malcolm Gladwell and Matthew Syed. In his book ‘Bounce’ Syed, a former England number one ranked ping-pong player, makes a compelling case as to the factors necessary for the production of a champion.
His arguments are very much in the nurture (a product of surroundings) than the nature (product of biology) camp. His own success which he originally put down to ‘speed, guile, gutsiness, mental strength, adaptability, agility, and reflexes’ he now sees as the outcome of fortune, circumstance, the right coaching and lots of purposeful practise.
He argues that he had advantages not available to hundreds of thousands of other youngsters.
“What is certain is that if a big enough group of youngsters had been given a table at eight, had a brilliant older brother to practise with, had been trained by one of the top coaches in the country, had joined the only twenty-four hour club in the county, and had practised for thousands of hours by their early teens, I would not have been number one in England.”
Syed’s book echoes Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ in which the author takes us on an interesting biographical tour of Bill Gates, The Beatles and others in order to examine the circumstances of their exceptional successes. There is, it is argued a 10,000 hour rule.
That’s a rule of thumb for the amount of hours of purposeful practise that are needed in order to achieve excellence in any field. By the time The Beatles had their first success in 1964 they had ‘performed live an estimated twelve hundred times’ mainly because they had spent so much time in Hamburg playing up to eight hours a night, seven days a week. A hard day’s night indeed.
Gladwell unearths many similar stories which help to explain success – natural talent is a minor part of the picture.
These arguments are more important than we may at first think. If talent and giftedness are not innate then that opens up the possibilities that far more of us have the potential to achieve success in a variety of fields.
We can be confident that hard work and lots of good practise can pay off if we can create the conditions that allow more youngsters the opportunity to achieve success.
We are not born singers, athletes, chief executives, teachers, surgeons, world class footballers, but we all have the potential to be. It is the need to broaden and raise our aspirations even further that is the main lesson to be drawn from these interesting books.
Both Gladwell and Syed do recognise that there is some innate talent at play, some genetic advantages that some people have which gives them an edge, such as height and leaping ability. What they suggest, however, is that their importance and significance have in the past been much overplayed and that is significant for the way in which we think about talent.