19
March

Howard Tayler on Talent

8 Comments

If you don’t know who Howard Talyer is, go look him up, then come back here.

I had the plea­sure of hearing Mr. Tayler speak at Lunacon this past weekend, where he was the artist guest of honor. His speech cov­ered a broad range of topics, but it had the same kind of res­o­nance that the Dalai Lama’s speeches always seem to have; the man’s not saying any­thing that you didn’t already know, but somehow hearing him say it sud­denly has you slap­ping your forehead.

The point of Tayler’s speech was really simple and incred­ibly applic­able to artists of all stripes, including writers like me. Mr. Tayler had done some poking around and found that a great deal of study had gone into trying to see what resulted in exper­tise and achieve­ment in var­ious dis­ci­plines (visual arts, music com­po­si­tion, sports, writing, etc …) and the one thing he didn’t find? Sci­en­tific evi­dence of this thing we call “talent.”

What he did find was a ton of sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant data that sup­ported the idea that focused practice/training could result in exper­tise. “I won’t say that there’s no such thing as talent,” he said, “but I will say that it’s irrelevant.”

This res­onates with me. Folks talk a lot about talent and “being a nat­ural” (and I don’t mean phys­ical advan­tages here. Taller people are just going to be better at bas­ket­ball and I’m pretty sure they tested Lance Arm­strong and dis­cov­ered the man had three lungs. My point is that in those dis­ci­plines not depen­dent on con­crete phys­ical dif­fer­ences in our bodies (like writing), we des­per­ately want to believe that there’s a magic … gene or some­thing that we’re born with. We’re tal­ented. We’ve got it in our bones.

I don’t like this idea for two rea­sons. Both involve avoiding work. The person con­vinced they are a talent at some­thing has less incen­tive to engage in the metic­u­lous, tedious and down­right painful focused training nec­es­sary over LONG periods of time (it took me roughly 15 years) to get to the point where their work can com­pete in the pro­fes­sional mar­ket­place (I don’t need to prac­tice hard or step out­side my com­fort zone! I’m a nat­ural). They are far more likely to dis­miss crit­i­cism (those people just don’t under­stand my talent).

On the other hand, those who are con­vinced that they are not tal­ented are just as dis­in­cen­tivized from hard work. If you’re not tal­ented, why bother to prac­tice or struggle to improve? You’ll never be as good as those who were just born with the ability.

Both points of view are tempting, because they appeal to our most nat­ural ten­dency as humans, lazi­ness. People are nat­u­rally inclined to take the easy path, to avoid hard work, and a belief in talent absolutely plays to this tendency.

And that’s the rub: because I firmly believe (and the research Tayler cited sup­ports) that the only way you can achieve pro­fes­sional level skill in every dis­ci­pline is to PRACTICE, work hard, par­tic­u­larly in those areas that you are weak at, that lie out­side your com­fort zone. Fur­ther, I believe that this period of prac­tice and improve­ment takes a REALLY long time (we’re talking a decade or more) and that it never stops, even once you achieve a level of exper­tise the public gen­er­ally per­ceives as “pro­fes­sional grade.”

I’m going to get in touch with Tayler to see if I can’t get some of his cita­tions to share with you. There’s a fair amount of research sup­porting this. A great example is here (a quote from the abstract “Many char­ac­ter­is­tics once believed to reflect innate talent are actu­ally the result of intense prac­tice extended for a min­imum of 10 years.”)

Whether or not you believe in talent, don’t ever let that belief dis­tract you from the hard work nec­es­sary to achieve what you want in life. Tayler’s talk ended on an opti­mistic note. Not con­sid­ering talent is encour­aging, because the research also rein­forces the point that, if you work hard, if you engage in focused prac­tice, you WILL improve. You just have to trust that there is no ephemeral/unknowable factor, some magic key that you just don’t have, and that you if you’re willing to do the time, you can achieve things you never thought your­self capable of.

That’s tough. Because it means a lot of hard work. It also means uncer­tainty, because improving and even achieving exper­tise is no guar­antee of mar­ket­place suc­cess or public accolades.

But it’s also hopeful. Because it means that if you’re really willing to bleed for it, you’ve got a shot.

And that’s not me talking, or Tayler. That’s SCIENCE.

  • http://twitter.com/mkhutchins Megan Hutchins

    Howard Taylor’s great — and so is his web­comic.  I loved this.  I’ve always been a fan of hard work and per­sis­tence.  “Talent” isn’t some­thing I can con­trol, but I can chose to work hard and long and reap the results.

  • http://twitter.com/mkhutchins Megan Hutchins

    Howard Taylor’s great — and so is his web­comic.  I loved this.  I’ve always been a fan of hard work and per­sis­tence.  “Talent” isn’t some­thing I can con­trol, but I can chose to work hard and long and reap the results.

  • joshuaac­newman

    Talent means you get to start a pace ahead of everyone else. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to run the race.

  • joshuaac­newman

    Talent means you get to start a pace ahead of everyone else. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to run the race.

  • http://twitter.com/SheckyX Shecky X

    I don’t think it’s even a case of “starting ahead”. To me, talent does nothing beyond defining the ulti­mate poten­tial. Can’t tell you how many “nat­u­rals” I’ve seen start out aces and then just fade away; that’s because they don’t feel the need to WORK to ACHIEVE their talent. In other words, while talent may define just how far you can go, YOU define whether or not you GET to that point. Work, focus, deter­mi­na­tion and skill devel­op­ment — these are all at least as impor­tant as that talent, and more so if you con­sider that every inch of the way to that goal is deter­mined by those and NOT by ulti­mate capacity.

  • Howard­Tayler

    I’m glad you liked the pre­sen­ta­tion, Myke. Thanks!

    I haven’t sent you my slide deck yet, but I want to make sure your readers get my bib­li­og­raphy and disclaimer.

    DISCLAIMER: I’m not the expert, nor the researcher here. I’m more of an evangelist/practitioner. The experts are Dr. Anders Eric­sson, and Dr. Carol Dweck. They don’t work together — my pre­sen­ta­tion jux­ta­poses their work.

    http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​K​.​_​A​n​d​e​r​s​_​E​r​i​c​s​son http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​a​r​o​l​_​D​w​eck Bibliography:1) Here’s the article about the study on how the words “you must have worked hard on this” impacted school­children.http://​nymag​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​f​e​a​t​u​r​e​s​/​2​7​8​40/ (That one’s a MUST READ if you have kids in your life anywhere.)2) Here’s the dryyyy PDF of Anders Ericsson’s 1993 research into expert per­for­mance. He has written a book more recently that is prob­ably easier reading, but it’s not what I used.http://​graph​ics8​.nytimes​.com/​i​m​a​g​e​s​/​b​l​o​g​s​/​f​r​e​a​k​o​n​o​m​i​c​s​/​p​d​f​/​D​e​l​i​b​e​r​a​t​e​P​r​a​c​t​i​c​e​(​P​s​y​c​h​o​l​o​g​i​c​a​l​R​e​v​iew).pdf 3) The book “Freako­nomics” by Leavitt and Dubner turned me on to this topic in the first place. They pro­vided lots of good infor­ma­tion on lots of dif­ferent topics (many unre­lated to this) and those served not only as jumping-off points for my Google-fu, but also as pointers for what good method­ology might look like in the things I was plan­ning to cite.I’m by no means the only person to have talked about this stuff. My focus, how­ever, is not on becoming the king of the hill at the top of the power curve. My focus is on becoming pro­fi­cient and suc­cessful — some­where in the “I can make a living at this” chunk of the fat tail.Sorry for the tl;dr. I hope this is helpful!

    • MykeCole

      Very helpful! Thanks for drop­ping by and pro­viding that information.

    • MykeCole

      Very helpful! Thanks for drop­ping by and pro­viding that information.