Howard Tayler on Talent

By March 19, 2012Comms

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.

Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

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Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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 says:

    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 says:

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

  • Shecky X says:

    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 says:

    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. Bibliography:1) Here’s the article about the study on how the words “you must have worked hard on this” impacted schoolchildren. (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. 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!

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