Potential isn’t actual…so what is ‘talent’?

There is a lot of the word ‘talent’ thrown about. Its use appears to cover all bases and more often than not, appears to describe the idea that ‘you either have it or you don’t’….that someone who’s ‘talented’ has a natural predisposition.

I’ve always found this romanticised idea of a person having an innate ability a rather lazy shorthand and at worst, a bit insulting. Of course popular culture perpetuates the notion of the genius, the divine gift that allows that lucky someone to knock out a sonnet, compose a symphony or draft a masterpiece before their rusk and milk. It does make for seductive myths about creativity but utterly dismisses the years of hard work, of self criticism, dedication, the right opportunities, the right input or the determination to improve.

David Shenk, the author of “The Genius In All Of Us” is championing the idea, the empowering idea, that genes are simply a small part of the equation and that our environment and experiences are at the heart of what ‘talent’ really is…process.

In an article written by Shenk, he reminds us of Beethoven’s sketchbooks in which the lengthy, painstaking process of testing and reworking becomes clear with sometimes 60 to 70 drafts of a musical phrase being worked through before the composer is satisfied. No less a genius in my opinion, if the genius is in the process. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart trained from the age of four, had a father who was an accomplished composer and famous music teacher by the way.

He also quotes Nietzche; “In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre, and bad things, but his judgement, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects . . . All great artists and thinkers [are] great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”

In an article written by Shenk, we’re reminded that while it is correct to say that “genes influence us,” it’s just as correct to say that “we influence our genes.” In a BBC article it reports, amongst other things, of a study of  London cabbies..London famously being one of the most complex cities in the world to navigate. In 1999, neurologist Eleanor Maguire conducted MRI scans on their brains and compared them with the brain scans of others. In contrast with non-cabbies, experienced taxi drivers had a greatly enlarged posterior hippocampus – that part of the brain that specialises in recalling spatial representations. What’s more, the size of cabbies’ hippocampi correlated directly with each driver’s experience: the longer the driving career, the larger the posterior hippocampus. That showed that spatial tasks were actively changing cabbies’ brains. This was perfectly consistent with studies of violinists, Braille readers, meditation practitioners, and recovering stroke victims. Our brains adapt in response to the demands we put on them.

I was watching the London Olympics recently. Athletes are of course often described as ‘natural athletes’. In the exact same way a musician, an artist, a mathematician, a physicist etc may be labelled ‘talented’, athletes attract the same label too. Obviously, if you’re a basketball player for example, your height is going to be a factor. However, one of the commentators picked up on the word ‘talent’ and insisted that even in the example of professional sportsmen and women, genes play the smallest part. Each of the athletes will have had to have had the access to coaching, the right opportunities, the right support physiologically, mentally and financially, the right experience to give them the determination to excel…essentially their genes are just a small part of their success, an opinion psychologist K. Anders Ericsson appears to agree with.

Michael Meaney, a professor at McGill University in Canada states, “Is it that genes don’t matter? Of course not. We’re all different and have different theoretical potentials from one another. There was never any chance of me being Cristiano Ronaldo. Only tiny Cristiano Ronaldo had a chance of being the Cristiano Ronaldo we know now. But we also have to understand that he could have turned out to be quite a different person, with different abilities. His future football magnificence was not carved in genetic stone”.

What I get from that is that potential is not actual….I love the excitement of that last quote..that “his football magnificence was not carved in genetic stone”. It is immensely liberating and massively exciting to hear that summed up so succinctly. A long time ago I was a secondary school art teacher and even then I was adamant that the subject was based in skills that could be taught and learned…and definitely not something that you were either ‘good at or not’. Both students and parents would tackle that opinion and argue ‘surely you’re good at art or not’? In a classroom you can, without a doubt, make a massive difference. But what is also clear is that you have to have the student understand that progress is possible in the first place. Students going into a classroom hanging on to the belief  ‘I’m not talented at this subject so there’s little point trying’ ….and guess what happens. Progress is capped. I remember going for an interview for my first teaching position, back in 1996. The guy behind the desk asked, “If I gave you £200 to spend on the art department, what would you spend it on”? I promptly said that I wouldn’t buy any equipment and that what I’d do is take the students somewhere. Give them an experience. Simply because that would give them something to wrap their art around, to express and communicate (what art is all about in my opinion). How could you sing about having your heart broken if you’ve never had your heart broken?

A friend of mine, a recent psychology graduate, recently told me she’d written about the ‘implicit theories’, or underlying beliefs which people harbour, about the malleability of human characteristics and ability. Broadly speaking, people are either ‘entity’ theorists, or ‘incremental’ theorists. Entity theorists believe that fundamental attributes such as intelligence, ability, morality, competence etc are fixed, entity like traits – (“you either have it or you don’t” type mindset). On the other hand, incremental theorists believe that such traits and abilities are malleable and can be cultivated over time. What is interesting is the effect that our implicit beliefs have on our behaviour.

The website cogprints reviews a host of examples, such as ‘perfect pitch’ in music (where the developed area of the brain responsible for the ability is also, it reports, malleable, although it appears, it continues, to become increasingly difficult the older you get) chess ‘prodigies,’ ballet ‘turn-out,’ and ratios of fast twitch to slow twitch muscles, all of which appear malleable given the right timing and conditions. The site presents arguments for and against the idea of innate ability. In the example of autistic savants who have received no formal training or input it recognises the obsessive practice and repetition savants engage in.

Please explore the links I’ve got at the bottom of this entry as they contain so many further examples, explanations which obviously go far further than I have here, and even more connections to the science that is changing this attitude of what was originally considered a divine gift, which became understood as a genetic gift. The idea of ‘innate’ ability is surely a dead end.

We all learn a language, when we’re infants. I’ve always found that pretty remarkable, but would we say that was a talent…it is after all an ability we appear to be hard wired to do isn’t it? But if we took two hyperthetical, identical twins..and one was separated from it’s sibling and brought up with, for arguments sake, French parents, the twin would grow up speaking French. Meaning the hard wiring may be there, but the outcome of the twin’s environment massively changes the make up of that twin. I cannot help but feel that we are products of our experiences and environment. Sure, we have physical differences but we can see how even those differences can be influenced by our experiences and environment.

Our abilities are not set in genetic stone, they are soft and sculptable. A further article (link at the bottom) quotes Sharon Begley’s recent book “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” which promotes the attitude that with”…humility and with extraordinary determination, greatness is something to which any kid—of any age—can aspire, the better we understand what greatness is really made of, the more of it we can grasp—as individuals, as families and as a talent-promoting society…”.


David Shenk’s blog

BBC article

Wall Street Journal – The success myth – David Shenk

RSA – ‘No limits’ article

‘Innate talents – reality or myth?’ – journal paper



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About the author

Bob: Bob is a concept artist for the film, tv and game industries