Talent is Overrated

“I can’t dance. I have no talent for it.”
“Sure you can! Talent is overrated!”

I am currently reading a book by Geoff Colvin entitled Talent is Overrated. His premise is that no one is a natural born musician, doctor, businessman… or dancer. He gives some compelling examples of people who look like they have amazing natural talent, but their great ability actually comes from hours and hours of deliberate practice. Colvin says, “Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.”

Deliberate practice is more than just working hard. It’s asking questions such as, “What exactly needs to be practiced. Precisely how? Which specific skills or assets must be acquired?”

Dr. Suzuki asked these questions of what it took to play violin. He was able to take various songs and break them down into their essential parts and then link the study of these parts sequentially creating a methodical way of learning to play the violin. He coupled the method with the supportive and motivating team of parent and teacher, told students that they only had to practice on days that they ate, and encouraged each student with the statement that “Every Child Can.” (A variation on “talent is overrated.) The result has been that many young children have been able to learn classical pieces that were thought to be impossible for that age level several decades earlier. Our family has had personal experience with the Suzuki Program as both of our daughters have graduated from all 10 books of the Suzuki violin program, and our eldest daughter is now a Suzuki violin teacher who shares the vision that “Every Child Can” with her own students.

In 1992, a group of researchers went looking for musical talent. They couldn’t find it. They looked at 257 young people in England where there is a rigorous and uniform grading system for young musicians that places them in one of nine grades. In comparing the highest level students with some of the lower level students, they found that there was no evidence for early or natural talent.

Colvin said, “The researchers calculated the average hours of practice needed by the most elite group of students to reach each grade level, and they calculated the average hours needed by each of the other groups. There were no statistically significant differences. For students who ended up going to the elite music school as well as for students who just played casually for fun, it took an average of twelve hundred hours of practice to reach grade 5, for example. The music school students reached grade levels at earlier ages that the other students for the simple reason that they practiced more.

By age twelve, the researchers found, the students in the most elite group were practicing an average of two hours a day versus about fifteen minutes a day for the students in the lowest group, an 800 percent difference. So students could put in their hours a little bit each day or a lot each day, but nothing, it turned out, enabled an group to reach any given grade level without putting in those hours. As one of the researchers… put it, ‘There is absolutely no evidence of a ‘fast tract’ for high achievers.’”

But wait! Surely Mozart was naturally talented? Look for Mozart’s – and Tiger Wood’s – stories in next week’s blog.

Until then – we’ll just keep practicing our dancing!

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