Tuesday, 14 April 2009

"Talent is the passion to practice"

In a CNN interview, author Malcolm Gladwell said, "Talent is the passion to practice." I learned this from Claudia (my old coworker on the English news team, who is now a writer for international news at TVBS) this afternoon and haven't stopped thinking about it. It is simply so encouraging and inspiring!

Many parents, when they take their kids to art class, piano class, math class, soccer practice, they like to ask the teacher/coach "does my son/daughter have talent?" Perhaps if they thought of talent as the passion to practice and find what it is that their kid loves best and wants to keep trying over and over again, maybe that's the direction they ought to be looking in.

For myself, I constantly worry that despite my recently developed passion for art and for "story telling" on TV or in front of an audience, I don't have the talent for it and I'll fail miserably at both my hobby and my job. Now I'm confident that I'll be OK. I choose to believe in what Gladwell is saying.

Here's an excerpt of the interview.

GLADWELL: The Beatles are a lovely example, because we think that their story begins with the invasion of America in 1964. Right? These four, fresh-faced, practically teenagers who burst on the scene.

You know, nothing could be further from the truth. They spend the really critical periods -- they spend two years in Hamburg, Germany, as the house band in a strip club playing eight-hour sets, seven days a week, for months at a stretch.

They have one of the most extraordinarily intensive apprenticeships in rock 'n' roll. And if you think about what it takes to play -- I mean, the typical set for a rock band is what, an hour, an hour-and-a-half. They did eight-hour sets, day in, day out.

If you think about that you realize, if you force a group of young musicians to play together over that -- in that way, for months at a stretch -- you're forcing them to master all kinds of different genres, to learn how to play together well, to write songs.

I mean, everything you need to do, particularly at the dawn of rock 'n' roll, to be the most dominant band of your generation requires some kind of apprenticeship. And lo and behold, they have it.

And I would argue, and many agree with me, that no Hamburg, no Beatles. You know, they're just not the band that we remember unless they had that kind of intensive training.

ZAKARIA: But of course, it raises an interesting question to me, which is, you could imagine a lot of other bands being told, "I've got good news for you. You've got a great gig in Hamburg, Germany. The bad news is you're going to have to play eight hours a day, seven days a week." And they would have said, "No way. We're not going to do it."

So, something about that group made them relish the opportunity...


ZAKARIA: ... to do enormous amounts of practice. And presumably, that's true of some of these sportsmen and true of other people.

That is, yes, it takes practice. But you need a certain mentality to want to practice...

GLADWELL: To want to practice that much.

ZAKARIA: ... the hell out of it. You know, the...

GLADWELL: What you have described is what I believe talent is.

Talent is the desire to practice. Right? It is that you love something so much that you are willing to make an enormous sacrifice and an enormous commitment to that, whatever it is -- task, game, sport, what have you.

When people use that word, we usually talk about something inherent in you. And we think of something very specific. I don't think that's what talent is. I think talent is simply desire.

It's what you said of the Beatles. Their talent consisted of their ability to see Hamburg as an opportunity, whereas 99 out of 100 bands would have seen Hamburg as a nightmare -- which, by the way, it was.

I mean, you could argue that the Beatles talent was also an act of delusion. You know, to be able to see opportunity in Hamburg in 1959 required, at the very least, an extraordinary imagination.

ZAKARIA: But there is no such thing as a certain inherent talent? I mean, there are people who clearly are just great at math. There are people who are -- you know, who clearly have a way with poetry.

Was Shakespeare not talented?

GLADWELL: Well, see, this is a surprisingly active debate among psychologists. So, does Shakespeare have something in him, separate from the desire, to write poetry and plays that explains his genius? All right. I'll grant you that.

But the question is, is it this big, or is it this big? I think it's this big.

Same thing when you say someone has a talent for mathematics. I would say that much of the talent for mathematics is that they like numbers. My father is a mathematician. What is his talent? He genuinely loves numbers in a way that you or I would find unfathomable. Right? That's 90 percent of why he's a mathematician. He just -- and so, as a result, from the very youngest age he was drawn to this, and has put in -- put in by the age of 21, 100 times more time in math than I did by the age of 21.

It starts with love.

Now, does he have some separate facility with numbers that I don't have? Maybe. But I'm not convinced it's significant.

You know, I mean, I think any reasonably intelligent human being has the intellectual firepower to do calculus. But only a small fraction of us make use of it. And it's the "make use" part that I'm interested in.

In sort-of mathematical terms, for show business then I think the equation for success may be as follows:


Obviously you need to be good at what you do, which is inherent talent and passion to practice. You also have to have the social skills to work well with people, with means you have to be nice. Only very few people, if any, will want to work with you after your stroke of luck that's propelled you to temporary stardom, if you ever get it. And luck - you need some of it, but I think the significance of it may be just as small as inherent talent.

Something to chew on.

What do you think? Bologna? You agree? I'd love to hear from you!

Malcolm Gladwell - I've read his "Tipping Point" and "Blink" which I enjoyed more, and now I'm looking forward to reading his "Outliers."


Mark said...

I don't agree with Gladwell. Actually, I think he's just rehashing very, very old ideas that people widely wish were true.

People can improve at nearly any pursuit through passion and hard work. Sometimes, it's striking how much one can improve i.e. becoming a a chess master or going from a couch potato to a sub 3 hour marathon runner.

However, nature has a tremendous impact as well. Through hard work in the gym, I might be able to become two or three times stronger than I am, but no amount of work would give me the physical prowess that Shaq had in his prime. Similarly, someone of average mental abilities would almost certainly never win a nobel prize in physics no matter how much he loved the field and someone with down-syndrome would never even get close.

The Beatles fit Gladwell's model well, but what about the Rolling Stones? They had no similar "critical period" in Hamburg. Similarly, Mozart produced more before drinking himself to death at 30 than his contemporaries who put in far far more time who weren't in the process of drinking themselves to death.

The story is the same in the hard sciences. Newton's best work was done between the ages of 22 and 24. Einstein, who got started much later, still had his "Annus Miribilis" in which he produced both the theory of special relativity and the underpinnings of quantum mechanics at the age of 26. Many, many other physicists toiled far longer with much less to show for it.

I would say that social skills will help one get recognized sooner and that hard work is necessary, but that talent is at least as important as the rest combined. To be really successful you have to have to have both the means and the will.

Bryan said...

The passion to practice does not, in and of itself, trump talent. To quote the old saying, "you cannot make silk out of a sow's ear". I like to play the piano. However, even if I were to dedicate myself to the piano and practice tremendous amounts of time, I would never (and will never) be a concert pianist.

Those who are at the top of their fields have a combination of inherent talent and a passion to practice. If you look at someone like the golfer, Tiger Woods, all one usually sees is the tremendous inherent talent. What is not seen is the hours and hours and hours of practice that he puts in. Would he be a good golfer if he did not practice as much? Sure, but it would be more like being the best golfer at the club rather than the best in the world.

I agree with your equation below by saying that:

PASSION TO PRACTICE + SOCIAL SKILLS = more fulfilled/happier person


INHERENT TALENT + LUCK = less fulfilled person.

Lastly, I would say that LUCK = OPPORTUNITY + SKILL

Interesting topic. Thanks for bringing it up.

Converse to that is the person with a tremendous amount of inherent talent but zero passion to further that talent.

Dad said...

Don't want to be boring but Mark and Bryan are right. Their examples regarding famous people are reflected in my (bitter) personal experience.

In high school I was runner. At the same school was a boy two years younger than me who held the age world record for 800m and 1,500m (U14's, U15's and then U16's.) I never beat him no matter how much training I did or what training I did, and I was a mad thing for training. I beat everyone else at that school easily whether I trained or not.

Talent decided it whether I liked it or not.

翁郁容 Michella Jade Weng ミシェラ・オング said...

Aw, you guys are such party poopers. But you all make lots of sense I still really appreciate you for telling me what you think. :)

Maybe it should be something like "For 97% of the population, talent is the passion to practice. The other 3% are too exceptionally gifted so belong differentt, non-human category altogether."