The entire Internet seems to uniformly endorse an optimistic, feel-good-about-yourself philosophy of life: If you put in the effort, you can achieve anything you want and be the best. Although that’s a great philosophy to adopt, I feel like spitting all of you in the face today with a little bit of truth:
You can’t achieve anything you want in life
Don’t worry, I won’t criticize your life philosophy by pointing out the platitude that even an infinite amount of focused training won’t be enough to make you an NBA all-star when you’re a motorically uncoordinated fat ass in his 30s. I said I won’t. Keep on reading…
First of all, I get it:
Speak not of gifts, or innate talents! One can name all kinds of great men who were not very gifted. But they acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we say) through qualities about whose lack no man aware of them likes to speak; all of them had that diligent seriousness of a craftsman. (Human, All Too Human by Friedrich Nietzsche)
These words are truly inspiring, especially since the notion of talent has been highly overrated in the past, and still is sometimes used by depressed lowlifes as an excuse to no better themselves. This doesn’t make it a myth though.
Talent is not a myth
As with all things in life, it’s never plain black or white. The more we scientifically study human traits and behaviors, the more we come to realize that their underlying basis is never either nature (genetic determination) or nurture (environmental factors), but always both. Every person has a set of genes to live with and an environment to live in, so everything a person is and does is determined by both these two factors as well as their interaction (epigenetics).
Saying “talent is a myth” simply means ignoring human genetics altogether. In science, this position is called deliberate practice theory. It claims that goal-directed efforts are not only necessary but also sufficient for expert performance. Thus, an innate ability (a talent) is not required. Potential genetic effects can be circumvented or compensated for by more practice, putting in more effort. As long as you’re healthy, your expert performance is limited only by the amount of deliberate practice you accumulate.
The problem with this theory is not just that it neglects human nature but also that it can’t account for interpersonal differences in expertise:
- Deliberate practice, as investigated in 88 studies with a total of 11,135 participants, explained only “26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions” (Macnamara et al. 2014). This means that the rest of the increase in expert performance was likely due to factors other than putting in time and effort. Also, it shows that the effect of practice varies with domains.
- Physical traits like body size & height, ponderal index, or morphology of extremities undeniably influence expert performance, particularly in sports and music. Such traits are strongly (70-90%) determined by genetic factors. Even though it’s not 100% genetics (nothing is), you can’t train yourself to become 6’4″.
- Largely inherited cognitive traits like intelligence and executive control are crucial for everything that involves learning and goal achievement. This is particularly important for educational and occupational accomplishments. Also, abilities like musical aptitude are highly innate.
- Heritable personality factors impact expertise indirectly by affecting amount and quality of practice, and directly through emotional competence. Also, personality is responsible for interests and what one chooses to do in the first place.
- Neural plasticity, which is crucial for learning and skill acquisition, depends on genetic factors.
Therefore, Ullén and his colleagues (2016) proposed a new framework of expertise called the multifactorial gene—environment interaction model. According to this model, deliberate practice is just one factor among many that influence expertise. Other factors include cognitive abilities, personality traits, interests, motivation, neural mechanisms, and body properties. Both genes and environment (and their covariation) play a vital role in what you can achieve.
How to be the best
Practice makes perfect, relative to your genetic makeup. Absolute perfection (true mastery) comes from proper genes and practice.
However, people who claim “you can achieve anything what you want in life” commonly think of stuff like success, money, love, happiness, or freedom, not of expertise. Since there are as many different paths to those things as there are people on this planet, you can of course attain them—but that’s trivial; all you need for that is discipline.
Everyone has a different set of genes. Learn to know yourself. Learn to know your unique strengths and talents. If you devote your time, effort, and discipline to something you’re naturally good at, then greatness will be certain.
Have you discovered your unique innate abilities yet? How do you nurture and express these talents? Tell me in the comments below!
Macnamara, B. N., Hambrick, D. Z., Oswald, F. L. (2014). Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions. Psychological Science 25, pp. 1608-1618.
Ullén, F., Hambrick, D. Z., Mosing, M. A. (2016). Rethinking expertise: A multifactorial gene-environment interaction model of expert performance. Psychological Bulletin 142(4), pp. 427-446.
The picture includes the icons “DNA” by Lloyd Humphreys and “Responsibility” by Thierry van Benten from the Noun Project.