On Talent, Practice and Human Achievement

I’ve thought about this question – Why do things come so easily for some people?

There are people who appear to be natural artists who could create incredible works of art (drawing, painting, sculpture).  Some people have such mathematical aptitude that they easily grasp concepts not a lot of other people can even begin to comprehend.  Some folks play instruments and create music.  Some people sing and dance.  Some people write beautiful poetry or engaging prose.  Some are charismatic speakers.  Some are extremely good at sports – athletes who seem to have superhuman strength, speed, dexterity.

Sometimes we feel like mere spectators to feats of great human achievement.  And I’m sure at some level, it frustrates all of us.  At least speaking for myself, I’m sometimes frustrated whenever I set out to accomplish something, and I expend a lot of effort.  And I see this other guy who makes it look so easy.

This begged the question – what drives human achievement?

To somewhat clarify my point – I’ve come up with the following graph (prepared in Microsoft Word!)

As a caveat, I’m not a behavioral or cognitive psychologist, so I don’t claim to have an expert insight into human behavior, and to anyone who reads this blog post, no advice is being dispensed.

The above chart might be over-simplified.  But it does articulate my point based on my own personal experience, as follows:

  1. Achievement Line:  Greater achievement can be attained with a higher level of talent or practice.
  2. Effort Line: The more talent, less effort is needed.  The less talent, more effort is needed.

Take this video, for instance:

These people do all sorts of amazing things!  There’s a clip of a dude running ON WATER!  Now, I want to be able to do some of the things that these people do.   I know I’m not able to do them now, but with a lot of practice (and maybe some luck), will I be able to play tennis like Roger Federer? (who appears in this video, as well).  Probably not in my lifetime. I do note that his career achievements are brought about by a combination of talent and practice.

But I’ve encountered many instances wherein a merely talented person is trumped by a person who just practiced more.

And I guess there are just some things that cannot be taught.  Like a good singing voice, or a dexterous hand for sketching or piano-playing.  Or a host of other physical attributes that come in handy in sports – good eyesight, longer, stronger and more flexible limbs.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we are dealt a hand in the genetic lottery.  And we humans are creatures who have a tendency to be better at things that come easily to us.

I know, I know. I go on all sorts of off-tangents.  As I said earlier, I’m clearly not an expert.

But here’s a guy who might know some stuff – Howard Gardner.  In his book Frames of Mind:The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, he explains about his theory of “multiple intelligence”, and lists the following “personal intelligences”

  • Linguistic intelligence
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence
  • Musical intelligence
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
  • Spatial intelligence
  • Interpersonal intelligence
  • Intrapersonal intelligence

Read more about Mr Gardner’s work in here.  His book is utterly fascinating, and it contains some insightful commentary on the state of education in our world that places a higher value in only one or two of the above intelligences.

Each human being has a set of more than one of listed intelligences (many of them are related).  It does somewhat explain why some people are good at math and not good in English, or vice versa.  Some are better athletes.  Some can easily envision spaces in 3-D.  Some are naturally good at dealing with other people.

But more than talent and practice, I can also think of at least 3 other factors that drive human achievement:

  • Passion – Without it, the person will not practice or be driven to hone his/her talent
  • Perseverance – Despite failing or falling, to get back and continue practicing
  • Luck  – hey, it’s been known to happen!

Of course, there are probably highly realized human beings who probably have high levels of all intelligences.  Lucky for them.

But for us mere mortals, or at least for me, I’m learning to accept that I have my own set of intelligences, and it’s up to me to use them to my advantage.  And I don’t want to live in a world where all human beings have the same high levels of talents and competencies – then where’s the fun in that?

Bottom line, and ending on a more practical note, I should be asking the following questions:

  • What is it that I want to accomplish in my life?  Something I’m passionate and driven enough to persevere despite failure?
  • Do I have the natural talents to do accomplish that?
  • If I do, am I willing to hone my talents and conquer other weaknesses (e.g. complacency)?
  • If I don’t, am I willing to expend the effort and practice to compensate for my lack of natural talent? (because face it, sometimes, what we see as “talent” is actually a product of long hours of practice)

I suddenly realize, I’m happy to just be watching tennis, not playing it.

At least for now.

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