On Grit: Talent vs. Effort

In a post published several weeks ago, we discussed grit. This week, we explore talent. What is talent, and how much does it matter for achievement?

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines talent as an often artistic, athletic or creative “aptitude” and “natural endowment.” The Oxford English Dictionary echoes the “aptitude” definition, adding “natural ability.”

The word “natural,” present or implied in all of the discussed definitions of the word talent, can be heard in phrases of praise, such as, “You’re a natural!” 

Other ways to express this sentiment include “She is a genius!” and “He has a gift!” Being talented, gifted, a natural, or a genius, all necessitate that the ability you have is innate and thus cannot be learned.

According to sociologist Dan Chambliss, whom Duckworth interviewed for her book on grit, we appeal to such discussion of talent, when we “can’t explain how an athlete, musician, or anyone else has done something jaw-droppingly amazing” (Grit, p. 37).

In Human, All Too-Human, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argues that the “the cult of the genius fosters our vanity” (p.114). Through appealing to talent, we convince ourselves that achievement is extraordinary, or a “rare case”  as Nietzsche puts it (p. 113).

For Nietzsche, the appeal to talent is a psychological defense mechanism. If one believes that a person is either a genius or not, then the lack of achievement is beyond individual control. This type of thinking Nietzsche argues, comforts us and justifies lives of mediocrity.

Cousins Sir Francis Galton and Charles Darwin faced off on the value of talent. Galton published his first scientific study of achievement, Hereditary Genius, in 1869. High-achievers, he concluded, shared the following three (inheritable) traits: demonstrated “ability,” remarkable “zeal,” and “the capacity for hard labour” (p. 38).

In response, Darwin discounted the first claim and championed the second and third, writing, “I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work.” 

Should we discount talent entirely?  It depends on how we define the term. Duckworth defines talent as “how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort” (Grit, p.42). Duckworth’s definition demystifies talent, but does not discount that certain people have advantages to how quickly they are able to learn and excel at a given task.

Take swimming, for example.The ideal body type of a swimmer is long-armed, tall, and broad-shouldered. To an athlete that fits the ideal, skill development comes more easily and skill-improvement more quickly than to someone who is 5 feet 3 inches and narrow-framed.

Duckworth proposes the following two equations:

Duckworth defines achievement as taking acquired skills and using them (Grit, p.42). Note that under such a framework, effort counts twice. Effort not only builds skill, but also puts that skill into action.

We need not discount an aptitude for excelling at certain tasks, but must be careful not to elevate such aptitude to an unreachable pedestal.

Although effort is not the only factor at play in achievement, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Duckworth make a strong case for its importance.

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