Katie Ledecky has been described as “an immense talent” but her own coach, Bruce Gemmell, has pointed out that Katie is “not a gifted athlete.” Whether the talent of Michael Phelps is a consequence of his genetically determined anatomy is a topic of perennial debate. And Usain Bolt recently referred to his “God-given talent” in the same interview in which he pointed out that “in Jamaica, we know we have to work hard. We do not get anything unless we work for it. My success is just a continuation of the great traditions left behind by past athletes.”
Talent. What are we to make of this word that people define in such different ways? If you close your eyes and think of the words you associate with talent, my guess is that you’ll generate a list like this: natural, God-given, gifted.
Can you give a succinct definition of the word talent? Give it a shot. Talent is one of those words we use a lot yet struggle mightily to define with any precision. It falls into the I-know-it-when-I-see-it category of ideas we’re convinced we understand but, in my view, probably don’t.
How about skill? My guess is that you associate skill with an entirely different set of concepts. You might say that skill, unlike talent, is earned. You might think of skills you yourself acquired, things you can do better now than you could before. You harbor no illusion that you were born with those skills. Nobody is born knowing how to ride a bike, solve an algebraic equation, manage a sales team, or roast a chicken.
Though talent and skill differ, these terms are often used interchangeably. For instance, Olympic commentators applauded Ledecky, Phelps, Bolt, and other especially “talented” athletes all summer. Presumably, what has earned their admiration is the demonstration of world-class, and in some cases world-record-setting, expertise. In other words, it seems that skills — what these athletes are now able to do — are what we should be commending.
As a psychologist who aims to understand the origins of human achievement, I’ve spent a long time pondering the distinction between talent and skill. I’m not alone.
Actor and musician Will Smith has said that “the separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things.”
“Talent you have naturally,” Smith argues. “Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.”
Smith has judged his own talent to be “about average” for Hollywood. But what about his willingness to focus on a task and keep at it? “I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented,” he’s said. “Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening, work ethic.”
Confusing talent and skill isn’t just sloppy thinking; it’s dangerous. It propagates the myth that talent is always the best predictor of future success. This error can lead to counting ourselves out of the game too early because, after all, we can think of plenty of people who have more talent than we do.
When you put success under the microscope — when you submit achievement to the scientific method and look, systematically, for its determinants — you discover that talent is no guarantee of skill. For instance, in a survey by the U.S. Olympic Committee, “natural talent” was identified as key to success by 22% of Olympic athletes, but “dedication and persistence” was named by 58% — more often than any other factor.
When it comes to what the amazing human body and mind can do, I side with Nietzsche: “Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ (as we put it).”
It’s time to clean up our language.
Let’s refrain from reflexively applauding talent when, after all, we have no idea how easily progress comes for other people. Maybe the people we most admire were like Will Smith, who earned his artistry. What appears to outsiders as “glamorous, easy, delightful” when we are only around to witness the final performance may be hard-won indeed.
When we bear witness to great skill, let’s call it what it is. Rather than extol — and assume — the prodigious talent of the performer, let us rise to our feet, applauding, and call out with unbridled enthusiasm, “How masterful! What a marvelous display of expertise!”
This gives credit where credit is due.