Pratik Naik recently posed the question on Facebook, "Is good retouching something anyone can eventually do well with enough practice, training and time? Essentially is getting to the highest level a learned ability, or are there some people who will never get there no matter how hard they try?" The numerous responses from people on the social media platform stating they or others were incapable of achieving the highest levels of success disappointed me. I, for one, reject the idea of the prodigy. There are mountains of research on the topics of performance, optimization and developing skills mastery. I believe those who we look at as naturally talented and/or a prodigy are actually people who are intrinsically motivated by the "performance" or "gift" which they are known for. Ryan and Deci's (2002) research showed that individuals who are intrinsically motivated by their craft continually practice, rehearse, and just perform their craft. Enjoyment in a task itself is the motivation to continue doing it, think of the phrase "for the love of the game". The money, the success, the fame is not the drive to play, it's the game the performer loves. They dream about it, they probably need to be dragged from it to sleep and eat. We tend to see the success and assign the performer the title of "naturally talented" versus acknowledging the efforts that went into their success. Would we be so willing to acknowledge them as "naturally talented" or having a gift on day one of the process on their path of mastery?
For those that want to label the outcome and not acknowledge the process of mastery you are letting yourselves off the hook. Dr. Brené Brown's research on shame and guilt shows that blaming is a way to displace the discomfort of the emotions of shame and guilt. I believe we like to use the verbiage of natural talent and the prodigy in order to displace the guilt and shame we feel by not putting in all of the work ourselves. We value the product, we value the result, but we didn't put in the time or effort it takes to achieve mastery of the skill, essentially we are saying to ourselves, even subconsciously, "I don't measure up" which drives the emotions of shame and guilt. Was ask ourselves, "if something else was more important, is this really my passion, do I have what it takes?" Something else was more important in our lives than craft mastery and we devote our attention there instead, which is fine, everyone prioritizes life differently, however to say someone is special vs acknowledging all the hard work they put into mastery of the craft dismisses their efforts.
K. Anderson Ericsson's theory was that about 10,000 hours of practice is needed to reach craft mastery, a theory echoed and popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers". 10,000 hours of perfect practice would be needed to help us reach mastery of our craft. Notice I said perfect practice, many of the respondents to Pratik's post echoed that practice alone was not enough and they are probably right, for bad practice likely continues bad results. Ericsson and Lehmann (1996) found that measures of general basic capacities (i.e. Intelligence) do not predict success in a domain. They also found that expertise of elite performers are limited to their area of expertise, they too were domain specific. For example, someone who is a great retoucher, their skill set would not directly transfer to drawing, despite having similar traits. Their ability to transfer their expertise to other areas was narrow and very limited. They discovered that the differences between experts and those less proficient individuals were nearly always acquired by experts through their lengthy training. Researchers learned elite performers weren't born elite, they don't have some abnormal abilities that regular people lack. Ericsson and Lehmann found that deliberate practice, practice that was meaningful, planned, structured (often by someone who has come before us, a teacher) was key to improvement. It wasn't just time spent, but the way we structured the time spent that allowed experts to become experts. We see this in various forms in creative fields. We see those who have been doing a craft longer than us, lack abilities we already have. Experts take calculated risks, find meaning in critique and seek learning opportunities. What separates Elite performers is they do something that many of us don't. They think of the world in a different way. Why not? What is different in the elite performers thinking?
There is a repeated theme throughout the responses on Pratik's Facebook post, a prevailing group think that talents and intelligence are a fixed trait, "you have it or you don't", "you are born with it", "you must have an eye for it". World renowned Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dwick's work on what she calls "Mindset" is evident throughout this post. Many of us believe we have "caps" on our performance abilities. We believe we are capable of "this much and no more". This is a fixed mindset. Fixed mindset people spend time documenting and classifying their intelligence and talent instead of developing it. They tend to believe that their talents alone are what creates their success. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Once upon a time people believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that human beings were not capable of running a mile in under 4 minutes. Doctors testified to this "impossible" feat. Human's could not break this barrier they said. People tried and failed constantly, eventually accepting it as a "rule". Along came Roger Bannister who believed it was possible. He broke the record, he completed the impossible. His record stood for a short time, suddenly people who had sworn it could not be done were likewise doing the impossible simply because they believed they could. Bannister had altered the mindset of the world. How does all of this pertain to the conversation? The age old saying is true, "wether you think you can or you can't, you are right". The differences between us and elite performers often is our mindset. The "cans" lean toward the growth mindset, the "cant's" lean toward the fixed. Growth mindset people find meaning in failure and setbacks. Growth mindset people are able to find joy in the success of others. Growth mindset people embrace challenges. Growth mindset people see road blocks as challenges vs obstacles on the path toward mastery. Growth mindset people are inspired by others successes and see them as the "proof" that their own effort can produce the same results. The growth mindset increase effort and effort increases success.
There is a science to performance, there is a science to mastery, there is a science to excellence. To think less is to think human infants are born able to play piano or paint or retouch. To think these people are born this way is to say we can't have the same thing... We are born less. That outlook sucks!!! Lastly to say that these people are special is to discount all of the countless hours that a master put into their craft. How sad to discount a life's work, that the effort, sweat and blood that went into becoming the best is somehow not worthy of our praise. Calling this a natural talent is so dismissive it's almost insulting, yet praising and acknowledging effort is empowering, it makes the magic of it all obtainable.