Nurture Your Nature
It’s not just about innate talent — it’s also about what you do with it
To say someone who is displaying extreme skill is a “natural” is going out of vogue.
Recently, we’ve been flooded with books proclaiming that with the right kind of practice and enough effort, anyone can become great at anything. The most popular of these books is Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which espouses the 10,000 hour rule: the key to mastery in any domain is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, or practice that is highly focused, measured, scrutinized, and comes with immediate feedback. Although the scientist whose work inspired Gladwell’s book, Anders Ericsson, has refuted parts of the 10,000 hour rule, his own book, Peak, follows the same general plot-line: that deliberate practice is the key to becoming world-class.
This story — that anyone can be world-class at anything — is inspirational and appealing. But it is misleading at best and counterproductive at worst.
- Misleading because there is plenty of evidence that innate talent, or your genetic code, matters a lot. As the saying in basketball goes, “You can’t coach height.” And it’s not just sports. Research shows that IQ is more important than many of us may want to believe when it comes to intellectual achievement.
- Counterproductive because far too often, parents — citing the 10,000 hour rule — push their children to specialize in a single pursuit at very young ages. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for physical injury and emotional distress; in other words, burnout. While we are all familiar with the story of Tiger Woods, who was golfing before he was walking, there are countless golfers whom we haven’t heard of because they burnt out as a result of early specialization. If you need more proof that early specialization isn’t a requirement for success, consider this: 28 of the 31 first-round picks in this year’s NFL draft played multiple sports in high school.
Now none of this is to say that practice doesn’t matter. Practice matters a ton! And I agree with Ericsson that practicing deliberately is the way to go. My issue has to do with relegating the role of innate talent. That’s why I was encouraged when I read psychologist Angela Duckworth’s new book, Grit. In it, Duckworth puts forth a model of development that I really like:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
In other words, both nature (talent) and nurture (effort/practice) matter. Duckworth’s model is so elegant because it’s flexible. For any given pursuit you can assign weights to both the talent and effort variables. In a more physical pursuit, like sprinting, perhaps innate talent is worth 0.8 and effort worth only 0.2. For a more cerebral pursuit, like chess, maybe the opposite holds true.
Duckworth’s model says that effort always matters. Even Usain Bolt wouldn’t have broken records if he didn’t get off the couch and put in hard work. And while there are some fields in which genetics are especially important (like sprinting), once you get to the top, where everyone has massive talent, effort is often the separating factor.
Something else not to lose sight of: Although being world class at just about anything requires the right DNA, you can still become pretty dang good at most things given the right effort and opportunities. Not everyone can win a Nobel Prize, but most can become professors. But perhaps most importantly, there is intrinsic value in working to become your best, whatever your best may be. The process of working to get better at anything builds self-confidence and gives our lives meaning.
Nurture your nature.
Thanks for reading! If you like what you read, I’d be honored if you checked out and considered pre-ordering my forthcoming book, PEAK PERFORMANCE. You can also follow me on Twitter @Bstulberg, where I share all of my writing and the latest on health and the science of human performance.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine.