Geetanjali Mukherjee

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Why I Think Talent is Overrated

A couple of years ago I read two books that really made me question many things I thought I knew, but even so, a big part of me continued to believe that innate talent was at least a primary ingredient in achieving success. Those two books were Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated.

The main premise of both the books was arguing, through the presentation of scientific studies and numerous anecdotes, that what we think of as talent is far less important to achievement in most fields than other variables - such as deliberate practice - which creates neural pathways in the brain and allow us to build skill. They argued that ultimately success is related to the development of our skill level, and this was as a result of hard work. This argument is related to the famous 10,000 hours rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell.

Despite this assertion, I believed that it was only possible to become really good at one or very few skills, and it wasn't wise to try to acquire too many skills lest one become mediocre at all.

This thinking led me to believe that there were natural ceilings to my ability in many areas, and that I shouldn't even attempt new pastures before I had devoted more time to polishing my existing skills, and even then, there ought to be some evidence of talent before pursuing these new areas.

This worldview as you may imagine is limiting. Either by choice or circumstance, it becomes necessary to acquire new skills, but if you believe you don't have talent and therefore shouldn't even bother, then that is a pretty large obstacle. I think my subconscious beliefs led me to reject many opportunities or put forth less effort, rationalising that there really wasn't much point.

Lately, many different data points have started to make me question my innate assumptions. The latest example has been my experience with designing my own book covers. I read lots of advice about hiring a good cover designer, and that no one should be foolish enough to attempt to do this oneself. While I understood the merits of this argument, I had no clue how to go about finding a designer, how to determine if they were good, and I had no budget for it - reasoning that my books were niche enough to perhaps not sell enough copies to justify the expense.

I created competent but not great covers and uploaded them. The first version of the cover for my first self-published book was actually created some years ago, and I simply updated it. After creating the cover for the second book, I used some of the techniques I learnt to improve the cover of the first one, and then on a whim, I tried a redesign. I was actually quote happy with it - I kept the same colour palette, but removed the image, which I thought was cluttering up the cover. The new cover was much cleaner and easier to read, which I thought was enough of an improvement to be the final version.

Recently, I started working on a print edition of my book, and since I changed the subtitle of my book, I had to update the cover to reflect that change. I somehow managed to actually make it a little worse, and that was worrying me for the past few days, and I started to think I might need to get a graphic designer after all.

Today, while procrastinating on my current WIP, I had an idea for a complete redesign, and decided to try it, and abandon the attempt if it took too long. I combined elements from both the first and second versions, and after experimenting with several colours, decided on a simple teal and white colour palette - and the results were actually quite startling to me. I'm sure a professional could have done a better job, but given that I don't have the budget for it yet, I'm pretty happy with my final results.



How does this tie in with the discussion on talent? Well, if you accept that my eventual cover version is quite good (which you may not of course), then what explains the marked improvement in quality in the past few months? I have absolutely no talent as a designer, no training, and no special equipment ( I used free software that I already own). I went from a pretty obviously amateurish product to something that is almost professional in just a few attempts.

My argument is that each time I tinkered with either of my books' covers, I learnt something that I implemented in the next round. I also did some research, looking at the covers of other books in the same genres, and made mental notes on what appealed to me. None of this required anything other than effort. Over time.

This is a very small example, and many of you reading may not even consider it a very persuasive one. However, since my objective was to design something that I wouldn't be ashamed to put my name on, I achieved my objective. I am not planning anytime soon to do this for a living, but that's not the point. Even if we assume we need talent for success in the arena of our primary field, there are many other skills we need in today's age to complement our primary areas of expertise.

If you believe that talent is the sole determining factor to enable improvement, then you may not even attempt to acquire these skills, and thus hold yourself and your career back. Thus I would argue that in many arenas of life, talent is really overrated, and you can achieve pretty good results simply through perseverance, research and hard work.
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