The Myth of Talent
I have been reading a book by noted psychologist Anders Ericsson called Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise, and I had lots of insights, especially applicable to writers and other creatives.
While the book focuses a lot on elite athletes and performers, and the techniques that help them get to that level and beyond, I think it is equally helpful for anyone wanting to be a writer or painter or film director, starting out and wondering how to achieve their dream.
I don't discount the role of luck and fortune and timing in achieving success for those in the arts. Not every talented person will make it. Not every book will be a bestseller, or every deserving movie get an award. But what about all those people whose heart is set on writing a novel and getting it published, but they keep getting rejected? Or those who want to paint or learn a musical instrument, perhaps just as a hobby, but fear that since they didn't start as a child, it is too late for them to pick it up? Or maybe they just believe they lack the "talent" for whatever pursuit they aim for?
The word "talent" actually really bothers me. It has ever since I read the book The Talent Code and realized how much of what we think as miraculous, innate ability, is simply the result of hours of hard work and practice. Peak underscores this. The skills of elite musicians and athletes and mathematicians can be attributed to years of focused practice that honed their skills and abilities, which an outsider seeing what they can do, often tends to attribute to some magical quality that they must have been born with. But there is no gene that selected people come into the world with, that enables them to become chess grandmasters or golf pros or tennis champions. Even Mozart practiced for years before he became a truly original composer of classical music.
But What About Twilight?
Unfortunately, the world of publishing is quite different, at least from the outside, from the world of Olympic athletes and Carnegie Hall concert pianists. While you wouldn’t expect someone who started playing the piano three months ago to perform at the world’s best venues, or a gymnast with six months of training to make the Olympic team, we routinely hear of debut authors whose book hit the New York Times list or has sold a million copies.
Which is why, whenever I read research that debunks the myth of talent, a small voice in my head would pipe up - “But what about Twilight? And 50 Shades of Grey? And the Harry Potter series?”
There may be debate about some of the books that make it to bestseller status, but I am quite clear that J.K. Rowling’s bestseller series are some of the best books I have read, with obvious mastery of the craft of storytelling. How did they do so well then?
I have been doing some research, and many of the authors whose books I admire actually did write for years before their most famous work hit the bestseller lists - either with previously published books that went under the radar, or writing for years before being published. In other cases, the first book showed promise, but subsequent books in the series or by the same author actually improved, showing that the author got better with each novel under her belt.
And of course there is a whole host of other factors, such as timing, savvy marketing, and the reverse effect - that many really good books don’t get the spotlight they deserve. That is a suppose the problem of the arts, you can’t exactly rank every author or painter in the way you can athletes or chess players.
But there is one lesson that stood out in all my reading, and the primary take-away from Peak. No matter where your talent level currently lies, you can get better with practice. With the right kind of practice.
The Promise of Deliberate Practice
Without giving a lecture on the subject, the definition of deliberate practice or the kind of practice that Ericsson claims improves skill at a fast pace, is that you work on improving specific aspects of the skill, with full concentration, working just outside your comfort zone. The essential components are that you identify your weaknesses, find ways to practice to improve them, and get feedback so that you know whether you are getting better or closer to the desired outcome.
For writing fiction, that might mean choosing a specific aspect of craft to hone, such as writing more compelling characters, and revising your manuscript or writing a fresh story where you specifically aim to improve your characterization. You read craft books and take writing courses that help you get to the next level.
While this is generally something most authors aspire to anyway, a student of deliberate practice might make it an integral part of their approach. They might constantly seek feedback (from teachers, trusted readers, other authors) to hone in on their weaker areas, and seek to address them one at a time in each upcoming story. They might take courses specifically targeted to whichever aspects of storytelling they feel they need to beef up. They never get comfortable, always taking on a harder and harder challenge, pushing the boundaries of what they are capable of.
And I believe that this approach can help a veteran author of 10 novels as much as a beginner thinking about their first. Many more people want to write fiction that actually attempt it, and I think a big part of it is due to this myth about talent. As a fledgling writer, when I tell people that I am working on a book, most people wistfully tell me they would love to write, if only they had the talent. For many this wish might be on par with me wishing I could sing better, even though I am not ready to sign up for singing lessons and devote 3 evenings a week to practicing scales. But for others, many like me, they might be harboring a strong, secret desire to write, but are held back by the belief that they don’t have the talent.
No matter where you are as a writer, you can improve. Authors like Dean Wesley Smith say this in every blog post, others believe it because they have experienced it. Sometimes when we see amazing art out in the world, in the form of incredibly made movies or books that stay with you long after you close the page or plays that bring those who never watched a play into the theatre, we think that that person who created this couldn’t possibly be someone like me. I couldn’t possibly do anything as beautiful as this. As I watched the Academy Awards last night with tears streaming down my face, I was inspired by the diverse range and strength of talent on display. But I reminded myself that all of them had started out, nervous and unsure, facing the camera or the blank page for the first time, and put in years of dedicated effort to get where they are today. And while yours and my efforts may not guarantee us an Oscar, my new understanding of deliberate practice convinced me that steady effort at my craft would guarantee that I too could look back years later, and be amazed at the difference in the quality of my work. The years go by one way or the other. I would rather that I spent them aiming for something just outside my grasp, even if I never quite reached it, than wishing that I had had the courage to try.
So in the words of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul ( La La Land):
“Here’s to the ones who dream,
Foolish as they may seem”.