Talent Is Only For Artists and Athletes

You may have seen a number of articles out in the last day or two debunking the idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that we need 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. A New York Times article quoted a researcher who contributed to the results of a new study who said,

“We found that, yes, practice is important, and of course it’s absolutely necessary to achieve expertise,” said Zach Hambrick, a psychologist at Michigan State University…“But it’s not as important as many people have been saying” compared to inborn gifts.”

One thing I noticed- despite the fact the article starts out talking about a kid kicking a soccer ball and a man learning Japanese and goes on to talk about mastery in the areas of language, sports, chess as well as music, the majority of the comments reference talent versus practice in artistic pursuits. Out of the 260 comments to the article at the time of this post, only about 10-15 talk about athletes and there isn’t really any mention of achieving mastery in any other area.

Perhaps it is due to the influence of the title of the article referencing Carnegie Hall and the fact the pictures are of dancers and musicians. However, I wondered if the artistic orientation of these comments revealed an underlying belief that we only need to consider talent versus practice in relation to artistic achievement.

No one mentioned the impact of talent or practice on writing press releases, analyzing business plans/financials or installing electrical wiring. Yet no one coming straight out of a training program can automatically do any of these things masterfully. It takes time to develop a proficiency and for many, there is a level of quality beyond which they can not advance no matter how much effort they invest.

I wondered if this belief that practice and talent are important to be successful in artistic pursuits might be contributing to the idea that the arts are an elitist pursuit that only a few can participate in.

The reverse of this plagues school teachers and professors. Students and parents who might acknowledge that hard work will never allow them to be a pro-athlete will insist that an A grade or admission to a honor class be granted because a student had worked hard. Other than Lake Woebegone where all the children are above average, there exists a level beyond which some students can’t be successful academically.

So while everyone may believe they achieve academic excellence due only to hard work, the belief that you need to be blessed with innate talent to achieve artistic excellence may contribute to the idea that only an elite few can become artistic masters or have the capacity to understand art.

Of course, people are damned by the inverse assumptions: If you are not succeeding academically, you aren’t working hard enough. If you are a rich and famous artist, you must be talented.

All this occurred to me as I was reading the article so I haven’t really tested this theory with a few days of thought. What do you think?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Leave a Comment