Talent vs. Hard Work
By Greg Goebel, Chordination Teacher
Have you ever watched an extraordinary performance? Maybe it was Michael Jordan’s “last shot” in game 6 of the 1998 NBA finals. Perhaps it’s listening to Glenn Gould play the Goldberg Variations. Or maybe it’s witnessing Elon Musk’s revolutionary ideas become reality. For most, a natural reaction is feeling that in some deep way, those performers are different from us. We cannot relate our own performances to theirs and there seems to be an insurmountable chasm from here to there with no conceivable bridge.
Our reaction in thinking that there is something deeply different about these people is, in fact, correct. The truth is, there really is something fundamentally different about great performers. Their bodies and brains really are different than most. Their abilities to size up a situation quickly, recognize patterns, or remember complex information exist on a much higher level than the majority of the population. What we’re wrong in thinking, though, is that the nature of these performers is a mystery, something that they were just born with. That they’re just more talented.
A tourist in Central Park stops a man in a tuxedo with a violin case and asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The man responds, “Hard work and hours of practice.” We’ve probably all heard a version of this joke, but it holds a lot of truth. It’s no surprise that extensive, well structured, thoughtful practice develops abilities specific to any field, be it sports, music or business. Great performers know that high level, deliberate practice is critical to high level performance. But practice can actually alter a person’s body and brain in a physical way.
This is not in an obvious way like we might think, though, like going to the gym and lifting weights to make your muscles bigger. But rather in ways that may not be so obvious. For example, high level marathon runners have larger than average hearts. We may view this as proof that some people are just born with a “talent” that we cannot possess. But research has shown that when these runners stop training, their hearts revert to the normal size. It’s through their extensive, specific training over a span of years that their hearts grew, giving them an advantage when running. Athletes can change the composition of their muscles, fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers, not just the size. Ballet dancers can turn their feet out more than most people. Baseball pitchers can extend their throwing arm back farther. All of these qualities are gained through extensive practice over many years, usually starting from a young age.
Not just bodies, but also brains can be changed on a physical level. Studies have shown that when children begin practicing a musical instrument, their brains develop in a different way physically. New synapses and pathways are formed. Regions of the brain that hear pitch and control the fingers physically take over more territory. And similar to learning a new language, the younger the person is when they start practicing, the greater the effects will be.
There is early research into a substance called myelin that can build up around nerve fibers and neurons. The buildup of more myelin causes these fibers and neurons to work better. The brain of a professional pianist, for example, shows increased levels of myelin present in areas of the brain related to that field. It is important to note that myelination happens slowly. The process of sending a signal through the nerve fibers to stimulate the buildup of myelin needs to happen millions of times in the development of a great performer. This is an exact parallel to how deliberate practice and thoughtful repetition needs to take place regularly over the span of years to produce a performer of the highest level.
In the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he posits the 10,000 hour rule. Basically he says that anyone at the top of their field has to have put in a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice before reaching a level of proficiency. Now whether that’s an exact number or not is neither here nor there in reality. 10,000 hours of unfocused, non-deliberate practice (just playing really) will probably not get you there. But the concept of success coming from so much invested time and practice cannot be denied.
What we’re really getting down to here is talent vs. hard work. Am I saying that inborn talent is a misconception? No. Truthfully, inborn talent will yield quicker results early on. But having some natural abilities at an early age can often promote a lack of work ethic later on. If a child excels in school without having to work very hard, they can easily become lackadaisical. Some inborn talent will give them a head start, but in the long run, it’s hard work that will ultimately help the achieve their goals.
So when we witness an extraordinary performer in any field, remember those hours of hard work and focused, deliberate practice made them into what they are. There is a way across the perceived chasm between us and the greats. The fact that great people stand out proves that the path is long, it is difficult and few people follow it to its end. But following this path, even if just partially, is always beneficial and will develop skills that affect many aspects of one’s life.
For almost 20 years, Greg Goebel has been touring the globe playing concerts and teaching workshops. In addition to performing, he has recently turned his attention toward production. One of Greg’s pieces was recently featured in a new show on HBO.