What is talent, anyway?

This is for you, Randy.

Today represents my re-entry into training after a nasty elbow injury a couple of months ago. It was just one of those things that happened during class; no one was trying to be tough or hurt anyone else, but I got arm-barred and didn’t tap soon enough. I’m just getting back to where I can train lightly.

For some reason, I don’t have much desire to blog when I’m not training. Maybe I see it as a chance to work on other things.

At any rate, I wanted to share an interesting conversation I had over YouTube regarding talent vs. hard work. Some months back, I made an off-handed comment on a video of Zakir Hussain about how I’d like to learn to play the tabla. (Zakir Hussain is pretty much the Roger Gracie of the Indian tabla drums, if you’ll forgive the analogy.) In the comment, I said I’d never be as good as Zakir because I can’t dedicate my life to playing the tabla.

Well, being YouTube, someone took issue to my comment and started going off about how even if I had a bazillion years, I could never be as good as Zakir Hussain at the tabla. Which is probably true. This led to a debate about which is more important, talent or hard work. My esteemed YouTube acquaintance pretty much told me I was messed up for thinking that talent takes a back seat to hard work.

This has everything to do with jiu-jitsu to me. Like every other discipline, we’re stratified, but what is it really that separates us average Joes from the BJJ elite? Is it some mystical element called “talent,” or is it something more palpable?

Here is the explanation I sent. Tell me what you think:

I agree you must have the physical and/or mental aptitude to perform a skill, and some people have a greater aptitude than others. I just give that aptitude far less weight than you do. It’s a necessary ingredient, but far from the most important. Furthermore, aptitude is not talent. More on that later.

I completely understand your point about not everyone being able to be good at everything. I know people who are completely tone deaf. It’s a cinch that they’ll never become singers. But barring physical or mental roadblocks, the reason people don’t perform at that “champion” level is that they don’t understand what it takes to be a champion. Or perhaps they do understand, and have decided it’s too high a price for them to pay.

I’ve inherited this mentality from world-class athletes. I’m a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner. And although I have no aspirations to be one (the price is too high for me), I’ve always been interested in what makes a champion.

One of my coaches is a multiple-time world grappling champion. I’ve worked with and interviewed other world champions and coaches who train world champions.

I have literally asked these people which is more important: talent, or hard work. Every single one of them has told me the same thing; being a champion is 10% talent and 90% hard work. Many of them will even say that talent is as low as 1%, and have a degree of disdain for people who rely on talent, because they are eventually left in the dust by their less “gifted” harder-working counterparts. If anything, they will tell you the real talent is desire and letting that desire motivate you to do amazing things. It also has a lot to do with how you train, both physically and psychologically.

Occasionally you’ll find someone who learns faster and pulls ahead, but as soon as they stop working, their peers pass them by.

The truth is, very few people even try to be the best at what they do. They’re content with mediocrity. They don’t even begin to comprehend what it takes to be a master of a trade. They don’t comprehend the sacrifices and blood and tears the people at the top have paid. They just see a huge difference between the gods at the top, and their own mortality. And they justify that difference with one word: Talent.

But what are they really describing with that word? Is it natural ability? Is it aptitude? I don’t think so. They’re describing the sacrifice, the blood, sweat and tears that the “champion” has paid in order to achieve absolute mastery. Because that’s really what separates them, not some mystical ability that nature randomly bestowed on them.

I respect your right to disagree – or maybe we just don’t ascribe the same meaning to the word “talent.” At any rate, now you know where I’m coming from.

There is one thing I am guessing we agree on: Zakir Hussain is phenomenal and a sheer pleasure to hear play :)

So, give it to me straight. Am I full of crap? Are there just some people destined to become great because they were “born with it,” or could almost anyone perform at a champion level if they had the right coach / dedication / desire / life circumstances? There are a lot of variables that come into play, of course; but when it boils down, what is the real component of talent?

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  1. Randy chimed in:


    I didn’t know about your elbow. It’s good to hear that you are on the mend.

  2. Georgette chimed in:

    Go read “The Talent Code.” It’s all about laying down the myelin, man….. :) :)

  3. Bart chimed in:

    Amen, amen and amen.

    I think you’ve probably fleshed out the real problem – what people define “talent” and “aptitude” to mean. Some people acquire skill at a faster rate than others, especially at the beginning levels, but any form of true mastery requires a hefty time and effort commitment.

    In my opinion, real talent cannot shine through until a sufficient level of mastery in the basics has been obtained. Your internet adversary is partially correct – you’ll never play like Zakir … but that is because you are not Zakir! The time/effort component aside, a good deal of talent (at the upper levels) comes from the ability to bring our individual style to the endeavor in clever ways.

    Lastly, my favorite part of this whole article is finding out that no matter how obscure the topic, there exists an internet troll waiting to battle it out.

  4. SkinnyD chimed in:

    Good points, Bart. I don’t disagree that there is a degree of aptitude and individuality that makes some individuals shine. There will always be people better than others, even at the high levels of performance. But there’s no reason an ordinary person couldn’t become extraordinary with enough dedication. I totally agree; “talent” only matters after mastery has been achieved. I think talent is the blend of individuality, creativity and technical prowess that gives a performer their unique voice. Some of it is just chance and timing; people just become famous because they knew the right people at the right place at the right time, while another equally “talented” individual will remain in obscurity.

  5. Nick Angeloni chimed in:

    I can’t agree with you more. Talent can help you get better quicker. But talented individual who does not work hard won’t make it. I believe that talent is the most important thing you need if you want to be champ.

    There is a book called Outliers that talks about this study on young kids in music schools in Asia. The study, in an extremely simplified version, showed that kids who practiced 30 hours a week or more all eventually become successful musicians. There wasn’t any kids who didn’t have natural talent, practiced that much, and just couldn’t cut it. The kids who didn’t practice as much grew up to be high school music teachers and things like that, even the ones who were considered to have natural talent in the beginning.

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