Talent Vs. Practice

Contrary to the very American attitude that hard work is more important than talent, I come from the school that says hard work only begins to matter if you have talent to start with.  As some endeavors take only a minimum of talent to accomplish, hard work is more of a determinant than talent there. But for many desirable accomplishments, no amount of hard work means anything unless there is significant talent to begin with.

But first, stories.  I read many years ago about a man checking into his hotel room, noticing a man with a cello checking into the room next to him. He recognized the man as a famous concert performer.  It wasn’t Yo-Yo Ma, but it was a figure like that.  (We should be immediately alert to the notion that the story is probably not true.  As with spotting hoaxes, things that look too good to be true usually are too good to be true.) The man was pleased, wondering if he would get to hear the great musician practice, and get a free concert.  Music did indeed begin to be heard on the other side of the wall in about a half-hour. The cellist was playing scales. He played nothing but scales for an hour, took a fifteen-minute break, and then played scales for another hour. He heard the door open and close, and heading downstairs himself, saw the man taking an early dinner in the hotel restaurant. The musician left without his cello after dinner, played a scheduled concert, and when he returned – played scales for another hour.

Bill Whitman, a college bandmate who now plays blues piano on Beale St in Memphis for a living gets frustrated with people who come up and marvel at his natural talent. No matter how much he tells them that no, he practices very hard and has for years, they seem determined to believe that it must be talent and knack, not hard work, that has brought him to this level of skill. It irks him.

Athletes run into the same attitude. LeBron James works very, very hard at his craft. Tiger Woods put in hours of directed practice even as a child, coached by his father. And Joe DiMaggio, who Zachriel linked to and used as an example, did indeed spend hours practicing his batting. My stepfamily had many athletes – DII All-Americans and such like – and they not only played sports year-round and constantly, but would hit years where they wanted to take their game to another level and would put in the hours lifting weights or attending expensive clinics. They worked hard, and sometimes I got to see it.

At the very highest levels you have to work hard, because there are other people with similar talent.

That said, the idea is mostly crap.  The highest levels of music and sports are not populated by the people who just worked hard, they are populated by the 1% most talented people who also worked hard. Yo-Yo Ma’s talent was recognized when he was very young.  I watched Bill Whitman pick up a lap steel guitar at an old country musician’s house one Sunday afternoon and play it passably in a few hours. For myself, I have a good ear but poor fine-motor coordination, and always said I had to work twice as hard to be half as good as others. LeBron James was being followed by sportswriters when he was in sixth grade. Joe DiMaggio was not joined in the major leagues by guys from his neighborhood who played ball with him every day growing up but with his brothers, who shared his genetics. There were a million kids born his year, and 10,000 of them worked as hard at baseball as he did.  I watched my youngest stepbrother become competent at table tennis at age seven, playing against our less-athletic side of the family, with brothers five and nine years older than him. The only games he played were against us for those first few years, and he was better than us fairly quickly.  Not to mention shuffleboard and waterskiing.  He wasn’t secretly practicing these things and working hard when we weren’t looking.

I loved playing with numbers as a child and got very good at it.  I would spend secret time in elementary school working out square roots, multiplying large numbers left-to-right, or even in my head while we were supposed to be doing something else. Even as an adult I used to try and factor the odometer mileage before it changed to the next mile.  Just because it was fun.  Yet when I went to summer studies at St. Paul’s I met Larry David, who was more obsessed by chemistry and physics and only liked math because calculus was useful to him – and he was far better than I was.  He wasn’t the only one there who could just do things I couldn’t, despite the years I had put in.

Yes, there are immensely talented people who waste their gift through lack of effort. We see them all the time.  But much of this is because those stick in the memory. People of only moderate talent, or charm, or beauty, or wealth waste their talent and it passes out of memory.

There are secondary considerations. Sportswriters, coaches, and managers are often made out of those who tried desperately hard at the sport but did not have the talent on the field.  Yet they found success, perhaps even greater success, largely because they didn’t give up and stop trying, but just changed tactics. Effort and discipline are good things.  But they just don’t do it all.

9 thoughts on “Talent Vs. Practice”

  1. I really got some enlightenment watching a seniors tournament some 20 years ago. Before every game all of these renowned golfers would go to the driving range and seriously practice. I was literally 10 feet from Arnold Palmer. And he didn’t just whack the ball and grab another. He would hit it and then pause for about 15 to 30 seconds remembering what he did to get the good shot or the bad shot.

    And at that time he had been playing-and winning- for 40 years.

  2. I find this to be entirely wrong-headed. Tiger Woods, Yo-Yo Ma, etc., are freaks of nature. You can’t draw meaningful conclusions from them. It’d be like trying to draw policy conclusions based on mass shootings, which are vanishingly rare and not representative of any wider issues. But there are hundreds (thousands?) of professional golfers, and thousands upon thousands of professional musicians. Many of each just barely make enough money to sustain themselves, and many of course do not, and choose different professions. And all of those people, while being exceptionally talented in every case, have worked very, very, very hard, or else their talent wouldn’t have gotten them anywhere, because they aren’t historic freaks.
    For 99.99% of people, hard work and dedication are far, far, far more important than talent. It’d be a bizarre economy that didn’t work like that, because it would be dependent on extremely rare and completely unpredictable events.

  3. All too true. I saw it years ago when I coached youth baseball. I see it now when I help run student robotics programs (with help from, among others, one of the kids I had on a ball team a generation back!).

    If a kid had either talent or passion for the game I could make a good ball player out of him. To be an excellent player required both. And that was only the first level of a pyramid that gets steeper and steeper as it goes up.

    In technology it is similar. Ability plus poor work ethic goes nowhere. Throwing everything into a pursuit when you are all thumbs can only get you so far. The analogy falls apart on the software side of things. I’ve known a few whose abilities are so far beyond my own that the rules for normal humans no longer apply. I suspect one in particular to have been non human, probably a member of some Advanced Alien Race hanging out here on Earth for recreation…


  4. Surgery is an area where talent is probably equal to practice. When I applied to a surgical residency, only one interviewer, the father of a college roommate, asked me about skills in sports or playing a musical instrument. There are lots of poor surgeons who will never benefit from practice. The advent of laparoscopy in the 80s did bring an area where practice was important. The ability to watch a TV screen and perform an operation inside the belly with only a two dimensional view and no tactile sense, required practice.

    One problem is that surgery attracts bright people without manual dexterity. When nIm was a medical student, the chief of surgery at the Mass General was a man who was a pioneer in transplantation but an inept technical surgeon. I have seen that again and again in academic settings. I suppose something like that applies in other areas, such as fighter pilots. The analogy with coaches is quite apt.

  5. Music and sports are similar in that both have a seemingly dominant physical component on top of a theoretical aspect. I don’t think that exceptional players or musicians are freaks of nature, just residents of the left side of the bell curve. Most of them might as well exist on another plane, the ability to transfer their expertise to anyone except the best of the best is rare. Many world class musicians teach master classes, very few even try to teach any but the most advanced students. Not many elite athletes make a successful transition to coaching or managing. Only a few really great scientists have tried to make their work accessible to the general public, a few have trouble relating to even their near peers.

    Babe Ruth was a very good pitcher before he was moved to the outfield to get more at bats. I don’t recall hearing a single story of his fielding. Pitching is supposed to be one of the more cerebral positions in baseball, did he just switch off this part of himself when his role changed from primarily defensive to pure offense? I don’t think there are any circumstances where one or more points on the board aren’t welcome, not much strategy involved. There is also the commercial aspect, a lot more people would pay for the chance to see a Babe Ruth homer than for the vanishingly small chance of a triple play.

    Maybe a few can exist for a time at the very pinnacle physical ability. As you descend even a little, that is not sufficient. I suspect that there are musicians with technique matching or even exceeding the best touring musicians that are known only to their orchestra mates because they don’t have the unquantifiable something that separates technique from artistry.

    The pernicious aspect occurs in the schools where teachers and parents decide someone just isn’t good at whatever, and choose the happy notion that some compensation will magically appear, rather than the grim task of enforcing application against inclination. This is especially appealing when a child seems to show a gift in another direction. Even in the rare cases that this is actually true, we end up with stories of elite athletes and performers beggared by the most transparent frauds.

  6. “I don’t think that exceptional players or musicians are freaks of nature”
    I picked Tiger Woods for a reason, as he is arguably the greatest golf player ever, certainly in the top 2 or 3 at the very worst. He is a freak, I’d say qualitatively different from the average player. He was a prodigy, and is no more representative of professional athletes than Gauss was of mathematicians. Most PGA players are exceptionally talented athletes who have worked very, very, very hard. Tiger Woods is both talented and hard-working, to an absolutely extreme degree in both.

  7. PGA golf is one of the few sports where even the best athletes have to practice religiously – a lot – to stay in game-shape. When Tiger couldn’t practice, for weeks after the Masters due to his back, he fall apart in the PGA. And when he first came back in 2018, he was chipping so bad, it was embarrassing. People thought he had the “chip yips” and his career war over. Again due to lack of practice.

    Nicklaus said Tom Weiskopf could have been – not just very good – but one of the all-time greats. But he just didn’t want to put in the time. I think Johnny Miller was the same.

    Personally, if I could have great athletic talent, I’d be a great sprinter like Bolt. It doesn’t look like he needs to work hard. Just stay in shape and do a few sprints now and then. My kind of Sport!

  8. Babe Ruth was a very good pitcher before he was moved to the outfield to get more at bats.

    I went to college with Jon Arnett who was an All American running back at USC when I was a student,. He was also a fantastic natural athlete.

    In high school, he was a gymnast. When running with the football he could reach down and touch the ground to steady himself after a hit. He took up golf after football season was over. I played some rounds with him. He had never played but 6 months after he began, he was shooting in the 70s. He could have made a career in pro golf but the Rams had drafted him and he played a few years with the Rams. Probably more money in football then (1960)

  9. A story I’ve read several places is that Niels Bohr, the physicist, decided he wanted to take up golf. He did what any other physicist would do, bought some clubs and read a book. The story then goes that his first score was something below 90.

    As far as I know, as a non-golfer, golf is 100% offense, no defense allowed. If that were really true, it wouldn’t be played in groups. Still, the major competition is the layout of the course that is the same for everyone. A birdy is a lot like a home run, always a plus. Golf also combines a peculiar set of skills. No throwing, running or especially hitting, just a very small ball struck with a very odd hammer.

    As you say, crossover is common although I suspect the great athletes that suck at golf don’t advertise. I think the things all sports, above the most basic skill level, have in common is that they require the athlete to adapt how he moves or applies force in very subtle ways in a fraction of a second, far shorter than conscious decision making should allow or conversely, to replicate some set of actions time after time. I suspect the same is also true of musical performance. I’ve heard musicians describe being able to separate each note in a passage of 32nd notes as if time was standing still, giving each its proper attack, intonation and decay.

    Even chess, not a sport, is played with a time limit that precludes normal people from considering consciously more than a relative few alternatives.

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