A word on talent

28 Apr 2023

Last updated


Talent: natural aptitude or skill

What is talent?

Talent is usually defined, as we can see here from a quick search on google, as a natural skill or inclination some people may present when being exposed to a new discipline.

This is usually seen as a good thing: it is extremely satisfying to perform well on a somewhat unknown subject, as that may indicate an innate ability that may come with some corresponding life career or direction. It feels like you are skipping the hard part.

You are taking a shortcut.

Clear examples of this come from kids that may unexpectedly do well on a instrument or sport. They do better than their peers and, as such, they deserve more attention in the hopes that we can somehow pull a diamond from this rock.

Doing well on a discipline is associated with higher levels of intelligence, since smart people find everything easier than their peers, by definition. But this means that it all comes down to what the context you are developing in can offer you.

That’s when you see kids skipping courses — the idea being that you are smart enough to keep up with people that are more mature than you. Essentially, they’ve lived for longer than you, so they should know more than you. Put it the other way around: you’ve needed less time to fully understand your environment than the time your peers needed for the same result.

Learning density

I like to call this learning density: how much you are able to fit in your little head per unit of time. How fast you can become good enough at something for it to signify that you should keep devoting a significant amount of time to it.

People that have a high learning density factor learn faster. And as such, they devote more time on their craft, becoming even better — great, if you will.

So, again, thinking about it for just a second, everything just revolves around how much time you need to learn something, and how well your surroundings do on average for it to be worth celebrating.

The other side of the spectrum is also common: people that put time into something without major improvements or lack of remarkable moments in their career. People that simply need more time. This group can feel frustrated, particularly in comparison to their peers that are doing better given the same time frame. This can lead to a lack of purpose and a constant, poisonous questioning of one’s self.

why am I doing this?

This can lead to premature failure on the craft, if the conditions line up. Some people are more resilient than others. It may take only a bit of insecurity to completely throw everything off the window.

This would be less prominent if either of these were true: we didn’t expect greatness out of nothing or we didn’t compare ourselves against our environment so harshly.


Why is everyone in such a rush?

Time is the main concern that no one talks about. Time is the only thing that concerns people. Removing the component of time renders this whole discussion useless.

People only worry about how much time they’ll have to invest into something, and that’s because time is the most important thing we have in our lives. And investing our time appropriately is key for us. Or, at least, having the feeling we are doing so.

Peter Norvig talks about this in his book Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years, where he questions why there is such a need to learn programming in such accelerated rhythms.

A classic answer may arise: programming jobs are well paid and “learning the skill for a well paid job in 24 hours” seems like such a worth investment.

It’s very clear, though, upon further and a more thorough inspection, that such thing makes very little sense.

Learning an instrument is also usually treated as such. Playing music is regarded as a very disciplined activity, and you don’t deserve to even try if you are not extremely proficient and are trying to be the absolute best.

I’m very bad at playing guitar

I suck at playing piano

This begs for the same question: what does it mean to be good? What does it mean to be bad?

Lack of goals

These questions come from, what I believe, are lack of goals. These are only brought up when we don’t exactly know what we want.

Are you in the need to play guitar excellently? If not, why are we not content with the fact that we can just simply enjoy playing guitar on a more basic level?

Are we yearning for the idealized feeling that we may see in professional musicians when we see them play?

What do you want to get out of playing an instrument? Learning a new skill and getting to know a potentially life-changing discipline? Or impress those around you in the same way you’re impressed by a professional musician?

These are just some questions that I’ve thought about in my learning time, questions that is worth keeping in mind as “dangerous” but still should be kept close to avoid falling into that trap over and over. These dangerous questions are surely different from person to person, but can be grouped in the same space.

The tip of the iceberg

Another potential reason as to why these questions can come up is due to the tip of the iceberg effect.

When watching a master at work, you are experiencing a very thin slice of their whole trajectory.

You see the artist in question pick up their instrument of choice and see them kill it immediately, with almost no effort.

The trick is that professionals make it look like it’s so easy to do what they do. To an outsider, they are putting very little effort while outputting an insane amount of quality. They are extremely efficient.

This creates a mismatch between perception and reality. If it’s so easy, why can’t I do it?

We are missing the unfathomable amount of hours these artists have put into their craft. They’ve solved the same exact problems thousands of times. They’ve mastered their tools and they’ve built up extremely valuable muscle memory.

And that, again, takes time.

Natural speed

We are all running at our best speed. We are all clocking at the best frequency. You cannot go any faster or slower, you just go at your speed.

This is independent from the fact that you can improve and become better and faster at something as you practice. It has to do with the fact that you are doing such thing on the first place.

Your speed is the ability to break through and simply start practicing. This is something you can control. It is very hard to keep oneself disciplined. But the hard part is only the beginning. Upon only a few units of learning time one can get sufficiently good at something so as to be motivated and keep doing more. You get in the zone.

We can define this “unit of learning time” as the minimum time it takes for you to learn a single, atomic unit of a given discipline. This is something we don’t really have control over. It may take more time to me than it takes to you to be clear about the same exact topic.

But we do have control over the fact that we can simply start working on it.

That’s why this is independent of you getting better at a task. You will improve over time. So, by definition, ability is just a function of time and work. Talent is just a function of ability, but removing all the work component.

Af(w,t)A \rightarrow f(w, t)
Tf(A)  wT \rightarrow f(A) \ \nexists \ w

Most of the artists that I speak with never refer to others as “talented”. They see the work component and celebrate it. This is because they had to go through the same experience. Good work doesn’t come easy.

Impressive work


You are so talented

The former celebrates the effort. The latter celebrates the ability.

Ability as a reward

This gives the impression that ability is a kind of reward that one gets after working hard.

By putting enough time, you will become better. You will develop your skill. Being, or rather, feeling good at something is, in fact, very rewarding. It is reassuring.

This, I believe, is what some people search for. The feeling of feeling good. While it’s definitely a good thing to search for, I think it can lead to a painful mismatch between what it actually means to be good at something versus the feeling of improvement.

I must get better at this. And I must do it now.

This pressure or judgement usually comes from within us, in the hopes to become relentlessly better at our craft. Other times, from teachers, mentors or peers.

This ambition yields great results in healthy doses, and catastrophic outcomes in unhealthy ones.

We have to be careful on how much pressure we put on ourselves. We have to strive to get better. But we have to celebrate the path we’ve already gone through.

For me, personally, the real reward I get is that the knowledge acquired allows for a deeper understanding of the work you are inspired with. You can clearly see the directions and decisions made within the works of art you admire. This brings a very deep appreciation and a closer feeling to the work itself.

Honest Goals

It does not really matter what goals we are striving for so long as they are crystal clear in our roadmap.

If you just want to be good, pursue it. Allocate large blocks of time of repeated, disciplined work and get to know every corner of your craft.

If you want to impress people, focus on learning the minimum vocabulary that can take you the furthest, and work on your salesperson skills. It is impressive how far one can get with very little.

But, usually, and speaking personally, these goals won’t take you very far. They feel shallow.

These activities come from a sense of joy, whimsy and excitement. Both of those approaches feel extremely capitalistic and productized. Get the most out of the least.

I am not trying to make less work. I enjoy the work. I want to do more. I want to invest time into it.

These activities bring out aspects of ourselves that could not come out in any other way possible. They come from our heart and soul. It is a means of self expression.

It’s important to be very honest to ourselves. Sometimes we just don’t want to put the work to learn something. That’s great. Sometimes, we don’t want to put enough work to be the absolute best. And that’s great.

And, sometimes, you don’t enjoy the work. That is something you only know when actually trying.

But it’s very important that we remember that we cannot expect to be the best if we are not willing to put our part. It is our responsibility to get better.

And it’s also crucial to remember that we don’t really need to be the absolute best. We can just be good enough! This measurement is personal, just like the definition of success. You are in control.

That’s where honesty helps, at least to me. It reminds me that I can get as far as I want. But any progress will only come from its corresponding effort.

We cannot expect greatness out of nothing.