Natural Talent vs Learned Skill: Part 1

natural talent vs learned skill

To understand the natural talent vs learned skill debate, look at the animal kingdom. The Chesapeake Bay Retriever instinct to retrieve is so strong that they literally moan with boredom if you don’t take them out to do their daily work. Without training, my Chessie was retrieving at eight weeks old. Her innate or “raw talent” was already there, she was bred for it, and we nurtured this natural ability gradually to the point where she developed a high level of skill at it. Try training a herding dog for a retriever’s career. Won’t happen, you’ll end up with a dog that hates its work.  

Over in the human kingdom, parents say they notice their kid’s natural proclivities as early as two years old. My nieces and nephews are each wired up differently, some are math whizzes, others poets, and others LEGO block builders. Their natural talents are there, “gifted” by mother nature, and they didn’t have much (if any) exposure when these strengths were first noticed. The nerdy poet is deeply insightful and logical, her brother is naturally social and outgoing. Their personalities and talents are so opposite that they seem like different “breeds” of humans.

What know is that people are born with very different innate tendencies and traits, but this knowledge is still largely academic. Schools aren’t distinguishing us by our natural talents, in the eyes of the education system we are all equals—blank slates—graded and rewarded by our “hard work.”    

When it comes to success in life, we know that hard work matters. But, what specifically should we work hard at? Can we really do whatever we set our minds too? Most people are struggling to figure this out, mainly because they don’t know what their natural talents are. Why don’t we know this? Well, my Chessie doesn’t know she’s a retriever either. She’s just being what she is. We’re humans are not that different, we just do what we are. Because we don’t think of ourselves as “from” the animal kingdom, we think we’re somehow uniquely able to excel at anything thing we want. Think about it, we aren’t telling kids, “Hey, you don’t have natural talent for soccer so it’s not going to be much fun for you over the long run.” Instead, we defer to the blank slate and encourage our kids to hard work at everything they do. Meanwhile, we bite our tongue hopping they’ll quit and move on to something they’re naturally good at.    

We can’t viscerally perceive or appreciate how much our innate abilities and traits shape who we are or what we do best, because we didn’t get to witness ourselves adapting to our evolutionary environments over the last couple hundred thousand years. The brains we have don’t come with an operators manual. And no one tells us that we have the same old brain (S.O.B.) as people did 30,000 years ago in a tribal hunter-gatherer world, and that we’re just trying to make sense of a vastly complicated modern world.  

Exactly what makes people exceptional at something is considered a mystery. Some say it’s all hard work, anyone can excel if they do the work. Others say that only the rare, gifted few have what it takes to be great. My career testing experience over 20 years reveals that the answer lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes. I think the real question is “What specific fields, tasks and activities should you work hard at building skill in?” I’ve found that most people can’t sustainably excel at an infinite number of tasks and activities. But, once they find their natural talent sweet spot, it’s like they’ve been shot out of a rocket. 

In part 2, let’s take a closer look at both sides of the argument, “Natural Talent vs Practice.”

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