Broader Minded Beat: How Much Does Talent Matter?

This originally appeared in the second edition of the Broader Minded Beat newsletter (May 9, 2014).

It may be true that wide variations exist in natural aptitudes for things like music and sports. But is being blessed with vast natural ability enough? Or is it even necessary? What does it take for any high performer- be it in music, athletics, literature, or really any field for that matter—to achieve the highest level of excellence in their field?

Any good educator or coach will tell you, if they haven’t already, that the work matters. Consistent, focused effort along with good support and coaching inevitably produces learning and improvement, along with side benefits like self-discipline, self-awareness, determination, and patience.


You Have to Do the Work

Beyond these benefits, however, evidence indicates that when it comes to the highest levels of achievement, the work still really matters. In fact, work (or practice) seems to be the most consistent predictor of achievement. Research from the past two decades indicates with relative consistency that a person with modest ability can achieve the same level of excellence, or exceed it, than a more naturally ‘gifted’ person. While it may be true that people have certain tendencies and natural affinities towards music—or visual art, or tennis, or chess—the link between effort, practice, and results is being documented with scientific precision. In short, the highest achievers are likely to be the ones who have put in the most practice (and the right kinds of practice,) not the ones with the greatest natural abilities.


Mozart Referenced the Works of Others

Even Mozart, as it turns out, had to work pretty hard, for a pretty long time, for what he ultimately achieved. Mozart’s early compositions, as with all budding composers, are essentially rearranged editions or even copies of other composers’ works.
By the time he wrote what most scholars agree to be his first truly original, “Mozart-ian” piece, he was twenty-one. While still young, he had been composing (and practicing, and playing, and performing) at that point for 16 years, for hours every single day. In order to produce an original work that demonstrated mastery of his craft, he had dedicated over 16 years of single-minded effort to that end—a length of time, scholars have also noted, that exceeds the point at which other great composers are considered to have achieved similar mastery of their art.


The “10,000 Hour” Rule and Mastery

For his book, Outliers, Malcom Gladwell studied high achievers across multiple disciplines, and found that with almost perfect consistency, anyone (and that means everyone, without exception) who had achieved mastery of their fields, from Tiger Woods to Mozart to Michael Jordan, had dedicated a minimum of 10,000 hours of dedicated practice—a number that translates into about 10 years of daily, dedicated effort. Further, additional research has continually reinforced this observation.

To say the least, this certainly sheds new light on our perceptions of talent. We’d go so far as to say that the “10,000 hour rule” challenges the very importance of natural ability. At the same time, it’s also important to note that challenging these notions of talent diminishes neither the importance nor the magnificence of Mozart’s work. And the point is not that Mozart may not in fact have been what we like to think of as a prodigy. The point is that prodigies may not really exist at all. What the research seems to suggest is that genius actually happens in a very un-magical way. You have to work for it. And even better, you CAN.


What Does that Mean for Me?

If Mozart’s story helps us to rethink our notions of talent, what does that tell us about the potential in every learner, of any age? We think the headline is pretty exciting. If you want to achieve excellence, don’t worry about talent. Worry about the work. The work is where it’s at.


Shannon Kelly, Director of Advocacy, May 9, 2014. © National Association for Music Education (