Why Mozart Was an Underachiever, and Other Thoughts About Talent

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

Hello Broader Minded Thinkers!

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to the subject of talent. For example, what IS talent? How do we as educators, parents, mentors, students, and learners identify and leverage talent?  Perhaps most importantly, how much does what we like to call “talent” really matter? 

Certain people seem to be set apart by their extraordinary talent. Consider the intricate perfection of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or the transcendent, passionate brilliance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. We tend to view the creators of these masterpieces as almost separate beings, set apart from the pack by their mysterious, otherworldly gifts.

Further, we tend to see that level of mastery as unattainable for all but those who have been naturally blessed—appointed by the gods of creativity to anoint the world with their artistic contributions.

Consider one of the true giants of classical music, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose name is nearly synonymous with musical genius.  Young Wolfgang began studying music at age three and composed his first pieces, for piano and violin, at age five; he was performing publicly as a pianist and violinist by age eight.  Hailed across Europe as a child prodigy, he and his sister performed extensively for heads of state and other members of the social elite.  He went on to compose some of the most enduring and beloved operas, concertos, symphonies, and sacred works in the vast Western music repertoire, amassing a staggering body of work before the age of 35.  His achievements are beyond exceptional.  Yet, several recent music scholars consider him a late bloomer. Wait, what? Why?  More on that to come.


How Much Does Talent Affect Success?

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– a lot.  In fact, work (or practice) appears to be the most consistent predictor of achievement in any field. 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,) versus 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 years old.  That’s still pretty young, but he had been composing (and practicing, and playing, and performing) at that point for 16 years; for hours, Every. Single. Day. 

Put differently:  in order to produce an original work that demonstrated complete mastery of his craft, Wolfgang had dedicated over 16 years of single-minded effort to that end—a length of time, scholars have also noted, that well exceeds the length of apprenticeship that it took other great composers to achieve similar mastery of their art. 


The “10,000 Hour” Rule and Mastery

For his book, Outliers, Malcom Gladwell studied over 40 years of research on the subject of expertise, covering high achievers across multiple disciplines.  He found that with almost perfect consistency, anyone who had achieved mastery of their fields, from Tiger Woods to Mozart to Michael Jordan to Bill Gates to chess legend Bobby Fischer, had dedicated an average minimum of 10,000 hours of dedicated practice—a number that translates into about 10 years of daily, dedicated effort.  This rule applied without exception to everyone and anyone who fell under the scrutiny of researchers– including Mozart, who fell short of the average by a full six years. As Gladwell states, “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”  Further research has continually reinforced this observation.

To say the least, these findings certainly shed new light on our perceptions of talent.  We’d go so far as to say that the “10,000 hour rule” challenges the importance of natural ability.  It also challenges us as educators, parents, and policymakers to think more seriously about how we allow our notions of talent to affect our approaches to teaching and learning. 

Finally, it’s important to note that reconsidering traditional notions of talent diminishes neither the importance nor the magnificence of Mozart’s work, or that of any other master.  The point is not to debate whether Mozart may or may not have been what we like to think of as a prodigy. The point is that prodigies as we like to think of them may not really exist at all.   Mozart–and Beethoven, and Bach, and Jordan, and Gates– didn’t just win the talent lottery. They earned it.  As the research seems to suggest, 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 so much about talent. Worry about the work.  The work is where it’s at. 

Check out these fascinating reads if you’re curious about this discussion.  If you have other reading suggestions, please let us know!

Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin

The Talent Code by Dan Coyle

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell

Bounce by Matthew Syed

Complexity and the Ten-Thousand Hour Rule,” by Malcom Gladwell. The New Yorker; August 21, 2013 


 For additional information on the broader minded movement please visit: broaderminded.com.


Also, are you planning a fall concert? Here’s a handy one-page program insert about broader minded. Download and print away! (color copies work best) 


Shannon Kelly, NAfME Dire
ctor of Advocacy, Aug. 28, 2014. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)