The Myth of Talent
by Justin Johnson
“We are often taught that talent begins with genetic gifts – that the talented are able to effortlessly perform feats the rest of us can only dream about. This is false. Talent begins with brief, powerful encounters that spark motivation by linking your identity to a high-performing person or group. This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world-shifting thought lighting up your conscious mind: I could be them.”
– Daniel Coyle, author of the New York Times bestseller The Talent Code.
I grew up in small town North Dakota and had big dreams of playing professional basketball. That dream turned out to be unrealized. Shocker, I know… A five-foot, seven-inch tall Norwegian kid with the middle name Ole failing to make it big in the NBA… As a kid growing up, I told myself I was working hard to achieve that dream. Looking back on my life nearly 20 years later, it’s easy to see that I never gave myself a chance.
I’ll be the first to admit that being undersized factors into your level of success in a game like basketball. However, there are plenty of guys shorter than me who ended up making it into the NBA. Even more went on to play in smaller professional leagues around the world. And more yet reached high levels of success in college. What I really mean by not giving myself a chance was that the level of work I was willing to put into achieving that dream wasn’t even close enough to give myself a chance of making it anywhere. I eventually played basketball at a small college in North Dakota, but I didn’t make it because of any outstanding level of basketball achievement. I made it because I didn’t quit. I kept trying and was lucky enough to get an opportunity to walk on because I had an older brother on scholarship at the school. At the time I thought I worked extremely hard to make it, but that’s not really the case. In reality I did just enough to get there. I could have done so much more.
Looking back now, it’s plain to see that I had no idea how to work hard at becoming a better basketball player. In terms of becoming more skilled, I was clueless about what to work on and the level of intensity needed in practice to see significant improvement. My idea of a good workout was to go from spot to spot around the floor until I made a certain amount of shots from each location. That’s all well and good if you’re trying to become a better shooter, but the pace I was practicing at was only preparing me for a promising career in H-O-R-S-E. On top of that, I had no idea how to shoot the basketball efficiently when it came to mechanics. I was basically flinging the ball up to the hoop without a care for proper form or technique.
To make things worse, I failed to recognize what would make me a more successful basketball player outside of shooting. Instead of working to improve ball handling, quickness, strength, and speed, I had the idea stuck in my head that the way to become a great basketball player was to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. Don’t get me wrong, shooting is an incredibly important skill. And I guess like most young kids, the allure of basketball is to be able to score a bunch of points and be the star. What I failed to recognize was that at five-feet and seven inches tall, there were plenty of other things I needed to excel at if I wanted to compete at a high level. Shooting was only a one piece of the puzzle. I had to handle the ball exceptionally well and reach a level of strength, quickness, and agility that would allow me to compete. Like I said before, I was clueless on what I needed to work on and how hard I needed to work to get good. I think most people fall into this category. Most people want to be good at something, but they fail to educate themselves on what to work on, how to work on it, and how much time it will take to master certain crafts and skills that will propel them to higher levels of competition.
There’s also this thing people like to tell themselves and others around them when they find they can’t achieve a certain level of success – and it has to do with this little myth people have created in their minds about talent and where it comes from. When I think back now it’s amazing how often I heard people around me saying that certain athletes were just talented. Most sports fans in small towns around North Dakota are afflicted with this same mental ailment, mindlessly pointing at the best players and then pronouncing as if they were sports geniuses: “He is just so talented.” Well, no shit, Einstein. Thanks for that pearl of wisdom.
They always stopped there. Those self-proclaimed sports experts always stopped at “He is just so talented.” Not once do I ever remember having productive discussions about how certain athletes got to that level of success. There seems to be this idea held by narrow-minded people around us that some people are just better than others and that’s the way it is. Well, how did they get better than others? You’re telling me that I’m just stuck at this level and there’s nothing I can do to get to that level? Why? Because he has that magical God-given talent and I don’t? While it’s true that there are genetic factors that play a role in athletic success, it’s clear to me now that most people making those kinds of observations were in large part ignorant about what it takes to get really good at something. What I have come to believe now is that all their talk about some athletes being more talented was a way to build in an excuse for failure. If they came up short and didn’t have the same success their peers did, it wasn’t because they failed to put in the work. It was because those superior opponents got a better role of the dice.
I’m a firm believer now that this type of thinking is 100 percent, absolute garbage. It’s weak thinking and it’s a way we make ourselves feel okay with not achieving what we really want. It’s a built in excuse we turn to like a trump card to make ourselves feel better when we don’t measure up.
Whatever you really want to get better at, give yourself a chance. Stop looking for reasons you can’t get where you want to go and start educating yourself on what you need to do to get there. Look for reasons to believe you can get better, and do something each and every day to improve at what you’re truly passionate about.