Is Talent A Myth?

A sea of faces stared wide-eyed into the cold, brightly lit night, ooohing and ahhhing as Will Gadd precisely placed one ice tool then the other, pulling himself up the competition wall with a strength so controlled it looked effortless. The crowd burst into a roar when he pulled the last thrilling overhanging move to the finish, and then turned to each other, buzzing with excitement. Between sips of beer, most of the murmured comments were something like, That guy’s a mutant. But the comments were wrong.

Just after that comp at the Bozeman Ice Fest, I interviewed Will, possibly the strongest and most accomplished ice climber in the world. He denied that he was a mutant—and changed the way I think about human ability.

“People always think that people doing sports at really high levels are somehow special, and I’m really sure I’m not,” he said. “And I’m pretty sure nobody else doing these things is either.”

He explained that, while he doesn’t want to belittle the accomplishments of others, “when you put other people’s accomplishments on a pedestal and think, I could never do that, then you ruin your own potential.”

How often do we do that? And I’m not just talking sports. We see someone doing something we admire, whether it’s taking spectacular photos or riding the bike trick we’ve always dreamed of, and we think they have something special that allows them to do that. We think they have something we’re missing, or we’d be able to do it, too. But Will Gadd says that’s bullshit.

“I think, within certain physical realities, we could all do pretty much anything that we want to do,” Will said. “People watch me and say: you’re a mutant, you’re really strong. But actually I haven’t always been, if you looked at my seventh grade phys-ed class. But look at me now. I’ve trained my ass off to get where I am, and give me a couple years with just about anybody, and they’ll be as strong as I am.” And he would know—he also coaches.

Wait, what? Certainly few of us aspire to be world champion ice climbers. But with the same focused intensity he’d shown in the comp, Will Gadd was looking me in the eyes, telling me that if I put in the effort, I could do what he does…or anything I want, for that matter. The point is, accomplishments like his don’t come magically from some innate ability. They’re the result of hard work over a long period of time.

In a recent story in The Atlantic, a researcher at Columbia said: There are two types of people, when it comes to how we respond to challenges. Those who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. But people who relish challenges think talent is something you can nourish by doing things you’re not good at. The researcher called the former a “fixed mindset,” and the latter a “growth mindset.”

The researcher explained that the problem with having a fixed mindset is that when you come up against something you’re not immediately good at, you’re likely to just throw your hands up and feel like you don’t have what it takes to do it. You sell yourself short, thinking you simply don’t have the talent. But people who see challenges as a way to learn and grow end up progressing.

“But no one wants to hear that,” Will says. Nobody wants to hear that hard work is actually the answer. “It means shut up and get it done. Get after it.”

I think that’s good news. Sure, getting better at riding your bike or baking bread or painting pictures will take effort. But if we quit getting hung up on the idea of natural ability and embrace the growth mindset, we’re free to really progress. And if Will is right, the sky’s the limit.

Photo courtesy of Will Gadd.

6 Responses to Is Talent A Myth?

  1. Jonny says:

    Great post and blog, however, it has certainly been proven scientifically that “talent” is not a myth at all, in all sports, and at all ages. There are people out there who are able to take climbing to pretty high levels very quickly with far less effort than others. For example, Sonnie Trotter was redpointing 5.13’s within 18 months of starting to climb. Myself, 3 years of consistently very hard training cycles (4-5 days a week for 2-3 hour sessions), i’m barely starting to scratch 5.12’s. Sure, no one becomes a top climber without a massive amount of dedication and training. But to think that a guy like Honnold, or Will Gadd, or Sonnie, or Adam Ondra didn’t get to the upper reaches of their sport without some natural genetic propensity, whether physical or mental isn’t quite accurate.

    Maybe there is some truth that almost anyone can physically become as strong as Will Gadd, but that is overlooking the fact that so many of us lack the mental capacity to get there, arguably, the bigger hurdle.

    • Will G says:

      Good piece, and I do believe that within what Malcolm Gladwell calls “threshold” physical parameters (you’re not going to make it in the NBA if you’re not 6′ 4″ or better, or as a professional whatever without a decent but not outrageous IQ) we can all kick ass at whatever we want to do athletically.

      Jonny, if you’re barely scratching 5.12 after three years of consistent training then the problem is probably that you’re not training appropriately, or you do have physical/mental issues. One of the biggest mistakes I see in all forms of sport training is that athletes train really really hard but not in a way that actually brings performance results. Feel free to drop me an email and I’ll have a look at what you’re doing, for free, and see what’s up. And yes, the mental hurdle is always the first and most important barrier/support to success.

      • Jonny says:

        Thanks for the response Will, it’s a really interesting topic to me because I do want to see what I’m capable of – especially seeing what others have accomplished with similar training regimes. I wouldn’t want to waste your time though haha, you are far to generous.

  2. Eric O'Rafferty says:

    Spot on! Another really good piece.

  3. Ryan says:

    I totally agree with this. I’ve been telling my kid this for a long time. Very well written post.

    Completely unrelated, but that “focused intensity” line was spectacular. It has staying power and conveys great imagery. Without ever having met Will Gadd, my imagination puts that up there with the steely-eyed gaze fighters get before a bout or that near “must destroy the other riders” level of focus that motorcycle racers get. Or, put another way, that’s a stink-eye you don’t want to be on the receiving end of.

    Is that even relevant? Did I just lower the overall IQ of this post? What were we talking about again?

  4. Natalie says:

    Awesome, this was exactly what I needed to hear today. Onwards and upwards!

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