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.

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