Is Innate Talent Destiny?

If there’s one scientific finding that gives me the most hope it is neuroplasticity. The mind is a muscle. “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” We once thought that you’re stuck with the brain you’re born with. Now we know that mental exercise, especially vigorous and challenging exercise, makes the mind stronger and smarter. You can improve your brain and your performance.

I found this article from New York Magazine as I searched for cogent, well-written articles that explain Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” theory.  From the findings of her research, Dweck believes that there are two different ways a person can look at her abilities: a “Fixed Mindset” or a “Growth Mindset.” Someone with a Fixed Mindset might believe a statement like “I am smart” or “I’m a terrible tennis player.” A person with a fixed mindset doesn’t believe in much progress: you’re either good at something or you’re bad.

People who have a Growth Mindset believe that if they give a task enough focused, quality effort, they’ll be able to achieve a goal. Someone with a Growth Mindset might say, “I didn’t do well because I didn’t study enough,” or “My free throws have improved because I practiced long and hard.” Success or failure depends on effort, not innate talent.

Dweck and others in her field have studied these mindsets and the findings are clear: People with a Growth Mindset are more successful than people with a Fixed Mindset. The Fixed Mindset can be especially pernicious to the very intelligent, who often balk at potential failure because they want to protect their self-image: I’m smart. Smart people don’t fail.

The upshot is that talent is developed, not created. Yes, some people seem to find some things easier, but behind every great performer is hours and hours and hours of high quality practice. The hurdles in front of us may be daunting, but we can leap over most of them if we are committed to success and the effort required to get there.

4 thoughts on “Is Innate Talent Destiny?

  1. Remember Thomas Edison’s quote? “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

    As a violinist I always cringe a bit when people say to me, ” You are lucky to have so much talent!” I have spent hours upon hours in practice rooms, rehearsals, lessons, master classes, going to concerts, summer music festivals, etc. you do whatever it takes. You put in the work–the perspiration!–to accomplish something. Sometimes it means you have to give up other things. But in the end, the reward of accomplishing something special makes it all worth it!

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  2. I see these two mindsets a lot in math. I have students who think “I’m not good at math”, and expect to do poorly, and so they do. I wish I could inspire them with this brain research- how they, and we all, can shape our brains, like we would our muscles, with practice and workouts.
    I might be able to convince them of that, but they still won’t want to put in the work, I am afraid.
    Henry, you inspire me to teach them about this brain research– I had already heard of it, and have avoided sharing it because I have a Fixed Mindset haha- that some students just don’t care and won’t work hard. But maybe, a word of encouragement and hope might create a Growth Mindset where one had not been before. It is funny you blogged about this..I just got a new class of six 9th graders who are at risk to fail Algebra for the second time…

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    • Thanks, Laurie. You’re my most stalwart commenter! If you haven’t already, read the New York Magazine article that I mentioned in the second paragraph. (The hypertext in the first sentence will take you there.) It’s very well written and I think you’ll find it inspiring. ~h.

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  3. Talent does not dictate destiny. Destiny does not exist. Talent is worthless without effort. I cannot expect to become a world class pianist if I never so much as even touch a piano.

    There is this thing called “hard work”. Some are more familiar with it than others.

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