The Growth Mindset: Can Talent Be Learned?

Can Talent Be Learned (a.k.a. Do You Have A Growth Mindset?)

When faced with a difficult challenge, which of these would you be most likely to say: Would you be likely to say ‘I can’t do this’ or would you be more likely to say: ‘I’ll figure it out’?

It may seem like a simple enough question but it points to a deeper issue about our mindset.

i.e. is your belief system focused mainly around your innate ability (that you are generally capable or not capable of something and that this is relatively fixed) or around the idea that anything is possible and can be learned (that something you cannot do now is something that you can learn to do later)?

Are We Born With Talent?

My childhood hero as I’ve described in this post: The Power of Visualization was Severiano Ballesteros. If ever there was a golfer with pure, raw natural talent then surely Seve was it (in fact I describe him as such in that post). However some reading and research I’ve been doing recently has led me to question my earlier thoughts on the talent that Seve had. He definitely did have talent, but perhaps it came more from his passion and the resulting hours of practice he put into his game than being something he was born with. His passion led him to spend countless hours as a youngster over the railway tracks and on the beach with his 5-iron – that much is pretty well documented. It is perhaps from these countless hours (and not from birth) that his talent grew and developed.

So we have the question of whether talent is there already or is developed…

Mozart is another example often cited as a genius who wrote his first compositions at the age of 11 – though apparently these compositions were not original, rather being re-workings of other peoples work patched together – his best work came much later. Still, it’s pretty impressive the work he did at the age of 11 – surely he was still extraordinarily talented at that young age – a child prodigy. It turns out too, that at a very young age, Mozart had clocked up thousands of hours of practice – more hours of practice at the age of 5 or 6 than most people would have in a lifetime.

Many believe that talent is derived from our innate ability rather than practice and that this is what ultimately determines our success in any given endeavor – e.g. I’ll just never be any good at football vs. with enough practice I can be the best.

The idea then, that talent is derived from innate ability (i.e. we are born with a certain amount of ‘talent’) takes away the incentive to transform ourselves through applied effort. Why spend time and energy trying to get better at something if we’re just not cut out for it?

Carol Dweck’s Mindset Research

If you do a Google search on the growth mindset, before very long you will come across Carol Dweck’s website Dweck has carried out decades of research on achievement and success – particularly in relation to people’s mindset (i.e. growth vs fixed), carrying out various studies and experiments along the way.

In one such experiment, Dweck took 330 11-12 year old students and questioned them about their beliefs regarding talent and intelligence. Those who believed that intelligence is set in stone were labelled as having a fixed mindset. Those who believed that intelligence can improve with effort were labelled as having a growth mindset.

All of the children were then given 12 problems to solve – 8 of which were easy and 4 of which were extremely difficult.

When the children labelled as having a fixed mindset came up against the tough problems, they began to “denigrate their abilities and blame their intelligence for failures saying things like “I guess I’m not very smart”, “I never did have a good memory” and “I’m not very good at things like this”. What is so striking about this was that only moments before, these students had had an unbroken string of successes. Their intelligence and memory were working just fine. What’s more, during these successes their performance was every bit as good as that of the growth-mindset group… In short, the majority of students in this group abandoned or became incapable of deploying the effective strategies in their repertoire.” (Dweck)

When the children labelled as having the growth mindset came up against the tough problems: “they did not blame anything. They didn’t focus on reasons for failures. In fact, they didn’t even consider themselves to be failing… How did they perform? In line with their optimism, more than 80 per cent maintained or improved the qualities of their strategies during the difficult problems… They taught themselves new and more sophisticated strategies for addressing new and more difficult problems. A few of them even solved the problems that were supposedly beyond them… Thus, even though they were no better than the fixed-mindset students on the original success problems, they ended up showing a much higher level of performance.” (Dweck)

In this experiment, the difference in performance is shown to come from the students beliefs rather than in their intelligence (proven to be equal via their recent track record) or motivation (Dweck ensured that for the experiment all of the children were equally motivated by offering them gifts they had personally selected).

This is but one example of many similar experiments and studies carried out by Dweck and others. The upshot of all of this research is that if children are praised for effort rather than ability, they will ultimately achieve better results.

Praising effort puts the right discipline in place to enable and empower a growth mindset.

This is because praising ability can lead to a certain complacency, whereas praising effort puts the right discipline in place to enable and empower a growth mindset and foster our natural ability to develop and grow our talent.

The 10,000 Hour Rule

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours to achieve mastery (success) in any field. He studies the lives of some of the most successful people on the planet and came to largely the same conclusion as Dweck, essentially that talent is not something we are born with but rather something that comes from opportunity and practice (and often from the combination of the two – i.e. the opportunity to have the right kind of practice, in the right environment, at the right time).

There are various studies and books on this subject, not just Gladwells – and if you look into this in detail you’ll find that if we ask the question: “So to be among the elite at something I just have to put in 10,000 hours of practice?”

The answer is not quite that simple. First of all 10,000 hours is a huge amount of time (though if you’re fully committed to success, 8 hours per day, 5 days per week for 5 years would be enough to get you there).

Add to the 10,000 hours of practice the growth mindset (i.e. the belief that you can improve and you can learn anything) and make sure it’s the right practice (i.e. enabling growth by continually trying new things, pushing boundaries, stepping outside of your comfort zone – to enable that growth) and you’re on the right track.

When thinking about practice, think about focused practice with an emphasis on learning and trying new things to re-enforce but also stretch existing capability.

Even physical limitations can be overcome – for example when Tiger Woods started out he was not as strong as other young developing golfers (and couldn’t hit the ball as far) so he developed other parts of his game – however through the amount of effort and practice he eventually put into his game, he developed the physical strength he was initially lacking and is now one of the strongest players on the circuit – perhaps still not the strongest, but certainly strong (and now hits the ball very far). Obviously there are exceptions here – if the endeavor is to become the fastest runner in the world, then this is not likely to be achieved by a man with one leg with any amount of practice (though amazing things can still be achieved even with such disabilities – he could still become the fastest at the paralympics).

How Does It Work?

True mastery of anything ends up involving something we’ve talked about before – and that is our amazing ability to ‘automate’ tasks. Once something becomes extremely well practiced, we hand control over to our implicit memory where the activity has been coded within our neural structure such that we can perform this task on ‘auto-pilot’ (if you drive, think of how much conscious effort you had to put in to learn to drive the car and how you drive now, hardly thinking about all of the various complex processes you need to go through).

There’s a lot more which can be said on this subject but we’ve already written quite a bit about this via these articles:

Final Thought

So it turns out that talent can be learned. Who would have thought.

It often comes from passion and/or opportunity but the process remains the same – paying attention during many hours of focused practice (praise for effort with a growth mindset) will get you a lot further than a belief in inherent talent which we either have or we don’t (praise for ability with a fixed mindset).

So what does this tell us? It tells us that even if something seems beyond your reach, if you are prepared to put in enough effort, you can get there.

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