Talent vs. Skill


There is the age old-debate about what is better to possess, talent or skill. Loosely defined, talent is an aptitude you are born with or that naturally appears on its own. Skill is an ability you actively nurture and develop.

Talent might be being 7 feet tall and wanting to play basketball. Where skill is learning to shoot a 3 pointer in basketball day after day over decades. Basketball is what I consider the most talent-heavy of occupations. Because someone who is 7 foot, if they aren’t crippled, can become a tremendous basketball force with only a little skill. But a 5’5″ player has to develop superhuman skill to offset their lack of talent (height).

My father passed away recently and I was interviewing him before he died. Trying to learn as much as I could because I knew the end was in sight. My dad was about the smartest person I met who knew all kinds of trivia including the names of casual acquaintances from 65 years ago. He grew up essentially poor, white trash. Very lower class in Mobile, Alabama. But he went on to become an electrical engineer for the military and known to be quite knowledgeable. And I asked him how he managed to transcend his background. And there was no secret formula, he really, really enjoyed learning. So he learned as a hobby. He was always reading. When he retired, he started taking Spanish in a community where no one spoke Spanish. As a natural consequence, he managed to become quite skilled in a broad number of areas. My father always said he was bad at mathematics and it reminds me of Einstein. Einstein said he was bad at math and he at least partially won a Nobel Prize for his mathematics work. My father said he was bad at math and he wrote a book, which I’m still editing, on the Statistics of Ballistics. Which is basically all math.

I’ve long maintained that skill is the defining characteristic of any human endeavor that will determine if we’re any good at it. As mentioned, the 7 footer who has never picked up a basketball in his life, is not going to make any free throws as soon as he starts shooting. The 5’5″ person who has been practicing for decades will make 100%. But give the giant some classes and he’ll beat the shorter player 1v1. But doctors, artists, writers, lawyers, accounts payable clerks, IT technicians, race car drivers, they all rely on practice and skill. A “natural” doctor who has never picked up a scalpel is going to totally botch heart surgery.

So I’ve said you need practice. And it’s painful because talented, smart kids or young adults, want to get the $ of their older peers, but they don’t have the experience. And talented writers want to be able to write the Great American (or Swedish) Novel but they haven’t written more than a short story and they’re told they have to put in the hours.

However, I have noticed that there was a talent element. For fine arts, I would recognize that if you paint and paint and paint, you can eventually reproduce the Mona Lisa nearly perfectly. It might take a long while to develop those skills, but nearly anyone can. That’s not the same as having artistic talent, however. My example is I can see a mailbox, or a complex set of power lines, or a car, and I take note of it. But I can’t draw it later. Nothing about those items comes back from memory. A talented artist will remember those things, like a talented writer will remember attributes they can describe, and a talented humorist will remember the joke about them or a joke they can engineer.

And, tying all this together, I wonder if talent isn’t just another word for “enjoys doing it.” My dad enjoyed learning, so he learned. Anyone can go to school and study. But if you really enjoy it, you’ll get more from it and it will always be “on.” Like an artist picking out unusual aspects of a water cooler or the clothes someone is wearing.

Anyone can go to the gym and get in reasonable physical shape. But if you absolutely love working out or playing soccer or running, you’ll get far better than someone who is just trying to add years to their life. And maybe that’s talent. Because we don’t get to choose what we enjoy. Boy, wouldn’t that be great? If you enjoy something, it’s not work. You don’t have to coerce yourself to do it. You don’t skim it. Or cheat. You pursue it on your own. A 7 footer who hates basketball playing his identical twin who loves basketball, I wager he’s going to lose in the long run at basketball, all other things being equal.

The point of all this is that there might be some good news in the “talent” requirement. If talent is simply another word for enjoys doing, than a lot more people have talent than we thought and it’s a lot easier to identify talent. Do you really like doing something? If so, you’re talented. Maybe not 7 foot talented, but again, most things aren’t basketball. If you like doing something, you will pursue it with greater passion and detail than someone who is merely punching a time card or trying to get ahead or any other reason.


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