The Four Horses: why talent is overrated
The Four Horses: why talent is overrated
The more you repeat a behavior, the deeper the groove and therefore, the easier it gets to do it again without having to try so hard.
Talent - the natural ability to advance to an above-average skill level with minimal or no effort - is overrated. Yet many organizations hire for talent, and place "talent" at the top of the list of preferred employee attributes. The problem with emphasizing talent over other factors is this: talent merely determines where you begin at a certain point in time, not how you improve towards mastery of a skill over time.
Putting your focus on talent is like getting into your car on a Saturday morning, and determining your weekend plans based on how much gas is in the tank. This may be appealing. It’s also quite limiting.
Zen master Shunryu Suzuki makes the case that there are four different levels of inherent talent. He uses the analogy of “four horses” - ranging from "1" (most talented) to "4" (talentless):
1. Responds to the rider’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip.
2. Responds to the rider’s will, just before the whip touches its skin.
3. Responds to the pain of the whip on its skin.
4. Responds to the pain of the whip reaching the marrow of its bones.*
It is up to the rider, as the horse’s guide, to make an effort to communicate the exact action desired. Since the fourth horse cannot seem to act according to the rider’s direction, requiring a tremendous amount of prodding, we might be tempted to give up on this horse.
Mastery alone is not an indication of superior performance. Instead, taking action to practice (the natural effect of which is often improved skill) is much more desirable over the long term.
Let me first be clear about my definition of "mastery". To me, this means combining experience and knowledge so that one acts more than thinks while engaged in a skill.
This is often referred to as unconscious competence.
As the learning of a skill typically goes:
a. Unconscious Incompetence (I don’t know what I don’t know).
b. Conscious Incompetence (I observe how my actions hurt me).
c. Conscious Competence (I choose actions that help me).
d. Unconscious Competence (my actions help me).
Learning towards mastery has no defined "finish line." Even having reached unconscious competence, like the first horse, we continue in the process of improving through practice. The more we act instead of reasoning with our actions, the more mastery we have gained and the more fluid our behavior feels.
Over time, most horses that seek improvement will catch up to those who rest at their original skill level. Eventually, without striving to develop, that 1st horse will be no better than the others. He may even fall behind horses with less talent. True mastery comes to those who begin a practice of improvement from any level. This means practice for even the most talented.
Eventually, the talented horse (#1) must learn how to practice with the same effort that a talentless horse (#4) has been applying from day one. That gives the advantage to the talentless horse: his behavior does not need to change, only continue. As Suzuki says, "If you study calligraphy, you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers. Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage."
In other words, talent gives you an early advantage. But it is effort that leads you towards mastery. One way to move to learning towards mastery is to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”
Why am I Doing This?
There is an important distinction we make when we decide the reason for being engaged with a specific skill. We might answer the question "why am I doing this?" from two very different angles:
1. To demonstrate a skill, interested in the end result (seeking praise/rewards)
2. To develop a skill, interested in what we will learn about ourselves in the process (seeking internal and external feedback to inform the path towards mastery)
Carol Dweck, who has studied learning styles since the late 1960’s, realized the impact of the approach (the "why") in her research with children: "Students for whom performance is paramount want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process. For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue only activities at which they’re sure to shine—and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavor. Students with learning goals, on the other hand, take necessary risks and don’t worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn." **
My Personal Experience
As a child, I was encouraged to believe that I had a talent for drawing. Eventually, belief in my innate gift hindered my ability to advance as an artist, because talent alone is not very useful. From kindergarten to high school, I coasted on my natural ability and found that I stood out from others as a talented illustrator. I received praise from teachers and other students, not having to try very hard at all. The praise kept coming, and I didn’t see a need to improve myself as an artist. The goal at that time was not self-improvement, but getting that external acknowledgement.
After I enrolled as a Studio Art major at Skidmore College, I faced a very different reality. I didn’t stand out, and I was no longer receiving praise. Suddenly, I didn’t want to be in art classes. After just one semester, I changed my major. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to apply effort towards a skill that seemed to come so naturally to me before. I reasoned with myself that art was about relaxing into a project – ideas would come and I would produce: it had nothing to do with effort.
During a period of self-reflection, I came to realize I felt disconnected from the course my life was taking – feeling like it was not being directed by me, but instead by some other external forces. Furthermore, I discovered that I had almost let go of something that had been an important part of me. I loved to draw, loved to write stories. Why not keep going? To go where I have a desire to go?
In this way, I reconnected with what was important to me and decided I had to find a way to integrate it back into my life. The process of mastering my skills as an artist became a natural progression. I had nowhere to go but forward.
As you learn towards mastery, other questions become important touchstones to growth.
In addition to, "Why am I doing this?" you can answer these questions for greater insight:
- What am I willing to do?
- What am I willing to give up?
PASSION, ENDURANCE, and SELF-DISCIPLINE
There are three key elements that one must embrace to successfully embark on and travel a path towards mastery:
1. PASSION: the fuel for the effort (why am I doing this?)
If it didn’t matter to me, I wouldn’t do it. The important distinction here is how it matters to me, not to others. In college, I felt rejected by the lack of praise for my drawing talent. Now, I take responsibility to recognize the feeling associated with hard work during the process and the ways in which I improve over time. Creating situations where I can experience that feeling is something I can control.
When we are asked to do something by someone else, we either must find a way to add meaning that is personal in nature, or accept that we will not be bringing our full selves into the process. Adding personal meaning is easiest when the experience can be mapped to a lifelong goal. In my case, I have a goal to communicate authentically. Opportunities to practice this larger goal can be found almost anywhere.
2. ENDURANCE: the stamina of continued effort towards a goal (what am I willing to do?) With what kind of consistency do we practice being on our path towards mastery of a given skill? And do we bring our full selves into that practice each time?
As I mentioned, I am on a path towards mastery in regards to my authentic communication with myself and others. Since I see this as a skill, I believe it can be improved. In one way, I practice with the skills of writing and illustration. A short-term version of realizing that goal includes the completion of one piece of illustrated fiction (much like a tennis player practices in the short-term leading up to the next tournament). Smaller than that is my goal of writing and/or drawing for two hours in the morning of each weekend day. As I give attention to this process on a weekly basis, I am keeping those skills in shape, so to speak, and therefore, exercising habits that serve me in my larger goal.
3. SELF-DISCIPLINE: the focus to keep actions on course (what am I willing to give up?) Even when something matters to us deeply, there are temptations to do something that we know will not get us closer to what we want. This is commonly known as procrastination, which is really the exercising of habits that do not get us closer to our goals.
In my case, I have chosen to give up television. Not having a television in my home means not being distracted by the possibility of watching. And when I am freed up from watching, I can do other activities that serve me. For example, reading books that challenge me to absorb what I learn and then translate that learning into a message that I share with others. This is in direct alignment with my long-term goal of authentic communication; a skill that will never be perfect, but is always worth improving.
As you progress
In keeping with the "group of four" theme, here are four takeaways.
The important thing here is consistency. When you build a habit of improvement you are building trust in yourself. The more trust you build internally, the more likely you will be able to act instead of think through a situation.
To encourage a good practice, consider reminders. Reminders are often physical objects in your familiar environment that are directly related to your practice. This might be a quote on the wall, a piece of art, a string tied to a lamp – whatever works for you. If there is a feeling associated with the object that is similar to the feeling you get when considering why your practice is important, it will encourage you to stay on your path. In this way, we encourage our external world to reflect our internal one, not vice versa.
I have statements I have written about my goals in plain view for me to see every day. I also have sketches in frames that remind me of feeling like a kid. This helps me recall how much a part of me this practice was as a child – when it was all about pure joy. Drawing or writing was simply for the sake of pleasure, for the sake of the activity itself.
Routines are a series of simple, repetitive actions we take before getting into the challenging stuff of the practice itself. Think of an athlete that touches parts of their body in the same order before stepping forward into their game. This can also be preparing an area in which to practice, setting the mood to mimic the one you want to practice in, taking notes, etc.
For writing and/or drawing, my routines include placing my tools out in the same order, putting on some music, breathing for a few minutes, and reviewing where I left off. I may have notes to myself about where to begin next time – these "bridges" reconnect me to the process.
Every now and then, we have an insight, or something clicks and we seem to “get it” in a way that only comes with the wisdom of experience. We have stepped off one learning plateau and on to another!
There is a myth about progressing through plateaus: that the learning has happened when we move from one to another. Actually, we are always learning. A tennis player brings awareness to her 1,000 serves in a daily practice so that without thinking about it her body can do what it needs to do during a match. All along, our brains are carving neural pathways or grooves based on repeated actions. The more you repeat a behavior, the deeper the groove and therefore, the easier it gets to do it again without having to try so hard. The plateau jump is simply those grooves being accepted as natural.
In this process, we may never know where we stand in relation to the next plateau. This can be frustrating when we focus on results, or if we are focused on the present, not knowing can be just part of what it means to be where you are. Things "click" when you least expect. Let it happen. It is beyond your control.
In my creative practice, I continue to shape those grooves, consistently giving my practice the attention it deserves. When I do it, I feel wonderful! Being on this path energizes me, inspires me, and makes me feel alive!
Talent no longer plays a part in whether I continue. Now, passion, endurance, and self-discipline keep me going.
When actions are easy to do, we call them habits. They seem to just happen on their own, for better or worse. You want to improve a skill? See what you are drawn to, and don’t let the concept of talent hold you back.
What’s the lesson here? Regardless of which horse you are, the strength of your passion, endurance, and self-discipline will take you farther than talent ever could. By the way, if you’re a hiring manager, look for the "horses" with the capacity to learn, practice, and improve – they often outrun the talented thoroughbreds.
*Leonard, George. "Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment", Plume: 1992.
**Krakovsky, Marina. "The Effort Effect", Stanford Magazine: March/April 2007.
Published on 10/15/07 04:46 PM