Let’s talk talent

I recently read two books by Daniel Coyle on the subject of talent. I enjoyed these books particularly because as a musician the word “talent” gets thrown around quite a bit. As a teenager I remember being slightly miffed at well meaning people who complimented me on my talent. “It’s not talent,” I’d mutter under my breath, “Do you know how many hours I practiced to learn this piece?”

I don’t care how “talented” a person is, if they are going to be good, and I mean really good, then they have put in a whole lot of work to learn and become experts in their chosen field. Maybe that was hours and hours practicing an instrument, or in the gym walking on a beam, or sitting at a computer, or in a science lab, or taking pictures. You get the idea. Whatever it is, it takes time and diligent effort and hard work to become good at what you do.

In his book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How Coyle goes beyond the 10,000 hour rule to dig deeper into what makes people great at what they do. Coyle visited a number of talent “hotbeds” from sports to musicians and discovered some interesting connections about how they became great, how they practiced, and what common characteristics their coaches had.

As a musician, I mostly found myself nodding my head. Nothing was completely surprising to me, though I did find the stories and statistics very fascinating. I know exactly what he means when he talks about deep practice. This isn’t merely spending hours at your instrument, this is a type of practice that every musician knows when they’ve had it. That practice session you come away from amazed and exhilarated by how much you learned. You hit that “sweet spot,” you dug deep, you were focused, and…you got better.

As a teacher, I was reminded of how important my role as a coach can be. I am sadly not currently teaching any music students, but that is definitely something I plan to get back into in the future, and I plan to refresh myself on some of these reminders of what makes a good coach and teacher.

As a parent, I was motivated and encouraged in how I can encourage my children in their music practice, educational goals, and eventually in any other areas of interest they might have. I have already found myself changing my wording slightly as I practice piano with Stefan (while the line between teacher and practice coach is definitely blurry, Brian technically teaches him and I practice with him).

There have been numerous articles circulating around internet on avoiding complimenting children on being smart. Using words to affirm their hard work, perseverance, creativity, diligence, etc, etc, are much more appreciated by a child and ultimately much more helpful. Children instinctively know that being smart or talented is something they are either born with or not. They know they can’t change that. Specific words like the ones mentioned above, however, lead to the knowledge that they worked hard to get there, and they can keep working hard to get better.

In The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills Coyle takes a slightly different approach. These are short, succinct steps that can help you improve your particular skill. While some of it was taken right out of his first book, I still felt like it was a valuable and important read. For one, they are quite concise, making it easy to pick up, peruse, and refresh your memory.

There was also some new information in it which was not included in the first book, and I appreciated the tips specifically for coaches. This is a book that I think I will pick up periodically to remind myself both as a teacher and parent. It is easier to quickly scan the individual tips, than to find these same tips buried in paragraphs of information. As such, it is a valuable little book and I’m glad I took the time to read it even if I was initially afraid it might contain a lot of repeat information.

What are your thoughts on talent? Do you think it is born or grown?


  1. Both born and grown. We all have innate abilities and tendencies. But, to be really “talented,” like you said, they must be developed. And, to be great, it takes a LOT of work. Even prodigies need to learn and polish.

  2. I get very frustrated by the focus on raw talent, because – as you note – it doesn’t predict success. Hard work does.

    I want to read the second book you mentioned!

    • I agree! Actually, on of the characteristics of coaches (in the second book I think) was that they never predict success. The coaches, when asked who they predicted to become the best, rarely would say because as they said, “who can know.” IT will ultimately be the ones that put in the work, not necessarily the ones that seem most talented. Interesting!

  3. Kristin Jamieson says:

    A great post! I think of Bobby, who like Brian (and you!) was a professional level musician before pursuing ministry. People always referred to talent and gifting but the man as a teenager and through college was practicing 6-8 hours a day in the summer and in college, getting up before school to do scales, and playing creatively with small groups and big bands all the time. I remember him explaining you had to know all the chords, scales, progressions, and grammar of the music to be anywhere near a good improviser. And now, watching him do a PhD – Greek, Hebrew, German, French – a ton of WORK to create something.
    I love hearing what you’re reading! Makes me think! : )

    • I couldn’t agree with you more about the PhD, Kristen. Brian makes a ton of progress and some have said things like he must just be really good at researching and writing, etc, etc. Well, no, he just works REALLY hard and doesn’t get distracted and yes, because of that he gets faster and better at his skills. But it isn’t a mystery how that happens. Thankful for hardworking husbands, eh?

      And thanks for commenting. I think I’m just going to post as I read a book or as I have one I’d like to review because when I wait to post monthly it inevitably doesn’t happen!

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