“Inborn talent” is something of an oxymoron. Nobody is born with talent, as we typically understand the term, and we all differ in our potential to develop the skills and attributes that later lead others to call us talented.
It’s this wide range of potential that makes childhood measures of ability such accurate predictors of intelligence and career success when we’re adults. However, psychological traits aren’t as readily passed down between generations as physical traits, leaving more room for development when it comes to those mental faculties.
The question, then, is why some people are better at developing their potential than others. As it runs out, it may come down to your ability to overcome three key barriers.
One of psychology’s most consistent findings is that people generally lack insight into their actual talents–we tend to think we’re better than we really are.
This is particularly the case in those with little talent. As author William Miller has written, “It is one of the essential features of incompetence that the person so afflicted is incapable of knowing that he is incompetent. To have such knowledge would already remedy a good portion of the offense.”
Conversely, the more talented people are, the more aware they are of their limitations. As a result, the more you develop skills and abilities in a certain area, the better you can judge them. It isn’t easy to gain that level of self-awareness during the crucial early stages of the talent development cycle, though, for two reasons. First, we don’t always get accurate feedback on our performance, and second, even when we do, we don’t always take it to heart.
Many of us are more interested in maintaining a positive self-perception than an accurate one, leading us to prioritize positive feedback over criticism–especially when we already think we’re talented. That’s a great recipe for holding your potential in check.
Be as humble and self-critical as you can. Look for competent, knowledgeable people to be brutally honest with you about your skills. The truth sometimes hurts, but that’s where self-improvement begins.
The simplest equation for talent may also be the most misleading:
Performance – Effort = Talent
Why? Because while it’s true that the more talented you are at something, the less you have to work to do it well, it still takes effort to develop talent itself. That’s where motivation comes in.
When you feel motivated to learn a skill, the process becomes both more effective and more enjoyable. The trouble is that most people don’t seriously want what they say they want. As the great advertising guru Paul Arden observed, “’I want’ means, ‘if I want it enough I will get it.’ Getting what you want means making the decisions you need to make to get what you want.”
In other words, few of us are willing to do what it takes to achieve what we desire. It’s all good and well to say you want to work for Google or Apple, but do you want it enough to do what it takes in order to make it happen? Same goes for wanting to go to Harvard or wanting to launch a successful business. Some aspirations are simply superficial desires for status, not declarations of will followed up by action.
Real motivation is the key ingredient. Those who actually succeed at getting better are obsessed with their goals, turning that motivation into genuine talent over time.
We all have our natural tendencies, which psychologists call “personality.” You can think of personality as the set of things we typically do–our default predispositions for doing things a certain way in certain situations, habitually. One thing many of us overlook, though, is that when our personalities find the right context or environment, we can see real behavioral enhancements.
In other words, at least to some degree, talent is just personality in the right place at the right time. Developing your full potential is easier when you focus on skills that actually match your personality. That’s pretty intuitive.
Less obvious, though, is that it can be dangerous to focus only on your strengths. In fact, finding the environments that turn your personality into a career weapon isn’t enough. You need to be equally aware of your more problematic behavioral tendencies.
So in short, find out where you fit and what you’re naturally inclined to do well. Then evaluate whether you really care about that, and track your performance by seeking honest, constructive feedback from talented people. No one said it’s easy, but the good news is that clearing each of those three hurdles starts with you.