I’m not naturally talented at anything.
I used to think I had a natural talent for writing, but then I ran the numbers. Years of being read to, taken to the library, bought books and – on a couple of memorable occasions – being giving merciless punctuation pop-quizzes by my parents. More years of writing thousands of words that I never sent to anyone, followed by a year of sending out scattergun on-spec features to a variety of magazines, with something like a 1:10 success ratio, to magazines while I was at university. Then a few more years writing for videogames magazines – traditionally more tolerant of interesting/ridiculous ‘concept’ pieces than more established media – which, I figured out once, totalled more than a million words. All of it accompanied by relentless self-criticism, and loads of it was terrible. Some of it is still terrible. Conclusion: I might be pretty decent at writing, but I’m not naturally talented at it. I spent a long time getting here.
The idea that constant, deliberate practice is both necessary and sufficient to succeed in almost anything is pretty well-established these days. Anders Ericsson was the first man to popularise what’s now known as The 10,000 Hour rule, which suggests that nobody at the top level of chess, music, business or fighting has got there without putting in roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice…and that anyone who puts in that much practice will definitely be able to compete at the very highest of levels (in the absence of some genuine non-arguable setback, like being 5’0 if you want a career in the NBA). Even if you haven’t got 10,000 hours – a long time, considering how demanding ‘deliberate’ practice is – this should reassure you that you aren’t wasting your time, no matter how futile your early attempts at anything are. Books like The Talent Code, Outliers, Bounce and Talent Is Overrated all tackle the same body of research from different directions, and you should definitely read one/all of them.
What they won’t do, though, is make you believe it.
Understanding the theory is important, maybe even essential, but you’ll never know – instinctively know, like you know that gravity happens and fire is hot – that you can improve at anything without improving at one thing you think you’re bad at. The key is picking the right thing.
Writing is a terrible choice for your ‘thing’. You could ‘fail’ at writing for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with your writing talent – maybe you pitch to the wrong people, the market isn’t there for what whatever you’re doing, you’re too self-critical to let anyone see anything, and so on. You can ‘succeed’ with shitty writing for almost as many. Fighting is better, but only just. So what’s the best ‘thing’? Easy.
Weight training is great because the numbers don’t lie. However ‘talented’ you are, however strong or weak you are when you start, if you do the work the numbers will go up. They’ll go up quickly at first, then you’ll hit a brick wall. At that point you’ll need to find a programme, make a plan, put it into practice, tweak things, experiment, work harder…and ultimately, watch your lifts go up. There: you’ve improved, thanks to your own efforts. After you’ve done that, maybe you take up climbing, and go from a V2 to a V4 – because, again, you’ve put in the time, done the work, and improved. Then maybe you read up on some basic science, even though you thought you weren’t ‘talented’ at it at school, and realise that it wasn’t actually that hard after all. Then you learn Japanese, or take up ballroom dancing, or do another one of the hundred things you thought you weren’t good at, when actually what happened was that you just never put the time in. When you work this out, it feels miraculous – but you have to start somewhere.
I’m not naturally talented at anything. But I know that I can do anything I want. Do you know the same?
HOMEWORK: Read either The Talent Code, Outliers or Talent Is Overrated. Pick something you think you’re ‘bad’ at – preferably with easy-to-quantify results. Get good at it. Repeat until you’re Lex Luthor.