How ‘Talented’ Is This Kid?

A while ago, we wrote a New York Times Magazine column about talent — what it is, how it’s acquired, etc. The gist of the column was that “raw talent,” as it’s often called, is vastly overrated, and that people who become very good at something, whether it’s sports, music, or medicine, generally do so through a great deal of “deliberate practice,” a phrase used by the Florida State psychologist Anders Ericsson and his merry band of fellow scholars who study expert performers in many fields.

As we wrote, there are at least three key elements to deliberate practice:

1. Setting specific goals.
2. Obtaining immediate feedback.
3. Concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

I thought of No. 3 the other day while reading an article about a young baseball pitcher from Lubbock, Tex., Garrett Williams, who in a Little League World Series game struck out all 17 of the batters that he retired. Only a pitch-count rule prevented him from facing and potentially striking out all 18 batters (Little League games are 6 innings long). When asked if he was aware of his strikeout count, here’s what Williams told the reporter:

“No sir, I don’t worry about stuff like that … I just concentrate on the mitt and try to get the batter out.”

Sounds like Williams depends on more than just “raw talent.” This probably bodes well for his potential as a baseball player. I haven’t seen any data on the subject except for this, but from everything I’ve read and heard, there doesn’t seem to be a strong correlation between success in Little League and success in the majors. Kids who are big and strong and fast are likely to do well at a young age; but it’s the kids who engage in deliberate practice who are likely to make a career of it. So while Williams may be just another “talented” 12-year-old, he also sounds like the kind of kid who turns into Roger Clemens.

In related news, an e-mail happened to arrive yesterday in the Freakonomics in-box from one John DePalma with a couple of interesting writings in the Anders Ericsson school of expertise: an essay by Michael Mauboussin of Legg Mason on “experts” and financial markets; and a chapter from a CIA monograph about the power and paradox of expertise.


So true. I started playing golf last year... literally focusing on those 3 points mentioned. Within one year - mind you 7 months in the middle of not being able to play/practice regularly due to school/lack of transportation to a course, I still managed to shoot in the 70s at a full 18 course. I'm now right at a single digit handicapper. Might I add, I'm stretching it when I say i'm 5'5" and I'm 110 lbs soaking wet. No "talent" here... all working on technique that produced a fundamentally correct swing. Same philosophy carries over into other parts of my life. Glad to read this!

Daniel Morgan


Panem et Circanses

Effort alone? Tell that to a basketball player who has worked, worked, and worked to get himself where he was in high school, then just plain wasn't tall enough to make it in college. Tell that to a musician who practiced, practiced, and practiced in their teens, got into a conservatory, then found they weren't adept enough for a professional career. And as a couple of posters have mentioned, tell that to a super 5"10" high school pitcher or quarterback who got no taller.

You need both talent and work - and often you don't know if you really have the former until it's too late for you.

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

Let's not be so quite quick to dismiss "raw talent". It's vital, and I think just about everyone has it, to varying degrees. Of course, hard work is necessary. I don't know about the "immediate feedback" part of it. Many creative people work in isolation for much of their lives. Then they die and no one discovers them, like with Van Gogh. But, at least they can keep all parts of their ears intact, most of the time. You know, life is what it is. Some good, some bad. Some people think ears make nice presents, but they were confused at the time, and still filled with genius even before that ear incident happened. Then, too, we didn't have Martha Stewart way back when, either, to advise everyone on what is the most thoughtful, (as well as creatively unusual), gift to give.


More support for deliberate practice as the source of greatness:

BTW- personally I think all of you who give much weight to talent as the source of greatness are really just making an excuses for your own shortcomings...


The talent discussion is one that always interests me. I find it's helpful to break an ability into categories. (Don't we all love classification?)

1) Skill: An ability to perform a task that has been honed through practice to a specific level of competence.

2) Talent: An aptitude towards learning a specific skill or set of skills.

3) Gift: An un-taught ability to perform a task at an elevated level of competence.

Though we don't like to admit it, talents and gifts do exist, and they are important. No matter how much I practice, I will never be a good pitcher. I can become skilled through practice, but I don't have a talent or a gift for it. A Talented individual is likely to become very skilled very quickly, whereas a gifted person seems to simply 'know' how to do it. In all cases deliberate practice is the only way to realize a persons potential, even if they are gifted.

Dr. Troy Camplin

I've taught Freshman composition students to write sonnets by simply giving them the rules of sonnet writing and telling them they have to follow them exactly. Those who do always produce good poems, even when they are otherwise bad writers. Further, I have had the occasional student who discovers, much to his surprise, that he is a great poet -- and all because he forced himself to concentrate on a technique. My experience is that in the arts "raw talent" is certainly high on the raw and short on the talent. Good technique can turn more bad writers good than will raw talent. In fact, many with raw talent tend to resist good techniques more than others, and end up being lost. Great artists are those who are both egocentric enough to think that they do have talent and that people should read what they write or see what they paint, while being humble enough (or insecure enough -- either will do) to realize that they need techniques to make what they have to say worth reading or seeing. There's a sort of artistic moderation needed to create a great artist.


"Not a College grade swimmer"

I recall an incident during 8th grade football when an over-achieving teammate came up to an under-achieving teammate and yelled at him for not trying hard enough. The under-achieving B-teamer shrugged his shoulders and told the over-achiever, “I guarantee you I will letter varsity every year in high school.” And he did. He worked for the letter and got it. It didn't hurt that he was 6'4”, quick and with blazing speed. It definitely did not hurt that his father and brother both played 1A college football. The over-achiever quit playing his senior year. He just wasn't big or fast enough.


Michael T Sweeney (#18) asks:

"Why are LLWS pitchers so good and batters so lousy?"

It has to do with the dimensions of the diamond. The mound is 50 feet from home plate this year (was 46 before). Some of the kids throw into the low-80s, which is equivalent to a 105 mph fastball from 60 feet.

The hitters haven't developed major-league bat speed, so they're facing 100 mph pitches with little league skills. Hitting predictably suffers.

Also, there's much more value in putting the ball in play in Little League than at higher levels where the fielding is better, so the kids aren't going to be looking to draw walks...


There is such a thing as a talent for practice. Those of us with unusually short natural attention spans know that we must try much, much harder to approximate what is assumed to be "effort" by those who lack the same difficulty.


That kid reminds me of an article in the New Yorker (I think) about JFK Junior's plane crash and the difference between "choking" and "panicking". "Choking" is the enemy of athletes, and it happens when a motion learned in the body through repetition becomes self-conscious. In other words, the pitchers enemy is thinking too much about his throw. Screening out the pressure and the audience so he can focus on not thinking about throwing, this kid has learned to control a trance-like state of mind, a finer achievement than throwing a ball.


I think it's both natural talent and practice.

I've played electric guitar since I was 8 years old (I'm 26 now) and I definitely did have a natural propensity for being good with the building blocks of music, rhythm and pitch. I remember being able to "hear" songs play back in my head at the exact correct pitch even as a really small child - I'm not sure I could have developed that in any focused or practiced way.

At the same time though, once I started playing the instrument, I practiced for hours and hours every day, playing along to albums, learning scales and chords etc. I missed out on a bunch of the usual adolescent stuff during middle and high school because I was sitting at home so focused on becoming a good guitarist.

I can definitely understand what the pitcher said about not thinking about how many batters he's struck out and all of that though. When I play it's almost subconscious - I'm not actually sitting there calculating out what I'm doing, it just sort of happens automatically.



Come on, it's obviously some of both.

Mozart was an accomplished pianist and composer at the age of 6. Take 100 babies and force them to practice and play from an early age and I bet you won't come up with a single Mozart. If you could we'd have loads of Mozarts everywhere. Many prodigies simply have an innate talent that most people don't. Then again there's loads of examples of self-made talent through hard work. When we have a factor with two possible causes which we both know to be necessary, do we really have to sit around arguing about which is slightly more important?

How much time can people waste arguing Nature vs. Nurture over and over again in different formats. They're both important.


He doesn't worry about counting the number of batters he strikes out because he only has 10 fingers


Michael (comment #23) raises a very important issue: why always the "athletic" talent? Is this the only talent that dumbed-down Americans can imagine and understand?

In the 21st century, isn't it time that our "thinking leaders" moved public discourse up on the evolutionary ladder? I'd rather see a discussion of musical talent and practice, which could lead into a discussion of a new PARADIGM for social performance--the symphony orchestra or the musical ensemble perfecting TEAM performance WITHOUT competition.

Is this not an example that our rather simple-minded "competitive jock/soldier" society should consider for expert performance in the "global" future of the people of our nation?

It is doubtful that a nation of "football star" worshippers, the idols they worship, and their decrepit "paradigm for performance," can "defeat" opposing teams of complex, creative thinkers who achieve peak performance through intense cooperation and negotiation. The process of the first is war, of the second is peace.

There is a physican in New York City who hires ONLY SEASONED MUSICIANS to keep his office humming peacefully. Shouldn't this tell us something we need to hear?

God bless The New York Times for this platform for free speech.

(ISAIAH 55, JOHN 21: 17)



If anything...please don't compare that guy the Sultan of Steroids himself, Roger Clemens.


There is AMPLE evidence from longitudinal studies that, even among highly talented persons, those identified as the MOST highly talented as teens have, to a significant degree, the most "productive" adult lives. See, e.g., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2006). Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth after 35 years: Uncovering antecedents for the development of math-science expertise. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 316-345.


When reviewing any natural phenomenon, I find it curious no one thinks to mention the bell-shaped curve. Freshman biology should have taught us that in measuring talent or skill that there will be outlying individuals that reach perfection from pure raw or native talent and others that reach perfection from pure hard work. Such individuals are few. The bulk of us--to the extent we are skillful or talented at all--generally arrive at it in the bulge of the curve with some combination of native talent and hardwork. This isn't really news.


meaw, meaw, m- Dr. Smartypants I presume?
Stephen Pinker's new book comes out next month!!!! San Dimas high school football rules!!!!!


I feel alot of people are missing the point though. It doesn't matter whether one becomes a professional ball player or the next Mozart, it's understanding that there exists an underlying pricipal of means whereby one uses themselves in better way. Ask any student of the Alexander Technique.