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Is genius a product of talent or effort?

skill level conceptual meterMichelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Leo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Michael Faraday, Martha Graham, Marie Curie, James Marshall Hendrix, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, Floyd Mayweather Jr, and John Clayton Mayer. The brilliant works of these luminaries often transcend culture, race, and time, leaving many of us rapt in awe. How did Martha Graham so thoroughly master dance to the point where she could create her own genre? During his illustrious career, how did Floyd Mayweather Jr seemingly sense impending punches and skillfully slip out of the way well before his opponents could land them? How does John Mayer effortlessly slide around the guitar, belting melodies from every corner of the instrument almost as if it were part of his body? How did Michelangelo manage to capture the very essence of life in the divinely sculpted statue of King David. Are these amazing shows of brilliance a result of some God given talent, or just plain old fashioned hard work? Short answer – extreme skill is almost always a combination of talent and a special type of hard work. For the more detailed answer, keep reading.

Talent can be defined as the special natural endowments of a person which can be artistic, athletic, intellectual, or somehow creative in nature. A good example of natural talent is a twenty something year old Michael Jordan’s natural ability to fling himself in the general direction of a basketball rim for a dunk, sometimes achieving a vertical leap of ~48 inches! Yes, tales of the endless and grueling practice sessions Mike used to hone his craft are legendary but they don’t account for his God given ability to leap that high in a single bound. In truth, no matter how hard mere mortals like us try, we’ll probably never be able to get that high up off the floor… we just don’t have the natural chops (fast twitch muscle fiber distribution, etc) to do that. Without his natural physical gifts – being 6′ 6″ tall, having giant hands, impregnable mental strength, and an insane vertical leap – a legitimate argument could be made that Michael Jordan might never have achieved his current status of “greatest basketball player of all time”.

Although having a natural flair for a particular field of endeavor is a necessary component of mastery, it is certainly NOT sufficient. Yep… that means that all those tales you might have heard of some dude who transformed himself into a guitar virtuoso after two straight months of dropping acid somewhere in California are complete loads of bollocks. The truth is a lot less sexy and a lot more sobering than these sorts of magical tales which might make for good dinner conversation. The truth is that behind every revered genius in history is an Everest sized mountain of hard work. And by hard work, I don’t just mean sitting at the piano and playing “amazing grace” everyday for 20 years. I mean the kind of hard work that hurts… the kind that constantly puts you in places of mental and/or physical discomfort… the kind that tests the limits of your will and can often make you want to quit. Take Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for instance who is often seen as the epitome of natural genius. Till this very day, some think that the only plausible explanation for how Young Wolfgang was able to create masterworks such as “Concerto Number Nine” in his early twenties must have been some magical endowment of talent from Jehovah Jireh himself (or herself). Upon further inspection however, we find that Wolfgang had started intensively studying music under the tutelage of his father by the time he was 5. So by the time he actually got to write “Concerto Number 9”, Wolfgang had amassed some 16 years of intensive study and practice, constantly working on his weaknesses and sharpening his strengths. So if we are to be honest, the real difference between Mozart and the rest of the other kids who had a talent for music in his time is threefold. First, he discovered his love for music at a very young age. Second, he enjoyed the good fortune of being the son of a man who happened to be a damn good music teacher. Third, he attacked his study of music with an unprecedented tenacity and intensity. Don’t get me wrong… Wolfgang had a lot of natural talent but he still needed to pour in a ton of work and take regular lessons from his father over many years in order to polish that talent into a legitimate superpower.

“Genius is eternal patience” ~ Michelangelo Buonarroti

Assuming you agree that genius comes from a combination of incredible discipline (~80%) and raw talent (~20%), you can now also hopefully see that the ability to master something is far more of an emotional quality than it is an intellectual one. Becoming a master at something doesn’t just mean you were blessed with a natural talent, it also means that you had the discipline to show up every day and work hard on your craft. It also means that you had the emotional fortitude to persevere in the face of sometimes harsh criticism. It means you had the emotional endurance to ignore the haters who constantly tried to convince you that you weren’t any good. Please note that this is not to say that you have no chance at mastery if you get annoyed from time to time… it is perfectly normal for each of us to get a bit irritated and/or depressed on occasion. That being said, working to quickly move past any negative emotions and not letting them linger is the real thing that you must master. From personal experience, I can tell you that it is hard to think clearly or do anything that is of much use if you have a constantly cluttered mind. Mastery will certainly evade you if you are constantly angry, jealous, afraid, or otherwise emotionally impaired.

Having followed our conversation thus far, you might be asking yourself why the idea of talent as the sole determining factor of genius is so widespread especially since historical examples blatantly show that a ridiculous amount of hard work is really the secret sauce. You aren’t alone in posing that fantastic question; I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about that too and I think the reason for that warped mindset is because it is easier for us to believe that those who have attained mastery have something magical that the rest of us just don’t have. This makes the large gulf in the quality and quantity of work between what we’ve done with our respective lives and the monumental accomplishment of the masters in history much more emotionally palatable. It is much easier to say “I could have easily done that if I had her talent” than it is to plant your butt in the seat in front of your piano and practice unfailingly for 2 hours everyday.

An age might yet dawn in the future in which skills can be magically downloaded directly into human brains like in the movie called “The Matrix”. Who knows? Our children’s children’s children might one day eventually have high broadband sockets in their heads through which they can effortlessly acquire masterful skill by plugging into a giant all knowing computer. I can see the Google Ads in my mind’s eye now… “Plug in for 5 minutes and become a Karate Expert for $100! Make sure you bring your health insurance card with you!” Until that day comes though, the sobering truth is that mastery requires a mountain of hard work, dedication, perseverance, and grit. On your way, it will hurt… you will get frustrated… you might even feel like a failure at certain points. The good news though is if you find your unique talent and keep working on it, you will keep getting better until you enter the cycle of accelerated returns. Once you enter the cycle, you will find that the “pain” of practice actually becomes enjoyable, allowing you to practice for longer periods. The more you practice, the better you will get. If you keep this up for long enough, mastery is inevitable. And just in case you think you’re too old, you’re wrong. As long as you aren’t bed ridden, you can start work and get just a little bit better each day. I for one didn’t start playing the electric guitar until I was 30… the video below shows me playing ~3.5 years after I began. I’m no Jimi Hendrix (not yet anyways… LOL) but I’m a heck of a lot better than I previously was… that much is certain.

From all of us here at Please take care of yourselves and each other. We’re looking forward to hearing of your own masterwork sometime in the future!
Without Wax
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
Go check out some art on the ETSY store!

6 thoughts on “Is genius a product of talent or effort?

  1. You should check Joey Alexander. Wikipedia says taught himself to play Jazz at at 6. That is wild. On another note, “talent from Jehovah Jireh himself (or herself)”. God is a spirit so no sex but when He revealed himself He said He
    is God the Son, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. If you are thinking that as a result men and women are not equal that is not correct. Men and women has different roles but equal in dignity. Therefore anyone who says I am better than women because I am a man doesnt know what he is talking about. We are all equal rich, poor, white, black, men, women, etc etc.

    1. Hi Rey. The whole point of saying “Jehovah Jireh himself (or herself)” is to convey the point that my personal belief is that God has both masculine and feminine essences and thus describing God with a connotation of sex doesn’t apply. Not sure how you arrived at the thought that anyone here thinks that women are better than men or vice versa. If you had been following the material on the blog closely up until this point, you would know that we always emphasize that men and women are just different sides of the same coin. Check out this blog post which you should have already read 🙂

      1. Thanks for clarifying thats why I said “if you are thinking that as a result …”. Your personal belief has nothing to do with God. God is who He says He is, He revealed Himself. Your belief should be based on that revelation.

        1. None of us are in any position to tell anyone else what they “should” believe. You have every right to have your beliefs, and so does everyone else. Besides, this is off topic to the actual premise of the article which is what are the true contributing factors to genius.

          1. I was confused by your statement thats why. No I am not trying to force my belief on you. I am interested with what is true. In fact if you come to think of it you are the one trying to force your belief on me 😉 by stating that God is He (She), isnt it 😉 ? I hope I didnt ruin your morning 😉

            1. Ruin my morning? Not a chance :-). Like I said before, I’d rather bring us back to the initial premise of the article. What are people’s thoughts on the contributing factors to genius?

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