The Importance of Effort over Talent
Photos: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a child prodigy. Young Wolfgang was performing classical piano to audiences by the age of six. In just 35 years of his life, Mozart composed over 600 works that cemented his reputation as the musician's musician forever. A genius and natural talent indeed! Roye Wates, in his 2010 biography of Mozart, portrays a different story to dismiss popular myths. From the age of one, Mozart started playing the piano under the tutelage of his father, Leopold who was also an accomplished musician. By the age of six, Wolfgang had practiced an astronomical 3,000 hours of playing the piano.
The question on where excellence comes from is one that has puzzled enthusiasts and specialists for ages. Child prodigies like Mozart and many others are talents who achieved excellence by compressing the minimum time required for expertise and finesse into the very short time between birth and adolescence- the formative period that influences future outcomes in our lives. Such child prodigies relentlessly practiced on talents they inherited from birth and the circumstances they were exposed to, to achieve the finesse observers sometimes mistake to have come from birth or natural talent only with no effort.
Here is a fallacy for logicians. You think you lack talent, and you also think to become better than others, talent is what you need. The logical conclusion would then be: you might as well give up. This is rational given the premise. Although this may be true for certain sports like basketball where players are physically tall, such a premise that inherited talent necessarily leads to better performance is logically flawed.
Here is a second line of thought. If you think you have the capacity to grow with effort and time, then you will view the environment you are exposed to in a radically different way. You will not see failure as a reason to give up, but an opportunity to learn from your shortcomings so you can adapt and grow through time. Empirical evidence suggests those who think in this line of thought also tend to be more honest about their mistakes. The Growth Mind-Set as it is known in the behavioural sciences has researched evidence that this line of thought promotes perseverance, resilience and motivation in the academia, sporting professions and in business activities.
Young people often view hard work as an embarrassing thing to admit when asked the secret behind obtaining a good grade/result. There is good argument behind this thought. Schools throughout the world have a tendency to identify gifted students; those who possess a natural talent that makes them appear more successful than others at early stages in the academia. Promoting talent above effort is fallacious since it is logically flawed as shown above.
Genetic inheritance and the environment to which an individual is born and the circumstances, under which a child grows up to adolescence, is certainly an important factor that influences future outcomes in life. However, this alone does not determine that future outcome in life. Through pioneering research, neuroscientists have shown that the brain is plastic like the muscles in our body. Through playing mind games- nurturing the talent that we inherited at birth or the privileges we have enjoyed through circumstances- it is possible to improve the talent we possess through effort.
Having a talent or a natural ability is certainly a gift. Different individuals possess different natural abilities. Identifying these abilities is the responsibility of early schools, parents and families. After that, one of the most powerful educations the school and family can give to a child is to make one better from good- there really is no alternative to hard work and effort.
Returning to Mozart, looking at the virtuoso's entire lifetime, one will see that his progress did not escalate rapidly, rather was one that grew steadily towards excellence. Dedication towards practice and effort, through perseverance, transformed young Wolfgang from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary. Darwin's natural selection does not say that those who are strong and powerful will necessarily survive evolution. Natural selection suggests those who can adapt and grow through changing environments over time are probably the ones who will survive evolution. If you think you are the slow one now, through hard work, perseverance and dedication you can later be the faster one. A horse is only as good as its rider. Talent is only as good as the effort that has been put into it.
Sources: Four Thought from BBC Radio 4. Rendition by Matthew Syed, first broadcast May 9, 2012. Free podcast: www.bbc.co.uk/ podcasts/series/fourthought. Mozart: An introduction to the music, the man and the myths by Roye Wates. Amadeus Press 2010. Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed. Harper Collins 2010.
(The author teaches Economic Theory at Jahangirnagar University and North South University.)