Talent is (often) an excuse

Whether or not you think talent exists, if someone brings up talent, it’s an excuse for something else.

[EDIT 2020 April 13:] I wrote this on a whim and very quickly. I add this disclaimer not as means to avoid being held accountable for my opinions but because I find that my prose and explanations were, frankly, not the best. I’d like to revisit this topic later.

Talent explains little

You’re just naturally good at [insert subject here]

People, many times.

Having a natural predisposition to be good at a particular subject in regards to school is pretty weird.

My first words were acid-base equilibrium.

Me, jokingly.

I don’t think it’s even plausible to be born with some innate knowledge for most subjects, so suggesting that people are successful in academic subjects primarily because of their natural intellect is lazy reasoning.

My experiences in mathematics go against this talent explanation: outside of knowing the existence of negative integers in first grade and being quick in raw arithmetic, I was nothing “special.” Compared to many people, I was actually a year behind them. Yet by junior year, I was regularly winning regional math competitions and qualified for the AIME, among other things. If anything, my natural talent held me back, but that didn’t stop me from succeeding.

I think people don’t really think through the logic; people that seem to “get” things in school give the impression off that they have to put in fewer hours to do equally as well as other people, so they must have some inherent talent that we must not have. I doubt that this is true. It’s probably because they’ve already put the effort in before learning. My ability to grasp most concepts in school came from that fact that while showering or eating or doing anything, I was subconsciously thinking of the course material. This isn’t talent. This is something anyone can do.

Having talked to an expert, what is known is that there seems to be a familial correlation with specifically memory capacity and memory recall. Outside of that, not much has been concluded with certainty.

What can be explained by talent can usually be explained more convincingly by effort.

Excuses and blind studying

The biggest source of frustration and “evidence” for some sort of natural aptitude comes from exams and other forms of assessment. On the surface, the data points towards a very straight-forward conclusion.

Person A put in less effort and were still able to do as well or even better than I did.

A common “observation.”

The talent explanation is that this is caused by Person A having more raw talent or whatever than you did. Again, I find this to be lazy reasoning, and there are better explanations, namely:

  • You underestimated Person A’s actual amount of effort.
  • You overestimated your own studying efficiency.


The stereotype for this is when two people are discussing how much they studied and one person lies and gives a quantity too low. This actually doesn’t happen much, as people more commonly lie and give a quantity too high to make the impression that they put in an immense amount of effort. The underestimation error comes from people, again, being lazy with their reasoning.

When comparing how much effort someone put in for a given exam or quiz, they respond by stating how many man-hours they put in specifically for the exam. This does not include time spent on homework, time spent reflecting on the material, or perhaps even more importantly, the background knowledge of the student, despite these things being important.

Underestimation also comes from the phenomenon where people implicitly overestimate the number of people with a bad personality trait and underestimate the number of people with a good personality trait. In doing so with studying for an exam, people will underestimate the number of people that put in substantial effort. However, you can’t just underestimate how many people did well–this is actual data–so to compensate for the number of people studying and the number of people doing well, people use the lazy explanation that they must be talented.

Studying efficiency

Malcolm Gladwell has the “10,000 hour rule,” which states that it takes roughly that many hours in order to achieve mastery in anything. Even beyond the fact that the original study Gladwell made use of has been called into question, people misinterpret this rule and other similar “hard work triumphs all” views.

Hard work is insufficient. For one, people tend not to be very efficient in how they study. For an example, from Evan Chen, discussing how long it took him to do different problems at different points in time,

In 2011, JMO #5 took me two hours. In 2012, the same problem took me 30 seconds and SL 2011 G4 took me two hours.

Today [2014], SL 2011 G4 takes me about five minutes and IMO 2011 #6 took me seven hours.

It would not have been a good use of my time in 2011 to spend several hundred hours on IMO #6.

Evan Chen, What Leads to Success in Math Competitions?

I feel like this is true for people when studying for exams as well. People study in an inefficient manner by grinding through exercises in a sub-optimal manner, often not doing questions that are difficult and need to be worked through enough, and doing questions they already know they know. This leads to their studying to be a lot less productive.

Another tactic that people fail to utilize which causes them to overestimate their value of studying comes from making connections between concepts.

Whenever you see a problem…, store it (and the solution) in your mind like a cherished memory… The point of this is that you will see problems which will remind you of that problem despite having no obvious relation. You will not be able to say concretely what the relation is, but think a lot about it and give a name to the common aspect of the two problems. Eventually, you will see new problems for which you feel like could also be described by that name. Do this enough, and you will have a very powerful intuition that cannot be described easily concretely (and in particular, that nobody else will have).

Cyclic Theories, on What Leads to Success in Math Competitions?

When people identify talent as the root cause for something, it’s them throwing their hands up in the air because their own efforts are insufficient. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it’s usually not talent that’s causing the problem.

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