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People often call sports teams or sports players "talented".

Example:

The Miami Heat have a lot of talent on their roster.

Or:

Sidney Crosby is a very talented hockey player.


But people also talk in terms of acquiring, developing, or fostering talent as well:

If you want to acquire great talent in something, be prepared to spend several years working on it. Researchers estimated that ten years is the amount of time that it usually takes to acquire talent.

Or:

If the goal is to develop markets start by developing talent. If you want to accomplish the most amazing things focus on developing the talent of amazing people. Mentoring and coaching are the most important leadership roles... If you want to attract the best talent develop a reputation as the best talent developer.


My Question:

Is it wrong to talk in terms of acquiring, developing, or fostering talent? When one does so, does it suggest that we can "learn" or "acquire" talents?

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Could be a talented learner. ;) –  Grant Thomas Apr 26 '11 at 18:13
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5 Answers 5

Talent is often referred to as an innate ability to succeed at a particular task but the word can also mean a specific learned skill or ability. Someone who is a talented potter is someone who excels at being a potter. While they may have a predisposition toward pottery the term is more referring to their ability to make the task look easy or simple.

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There are different views about talent and one view popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers is that talent is something that can be "acquired" through "deliberate practice" (or preparation):

"For almost a generation, psychologists around the world have been engaged in a spirited debate over a question that most of us would consider to have been settled years ago. The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. Not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only some do – the innately talented ones. Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger role preparation seems to play."

Gladwell is of course echoing Dr. Anders Ericsson who authored the the seminal book on how to acquire expertise, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance and got this review from Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner of The New York Times Magazine and authors of Freakonomics:

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers "whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming" are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.

Ericsson however qualifies that the road to expertise is paved with a LOT OF DELIBERATE PRACTICE:

Among investigators of expertise, it has generally been assumed that the performance of experts improved as a direct function of increases in their knowledge through training and extended experience. However, recent studies show that there are, at least, some domains where "experts" perform no better then less trained individuals (cf. outcomes of therapy by clinical psychologists, Dawes, 1994) and that sometimes experts' decisions are no more accurate than beginners' decisions and simple decision aids (Camerer & Johnson, 1991; Bolger & Wright, 1992). Most individuals who start as active professionals or as beginners in a domain change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work and leisure experience in a domain is a poor predictor of attained performance (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996). Hence, continued improvements (changes) in achievement are not automatic consequences of more experience and in those domains where performance consistently increases aspiring experts seek out particular kinds of experience, that is deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993)--activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance. For example, the critical difference between expert musicians differing in the level of attained solo performance concerned the amounts of time they had spent in solitary practice during their music development, which totaled around 10,000 hours by age 20 for the best experts, around 5,000 hours for the least accomplished expert musicians and only 2,000 hours for serious amateur pianists. More generally, the accumulated amount of deliberate practice is closely related to the attained level of performance of many types of experts, such as musicians (Ericsson et al., 1993; Sloboda, et al., 1996), chessplayers (Charness, Krampe & Mayr, 1996) and athletes (Starkes et al., 1996). (emphases in bold are mine)

Has anyone tried to put this into practice? Well, there's at least one and his name is Dan McLaughlin:

On his 30th birthday, June 27, 2009, Dan had decided to quit his job to become a professional golfer.

He had almost no experience and even less interest in the sport.

What he really wanted to do was test the 10,000-hour theory he read about in the Malcolm Gladwell bestseller Outliers. That, Gladwell wrote, is the amount of time it takes to get really good at anything — "the magic number of greatness."

The idea appealed to Dan. His 9-to-5 job as a commercial photographer had become unfulfilling. He didn't want just to pay his bills. He wanted to make a change.

Could he stop being one thing and start being another? Could he, an average man, 5 feet 9 and 155 pounds, become a pro golfer, just by trying? Dan's not doing an experiment. He is the experiment.

The Dan Plan will take six hours a day, six days a week, for six years. He is keeping diligent records of his practice and progress. People who study expertise say no one has done quite what Dan is doing right now.

Now, that's one view - another one is Elizabeth Gilbert's and you can watch her video when she spoke on Ted and here's an excerpt:

And then the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was let's put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there's no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it's the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius rather than having a genius. And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error. You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years. (again, emphasis is mine)

So you have one view that talent can be acquired through at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and you have another where genius/talent is something that you receive as a gift. Personally, I think the answer is in-between. Gallup has a concept that's Strength-Based - find out what you're innately wired to do in the first place and then build on it:

Why Develop Strengths? Our research shows that strengths development interventions can produce increases in employee engagement. Engagement, in turn, can improve business outcomes by boosting retention, productivity, profitability, customer engagement, and safety. Over the past decade, Gallup has surveyed more than 10 million workers worldwide to gauge their engagement. Only one-third strongly agree with the statement, "At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day." In a Gallup Poll, among those who disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement, not one single person was emotionally engaged on the job. Analyses of our clients' employee engagement scores show that workgroups that receive strengths development and employee engagement interventions achieve more robust growth in engagement scores than do groups that receive a standard engagement intervention without a strengths development component. Our studies also indicate that employees who have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life. (emphasis mine) A strengths development strategy not only can dramatically boost employee engagement, it can also substantially decrease disengagement.

So to answer your question, there is a way to find out what your "talent" is (Gallup), this becomes the basis of the word talented (or "genius" as Gilbert puts it) and you can acquire, develop and foster this using Dr. Anders Ericsson's program of deliberate practice. It's a very long answer and I hope it helps! :)

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+1: Very good answer. // Are some suggesting that science has made the word 'talent' less applicable? –  Jim G. Apr 26 '11 at 18:33
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+1: Wonderful! I would have gone with the simple innate sense of the word "talent", but I thoroughly enjoyed your answer. –  taserian Apr 26 '11 at 19:36
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This answer isn't actually addressing the usage of the word "talent" as mixed with "acquire" or "learn". EL&U isn't the place for a rehashing of the self-help movement or training seminars. Most of the content here is completely irrelevant to the English language and the question being asked. –  MrHen Apr 28 '11 at 19:19
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@pageman: Please don't yell. The McLaughlin story is irrelevant because it doesn't talk about the usage of the word "talent" nor does it say if McLaughlin ever became good at golf. It just talks about what he plans to do. Nor does it suggest that McLaughlin, even if he does succeed, didn't actually possess an innate golfing talent. I read your entire answer you posted over 500 words from other people while adding less than 150 of your own. I am assuming you don't understand what I am saying; I don't know how else to say it. Your answer is mostly chaff. It looks impressive but that is all. –  MrHen Apr 28 '11 at 19:32
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@page: "From a psychological standpoint, there are differing views on the source of talent. Dr. Anders Ericsson, for example, claims blah. Elizabeth Gilbert, however, suggests blah. But since the issue is in contention, you are safe to use the word 'talent' in conjunction with 'learn' or 'acquire.'" Each blah could include a small blockquote for entertainment value. The point I am making is that the relevant part of your answer is drowned out by irrelevant noise. A little bit of extra information can be good; too much just clutters the site with non-English related stuffs. –  MrHen Apr 28 '11 at 19:58
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Talent is an affinity for something, but it takes time and hard work to develop that into something impressive.

My husband is a piano player and people always tell him how talented he is. That talent only shows because of years and years of lessons and practice. Talent is not something that just dropped in his lap to be picked up without effort.

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In this context, I think talents can be described in the same terms as babies.

You can foster a talent and make it grow.

The idea of aquiring or learning a talent is alien to me.

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One normally "develops" a talent. Also, one can "discover" that one has a talent for something. There's usually some sense of innate predilection for the activity in question.

Malcolm Gladwell's observation was that one can acquire a pronounced "skill" for something, and that the baseline is around 10,000 repetitions (or 10 years).

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