Chapter 2: What is natural talent?
Natural talent is a concept that goes back thousands of years. Ancient mythology is full of stories of vastly skilled masters of their craft who were rumoured to have been born with their talents – gifts from the gods. This idea of being born with a natural talent still persists today and is heard most in relation to great sportspeople or musicians, or to someone who is new to a sport or activity and yet shows some early skill or aptitude for it.
Definition: Natural talent is an innate or inborn gift for a specific activity, either allowing one to demonstrate some immediate skill without practice, or to gain skill rapidly with minimal practice.
By this definition, the key advantage of natural talent is that it allows the individual a steep learning curve, whereby he or she acquires skills readily with less practice or hard work than the average person. As well as the advantage of learning quickly, natural talent is also said to increase one’s maximum potential. This implies that each individual has a ceiling that caps the highest level of performance they can attain, no matter how hard or long they train. For gifted performers, this ceiling is said to be higher.
We all know the concept, and it is woven into every part of our lives. People are said to be “gifted”, or “born to play tennis”, or “a natural”. It is the cornerstone of many talent scouting programs, which look to recruit children with raw or untapped talent that they can build upon with refined training. This is because natural talent is seen as an absolutely essential (and unchangeable) component of a top performer. It is thought that without natural talent you can only go so far.
So what? Why are we discussing natural talent?
The concept of natural talent is important to explore because most people consider it an ingredient essential for success (see our previous post discussing the formula for tennis performance). If you think you’re immune to the idea, ask yourself how many times you have said you’re not suited to some activity, or given up quickly because you demonstrated no immediate skill for it. Even though it’s a vague and mysterious quality, the idea of natural talent is so ingrained into people’s beliefs that it often goes unquestioned. But while the general public carries on merrily using a lack of natural talent as a reason not to pursue certain activities, or as an excuse for under-performance, there are researchers who are interested in what really makes great performers great and whether it has anything to do with natural talent at all.