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We’ve all heard the stories: Mozart composed his first symphony at age 4. Bobby Fischer was a chess grandmaster by 15. Nadia Comăneci scored a perfect 10 in gymnastics at 14. Child prodigies surround us on TV shows, competitions, and in beauty pageants. Audiences are transfixed at the virtuosic displays of skill, and whisper to each other “What a talented young lady!” or “He has such talent!”
What the casual observer forgets is that many of the skills displayed involve countless hours of hard work. A person may have natural ability in a given field, but true mastery is the result of laborious hours honing a set of skills.
Natural Ability vs. Developed Skill
Most children easily pick up new skills. The plasticity of a child’s brain is remarkable; it’s what allows young children to become bi or tri-lingual with ease. Sports, activities, musical instruments, and other complex tasks come more quickly to young children than adult learners. There’s no immediate switch to an “adult brain” at a particular age, but according to BrainFacts.org, it is known that “the prefrontal cortex increases in volume during childhood, peaks in adolescence, and then starts to decrease. This decline continues throughout the 20s.”
It’s safe to say that by age 30, the brain has reached “adult” stage and no longer possesses the incredible capacity for learning that a child’s brain has. What does this have to do with our perception of talent?
Consider a child’s primary source of knowledge: Their parents. In Mozart’s case, his father was Leopold Mozart, renowned composer and violinist: He wrote the textbook of the day on violin playing. Mozart undoubtedly grew up in a highly musical environment. Even as an infant, Mozart was surrounded by other musicians, his father composing at the piano, and hours of violin practice. Mozart of course needed to have a natural inclination toward music, and children don’t always possess the same natural talents as their parents. But without the structure of Leopold’s instruction, and his constant supervision of Mozart’s development, one has to question if the name Mozart would be so well known today.
Is that to say a child’s potential rests solely on their parents? No, there are plenty of examples of children overcoming rough circumstances and emerging as successful masters of a skill set. The argument is not against the idea of natural potential and ability. It is that talent alone is not enough for success.
Talent And Tenacity Are Key
Many people who are “talented” run into trouble when they reach the outer limits of natural ability. Having been praised for their innate abilities and gone through life believing their success came naturally, these people hit the wall of hard work and don’t know what to do. They may question their “naturally gifted” status, and begin to feel inferior. It can be a difficult lesson to learn, that talent has a limit and often ends where tenacious practice and effort begins.
Children may beg a parent to quit baseball, piano lessons, or whatever activity is no longer easy. As young adults, they may switch jobs, go back to school in a different field, or find another way to avoid the painfully difficult work of growth.