Talent, practice and doing the hard stuff



Now I’ve had a revelation about prac­tice – practicing the kind of
writing you’re good at can make you better at it, but practicing the
stuff you’re bad at is even better.

Wish I’d learned this earlier. Sure, I heard it, but…youth. With any luck, I’ve enough time left to get better --maybe even good --at the things I find enriching.

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It’s also easy to be diverted by the things we are bad at. Maybe someone writes short stories almost effortlessly but for some reason they feel obligated to write an awful novel which takes them away from their real talent. On the other hand, I think it was Joyce Carol Oates who trained herself to write by sitting down and banging out a dozen novels that she threw away.

Strangely, in the US, math teachers often seem quite disdainful of the idea of practice.


I think it is wrong to specifically seek out the things you are bad at. Rather, you always want to be working toward pushing out the edges of your skill, where you have some real risk of failing… or getting better.

It should feel scary sometimes. Always pick the path that makes you a little nervous.


As with any career. Practicing the things that you want to be better at, the things that you sense the world wants more of, is the way to go.

Nature v nurture again? Practice is necessary but pays off best when practicing something you have a talent for and are (therefore?) interested in. Anecdotally, there are many things I would love to be good at and have tried hard to be so. I’ve really succeeded at just one and, as described in the article, practicing that one is a joy; the others, not so much. Others have asked me to pass on some of my skills in that one thing to them - some have picked it up easily, others have struggled and not really succeeded (in some cases despite doing it for their day jobs) but in all cases practice has improved performance. So I think talent is a thing and I think its worth identifying. That’s why you should try everything!

Weird because maths is all about practise. Something my English teacher never understood was that I could see how to practise maths (he couldn’t and hated maths students because of it) but not how to practise writing.

Its a constant effort now that I am a practising Engineer to keep up my skills, learn news ones and not become bogged down in management where all to often once brilliant engineers forget everything they know and become problems for everyone.

As with all these things I think they are talents. Something we just pick up easily and something no matter how hard we try we are never going to be better than passable at.

I enjoy playing the piano but no amount of practise is going to get me to concert pianist standard, but if i work at it I can play in a band! That is just sad reality there are limits on what our bodies can do.

That said I am less convinced that there are limits on what our minds can do so maybe we can teach ourselves to be Astor-physicists if we try hard enough.

(sigh)…I practiced hitting a baseball four hours a day from about age 4 to age 16. Would six hours a day have made me Albert Pujols??

Whenever I have a student tell me they’re bad at math, I respond, “No. You’re bad at practicing math.”

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Along a similar vein, there was a scene in some documentary about artists that really inspired my wife. In it, some illustrator said that he went to his studio every day at the same time, no matter if he had an idea or not. He said that if he got there and didn’t have an idea, he’d just sharpen his pencils. To paraphrase him, he said, “Stand there sharpening pencils long enough, and eventually you’ll find you have something you want to draw.”

Also related. My wife has had a really good time with something called “100 days” on Instagram where you have to `gram a piece of art you did that day, every day, for 100 days. Somehow, it’s the extra push she needs to actually do something every day.

I once told a student who was struggling at math, at a school I was attending that “To be good at math you need to enjoy it. To enjoy math, you need to be good at it.”

Yep, he was puzzled, for about three weeks. Then his grades shot up to the top of the class.

Talent is an absolutely real thing, but it has some pitfalls. Talented people can get to first base without hard work, but they tend to stop there. Also, people are notoriously bad at estimating their own talents. My son has enormous musical talent, but he also hates to work. This has me worried.

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I would say this is actually the first corollary of the more pernicious (and popular) view of talent: People who mistakenly believe they can’t be good at things because they don’t have any innate skills.

I work with a lot of adults who are just starting to seriously use computers, and I hate the way that the talent myth undermines their confidence and betrays the noble struggle of reflected practice and repetition.

Ah well.

As I hate using the word “talent”, I have found “interest” to be a great surrogate.

That’s fine, but I disagree.

It seems like every great author talks about this. Collection of quotes and examples here: http://www.slideshare.net/PatrickEMcLean/how-to-kill-a-word

Also, it is unflattering to our ego to practice the things that we are the weakest at. Unfortunately that’s where the biggest return is. I had a teacher explain it to me in terms of pushups. Most people do them fast and they blow right past that spot where they are weakest. But if you do them slow and spend time where you are weak, you will get strong faster. It just sucks more.


In the same vein, when I lived in L.A. I had two questions to distinguish waiters from actors: 1. What specific thing are you working on right now to become better? 2. What’s bad (or good) acting?

Also, some times we need to be motivated by criticism. Nothing gets me going like some outright ridicule because it usually means I threaten the hell out of the critic and i need to eat their lunch.

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