On finding the nature of YOUR talent.

I recently heard David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, speak at Idea Festival in Louisville about what differentiates elite athletes and musicians from the rest of the pack.

I first encountered Epstein when I fell down the deliberate practice rabbit hole several years ago. Epstein hates the 10,000 hours rule, instead insisting that attaining excellence in any given discipline is a complex combination of biology and skill-building.

Practice is a vital piece of the puzzle, says Epstein, but the rule ignores an important prerequisite: to excel, we first must find where we are trainable. If you weren’t born with the eyesight and quick reflexes of a major league pitcher, no amount of training will earn you elite status. If your genes didn’t grant you the wingspan of an NBA point guard, 10,000 hours of practice won’t get you much more than mediocre.

The question we must ask ourselves, says Epstein, is which of our skills are ripe for improvement? 

Deliberate practice is crucial, but it must be applied in the right discipline. The only way to find the right discipline is to sample widely.

Elite athletes and musicians aren’t the ones who have been playing a single sport since they were 5 years old: early specialization is fantastic for producing the best 13-year-olds, but terrible at getting the best 20-year-olds. Elite performers are far more likely to be the ones who tried a wide variety of sports, or instruments, before they specialized.

The sampling helped them build general skills, but its most important purpose was to reveal which specific discipline was ripe for specializing. World-class performers must find—through experimentation—the discipline that rewards their specific mix of talent and biology. Specializing early aborts this process, and ensures they won’t reach their potential.

Epstein’s work focuses on sports and music, so I was surprised at how perfectly his thoughts aligned with an altogether different field.

I just finished Mary Karr’s new release The Art of Memoir. In it, Karr unpacks the key elements of great literary memoir and breaks down her own creative process. It’s not just a book for writers: of the book’s 200 pages, only 35 or so are devoted to “how-to.”

Karr is a hugely successful memoirist who is credited with sparking the current memoir explosion. But you probably don’t know her backstory: she spent years—decades, even—writing awful, unreadable crap (her words, not mine). Back then, her writing wasn’t playing to her strengths. She was talented, but she hadn’t found the right way to put that talent to use—and even hugely talented artists can’t write anything worth reading until they discover the nature of their talent.

What did Karr do in the meantime? She practiced, and she sampled widely. She wrote fiction, she wrote poetry. She tried different narrative styles, different voices.

Karr says that finding the right voice to tell the story of her hardscrabble Texas childhood “occupied some thirteen years (seventeen, if you count the requisite years in therapy getting the nerve up).” It took her nearly two decades to find the discipline that required her specific mix of talent, personal history, and biology.

But when she did, the magic happened. Or rather, it became possible for the magic to happen, because she was finally practicing to the right end.

Karr speaks of writers, Epstein of athletes and musicians, but the idea is the same, and you don’t have to be in the elite ranks to put it into practice: science can’t tell you what program, diet, or discipline will suit you best. To find that thing, you have to sample, experiment, learn by doing.

You can’t do anything, but you can do the thing you were made to do.

Have you found the discipline that plays to your strengths, that rewards YOUR specific mix of talent and biology? Do you feel like you’re finally on the right path to it? I’d love to hear your stories and all about your bumpy journeys in comments. 

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  1. There is a lot that I’m still working on (like anyone else) but I’ve learned a few things about myself these past years in how I can be a good friend to another, when is the best time for me to get certain tasks done. Along with that, knowing that I’m rhythmically able to tune myself in various types of dance, its something that I try and put a lot more energy into than other side projects. Sometimes it’s nice being able to show off some cool moves.

  2. Bekki says:

    Wow, a lot clicked reading this! I pursued cooking and baking seriously for about 12 years when I was first married. I *can* cook anything, but I vastly prefer salads, soups, stews, and risottos because I adore knife work and playing with flavor combos. I can bake almost anything (some of those Eastern European pastries are still a headache), but I rock traditional breads. Overall, once I discovered that my creativity in any area is based in synthesis, I pursued a much broader range of reading and activities. I imagine the same is true for those whose creativity is based in experimentation or discovery.

    • Anne says:

      “Overall, once I discovered that my creativity in any area is based in synthesis, I pursued a much broader range of reading and activities.”

      Very interesting!

  3. Jamie Palmer says:

    You really made me think! Good thing I have had my coffee.
    I am widely with all I want to do, but I don’t always focus in when I see a strength. Valuable food for thought. Thanks.

  4. I really enjoyed this. When it comes to writing, I am still figuring it out. Sometimes I feel so all over the board, but this gives me permission to keep working until I find the sweet spot.

  5. Beth says:

    I was lucky to be able to take the Johnson O’Connor Foundation interest/abilities inventory when I was 25. This two-day process and resulting report was incredibly insightful, and 11 years later, I can still go back to it when in a difficult work situation. It confirmed that my chosen occupation needed some redirection (I was never going to be great at it) and that the role I’m in now, as well as the writing genre I’m focused on now, is a much better fit.

    • Christina says:

      Beth, I’ve meant to have my college-aged son take this test. It is quite expensive, but so intriguing. Would you say it was worth the cost?

      • Beth says:

        Christina: It was worth it. Both my husband and I can look back over the years and say, “They nailed it.” It gives confirmation to our instincts and affirms our choices. For example, by the time I tested I was in a field they said I would struggle in. I am much happier to be out of it.

  6. Katia says:

    Narrowing it down has been the tough part for me, and it’s one with which I still sometimes grapple. I grew up singing and dancing and wanted to be on stage; however, I was discouraged from that pursuit by my family. I also enjoyed art and started making prom dresses for my friends in high school. At the same time, I began freelance writing and after getting paid for a few articles and when it was time to submit my university applications, I applied for both fashion design and journalism. I was accepted into both programs but chose the latter because, once again, I felt discouraged from pursuing a career in fashion design. Today, many years after having graduated with a degree in journalism and another degree in adult education, I am an assistant to the CEO of a company, yoga instructor, and blogger working on a memoir. These days, I sing and dance for an audience of my family members, and from time to time, I enjoy the spotlight at the local karaoke pub with a few girlfriends. On those nights, I hear the old question, “Why do you not sing professionally?” That question inevitably sends me careening into nostalgia, questioning and second-guessing. Yet, I also am comfortable these days with my writing, and I love guiding clients through yoga classes that leave them inspired, having learned a bit more about themselves and feeling a bit better in their bodies and minds. So, I have found the right calling for me at this time and my focus is clear, but when there are other avenues from which to choose, the choice is often not an easy one.

    • Dawn says:

      I had to deal with some of the same things. My parents *said* I could be anything, but my dad really wanted me to have a “safe” job that provided “benefits.” I also spent a lot of thought avoiding undesirable aspects of certain careers. My perceptions when I was 18 included teachers dealing with crabby parents and getting shot at; nurses working crazy-long hours with no respect. Now I try to let my kids pursue anything they show a passion for without comment from me. I also try to let my kids know what I love about my “safe” work at the office.

      • Anne says:

        “My parents *said* I could be anything, but my dad really wanted me to have a “safe” job that provided “benefits.””

        You’re in good company. 🙂

  7. Tessa says:

    Oh… this gave me a spark of hope. Thank you. I left university to pursue writing music, but I am so unqualified right now. I regret quitting piano lessons when I was eleven, regret not practicing, and am embarrassed that I have to relearn everything in order to write music the way I want to. Sometimes I think I lost my chance when I quit in grade school. But this was so encouraging, especially when you mentioned that those who sample things to find THE thing have great odds. Thank you.

  8. Dana says:

    Great post! I saw the truth of what he said about early vs. late bloomers while reading an article on the new dancers in our local ballet troupe. All of them, save one, came to dance later rather than earlier. Most did not start dance until middle school or even high school and yet they are in their 20s and with a major ballet. I wondered about that when I read the article , but now it makes sense. They all had pursued ( and still do) a variety of interests as they grew up.

    I wanted to be a writer or artist growing up, but was encouraged by my father ( an artist turned graphic designer) to pursue something more sensible. So I majored in education and was a teacher for 35 years. I loved it and I was very good at it. Still I dabbled with art and writing classes when I could, along with dance, piano and quilting. Some go those were more successful than others. Now that I have retired I am taking art classes and writing classes and combining the two into mixed media journaling and poetry. I was just yesterday offered a job teaching writing classes to adults and I am working on an mixed media piece for my church’s art gallery.

    • Anne says:

      That’s interesting about the ballet dancers. Thanks for sharing.

      Congrats on the job offer! Glad to hear you’ve circled back around to writing and art.

  9. This is totally off the cuff, as I haven’t read Epstein and am really into the 10,000 hours idea, but I can’t imagine practicing something so devotedly that we don’t already love (which perhaps would be the skill / talent behind the things we gravitate to?). In other words, wouldn’t we only stick with things long enough to improve if we really have an abiding love? And wouldn’t that lead to some sort of skill building as a result (even if we don’t have the correct biological make up for the skill)?

    The 10,000 hours makes so much sense to me in regard to the writing life. The sheer amount of practice needed to find your voice combines nicely with reading widely. I think a writer finds her voice (and perhaps her genre / format) by reading well beyond what she thinks she wants to write or thinks she does well.

    So many great thoughts here, Anne, as always.

    • Anne says:

      His point isn’t that a writer should dabble in accounting, but that a memoirist may be better suited to novel writing.

      A conversation I’d love to have over a cup of coffee: his conversation made me wonder if so many people who doggedly pursue a particular variety of the writing life with limited success might in fact be better suited to a different kind of writing: screenwriting, playwriting, technical writing. I love the idea of dabbling in adjacent fields—and if you do that your hours of deliberate practice still totally count. 🙂

  10. Kate says:

    This is timely – thank you! Food for thought as a contemplate a career shift.

    Also interesting in terms of parenting. I pulled my daughter out of one for her twoballet classes recently because I felt she was overscheduled. The studio informed me no fewer than four times that this would “slow her progress.” I prefer to think of it as keeping her well rounded.

  11. Greg says:

    Thanks for this post. I tend to stick with the first thing that I try in an area, like workouts, hobbies, music… I need to try a wider range of activities in an area. At 55, I better get moving on checking out some new adventures. 🙂

  12. Faith R says:

    This is so EXACTLY what I needed to read right now. I have felt like I’ve been walking in circles, trying to figure out what kind of a writer I am. This is SO freeing.

  13. Jessica says:

    I’ve always envied friends who formed their career goals at an early age (I knew I wanted to be a teacher since I was 5, etc…) But perhaps the circular route really was more beneficial because it allowed me to “sample” without getting stuck.

    I always wonder about employees in countries where you declare your major in high school based on aptitude vs those of us who simply chose in college. It would be interesting to see who had greater career satisfaction.

  14. Joy Lin says:

    “You can’t do anything, but you can do the thing you were made to do.”
    It’s so good to see this truth in the midst of a world that says you can do anything you set your mind to.

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