| 1036 words

People always say that practice makes perfect. It's generally accepted that you can accomplish anything and set your mind to it. And, that's generally true. It would be hard, maybe even impossible, to find a person who's dedicated a thousand hours into art or mathematics or weightlifting and not become a better artist/math understander/gym bro.

I think it's nice to believe that, generally speaking, anyone can become infinitely good at anything. Of course there are some cases where this is clearly not true. If something like basketball ability is 95% skill and can be improved with practice, there's still that 5% of unchangeable biological factors like height or maybe hand size. There's probably an analogue for this in most competitive fields - some impossible biological barrier. The best in the world represent a combination of perfect biology with unbelievable dedication. Still, it'd be nice to imagine everything was only 100% skill.

Anyway, who wants to be the absolute number one in the world. It more than suffices to be regular good at something. Those rigid biological factors probably don't even matter until you're in something like the top 1%, and probably don't have any meaningful effect until the top 0.01% range. I really do believe that just about anyone has the potential to the best at anything in their little community.

Want to be the best squash player you know? Yeah go for it! The best artist amongst your online circle of friends. Psssh, no problem! Want to be so good at repairing things that even friends of friends have heard your name? Light work, no reaction. With a few months to a year or two of hard work and dedication, or maybe instead a few years to a decade of mediocre work and borderline apathy, you too can make it to the hall of fame.

Even if you're not specifically trying to be the best at something, being good at things tends to inherently feel pretty good. It's satisfying to know that you are someone who is Capable and Skilled. It's especially satisfying to know that you got there not through luck or good fortune, but rather through nothing but your own hard work and dedication.

I think, however, that there's an interesting perception effect from others who are interested in what they perceive to be god given talent. In the art world, for example, people who whine "oh I wish I could be as talented as you". "If I was a talented artist I would draw so many amazing things"! Well funny story, guess who could be talented if they really tried? I'll give you one guess.

I suppose it's fair to say at this point that I don't really believe in talent. Yup, that's right, I just don't see it as a thing that exists. I've talked to a number of skilled people, creative or otherwise, and nobody has ever attributed their skills to natural talent. It's ironic because sometimes these aforementioned individuals continue to use the word talent to describe others, but oh no it could never apply to them. "Oh no, I'm not talented. I'm not even that good at what I do. It took years of practice to even get this far". Says the best mathematician I know.

With some types of activities this attitude is espcially pernicious. Art, for example, looks deceptively simple to the untrained eye despite being one of the more complex fields to master. There are so many independant areas to train, like lighting, anatomy, color theory, brushwork. But it looks so easy. Just pick up the pencil and move it around the paper. When you do it, great art gets spit out. When I do it? Absolute trash, just pure nonsense. Aw, if only I was talented enough to do art.

Idk I guess I might be exaggerating a little. It's a possibility. But it does capture something real. Skill comes from practice, and is often mistaken for talent. And while one could make the argument that there is a real biological factor, I maintain that it is negligible compared to what practice gets you.

And that brings me to athletics. Take running, but this goes for pretty much all kinds of exercise. I've been finding it pretty interesting, doubly so with me training for the upcoming triathlon. Unlike art, running is simple. Your progress as a runner can essentially be described by a single number, whether that be your pace or distance or speed. You know something artists sometimes do? They look over their old art to see how far they've come. It's not always obvious to see the improvement from one piece to the next, only the aggregate over years. I think runners rarely need to do that - they have their single number, and know how fast it's going down.

To get better at running, you run. There's little running theory or philosophy to bog you down. When someone is better than you at running, it's plainly obvious that they have run more than you. And unless you're trying to become an olympian or ultramarathoner, which I can assure you are not, you can reach the same heights in running as almost anyone else. Anyone could run a marathon if they wanted it enough.

Not only do I not like the idea of talent, I think it's a very convenient lie people tell themselves. For some reason, in artistic fields it's easier to appeal to a better artistic vision and bemoan a lack of talent. With running, there's little such excuse. As they famously say, there are no shortcuts. And when you, who are out of breath after a light 5 minute jog, hear about feats like 100km races and those who run can run faster than you are humanly capable for longer than you are humanly capable? There's no talent involved in something like that. You could do it too if you wanted. Really, all it takes is practice.