What is talent? Your definitions and thoughts from David Epstein

18 Nov 2013 Posted by

Thank you all for your wonderful response to last week’s call for your contributions to the question, “what is talent?”.  I got 34 entries, including some really good and thought-provoking ones.  I’ve said before, but the greatest value of the site has been the stimulation you provide to me, and this exercise was no different!

We also have a winner in the competition, the prize being dinner with David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene who is here in Cape Town for the Performance Leadership Summit this Thursday and Friday.  That person is Jonathan Black, a UCT student, so congratulations to him.  His excellent entry, which you can read below, was actually the number one overall pick.

David has gone through every single submission, picked out the top five, and then kindly added some of his thoughts about the concepts and ideas in the answers.  Also, on Facebook, I have created a post that contains every singe one of your submissions (in the comments to the post), so feel free to weigh in, like, comment and enjoy the discussion!

Without further ado, here are the Top 5!  Thank you once again!


1.  Jonathan Black, student, Cape Town

Talent is a set of personal characteristics that enhance one’s ability to achieve expertise in an accelerated manner.  These traits allow one to improve at quicker rates than others in their field that are at the same level of expertise/fitness/skill, etc.  This is because talent is one’s ability to adapt to training and develop skills in their specialized field.  Talent exists when strong genetics and a desire to practice come together to create superior ability for a specific activity.  It can only exist along with a deliberate interest.  Because of this, talent will often only become apparent after a moderate amount of practice as this is when one’s ability to adapt and improve is more clearly visible.  Talent is not merely one’s “base” ability at a task – this comes about often as a result of exposure to skills and experiences in one’s early days.

David’s thoughts:

This excellent submission incorporates a number of ideas that have emerged in exercise genetics and skill acquisition work, including trainability. It also encapsulates what Ellen Winner–a world’s expert in giftedness–termed the “rage to master.” A compulsive drive to train displayed by child prodigies, and through which they force adults around them to create an environment conducive to massive amounts of training. The author also nails one of the take-home points of work like the Heritage Family Study, which is that the most important kind of talent may only appear upon training, and not at baseline.


2.  Will Hardt, student, New York

Talent is the eventual potential of an individual in a certain endeavor. It’s not how good one is right away – it’s how good one can become in a perfect world. The most important subcategories of talent are probably:

1) Innate (before training) ability

2) The mental and physical capabilities to spend time and effort trying to improve: not losing motivation, getting injured etc. (Although mental toughness and injury resilience can be improved, there is a talent component to both.)

3) The amount of improvement that happens with a given amount of practice i.e. the ability of the body to adapt or the mind to master

Success is a product of talent and environment. The realization of one’s full talent is extremely rare and relies heavily on being in an optimal environment, plus a great deal of luck.

David’s thoughts:

This is a broad but great definition, as it employs not only adaptability to training–a theme in my book–but also the importance of psychological drive to undertake practice, which even Anders Ericsson has suggested may have a genetic component. (And other work has shown that it does.)  This submission includes both a priori talent, and “responder” talent, both of which can be important and are not necessarily correlated.


3.  Ben Steiner, writer, UK

Talent is that part of a performance which, when that performance is evaluated, is attributed to God or Nature.

David’s thoughts:

Given its brevity, a fantastic definition that stakes out a pragmatic angle. In terms of what athletes or broadcasters say on TV, I would say this submission captured it. This definition sort of turns the question on its head by giving a practical description of how talent is often explained by others. (Others who constantly talk about talent but who are almost universally unaware of even the tiniest fragment of what science has to say on the topic.)


4.  Jamie Croly, rowing coach, Johannesburg

Talent is the athletes’ innate or learned ability to combine factors that contribute to performance into a successful whole. The genetic legacy they receive from their parents is a basis for performance for without the physical and physiological attributes the chance of success is much lower. However that is not to say that they cannot be successful as the psychological traits that develop from their socialisation and upbringing are more critical, particularly the ability to overcome difficult situations that develops willpower, perseverance and hunger for success. Without this ability to tolerate discomfort and adversity the athletes will not last long enough to develop the skill set required for high performance. The athlete also has to have a share of good fortune to be to be guided into a sport that suits that body, or the luck to get into that right sport by chance. And a good coach!

David’s thoughts:

I really like this one, as it flicks at talent identification and transfer (and the Big Bang of Body Types, which I take on extensively in The Sports Gene) when it discusses getting the right sport for the particular body-type. Talent transfer, like that undertaken by Australia, China, and Great Britain before they hosted the Olympics, was in part an attempt to make that “good fortune” the product of good sport programming. I think the statement that upbringing is “more critical” is debatable, and really there is certainly no single formula. The reason I told the “tale of two high jumpers” in chapter 2 was in part to show that athletes can arrive at the same place via polar opposite paths.


5.  Dominique d’Oliveira, personal trainer

To have talent is to possess the ability to excel within a field (either physically or psychologically), generally with much more ease than the majority of the population. Talent often stems from superior genetic inheritance, but can only really be harnessed through hard work and determination. Those that are able to really harness their talents often become highly recognised in their field of expertise.

David’s thoughts:

This is a nice succinct definition of talent that I think incorporates in the subtext the idea of differential training response, which shows up in all aspects of sports science. It also includes the importance of harnessing what one is given. This is a better definition than what I saw in many sports psychology papers, which defined talent only as prowess that precedes the opportunity to train.

Check out the Facebook post for all the others, and add your thoughts there!

Thank you again!


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