Why Talent Can Only Take You So Far

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“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
Bruce Lee

I recently read a book called Mindset by Carol Dweck. It should be required reading for all creative types. She discusses two mindsets–fixed and growth. Fixed mindset people believe that talent is inborn. You can’t learn it and it can’t be taught. They think if you aren’t brimming with talent while in the womb, you’ll never succeed. Growth mindset people believe you can learn anything as long as you work hard at it. They agree that talent is a factor in success but they practice, work hard and hone their craft. They love to learn and believe practice makes perfect.

Imagine your writing career starts with a car ride. Your starting point is New York (Point A) and you want to get to Boston (Point B). You are the driver. In your front passenger seat is Talent, who has given you a gift: a full tank of gas.

Talent warns you before you start the car that this tank will only take you so far. When you’re down to half a tank, you’ll need a pitcher of gas to fill your tank up again to keep going. But this pitcher will be empty. You have to stop and fill it up with hard work. You have two choices:

1) You can put in the energy to fill up this empty pitcher with hard work and not have to worry about whether you’ll make it to Point B or not.

2) You can keep driving to Point B (success/publication) and hope that the original tank of gas that Talent gave you as a gift lasts.

Let’s say you go with option 2. Let’s say you arrive at Point B.
Guess what? Your gas tank is empty.

And now you’re stuck. Let’s say Point B for you was publishing a short story. What do you think is going to happen when you sit down to write the next story? Surprise! You’re out of gas. Talent is a non-renewable resource–it can’t make more of itself. You start off with a finite amount and it’s up to you to sustain it with hard work. You need a renewable resource so your car (your writing career) can keep going: effort.

I know because I did this. I started writing in my teens and moved ahead relying on talent alone. And I got some decent mileage out of talent, but I’ve now realized I’ve been trying to write on an empty tank for the past several years and I have no one to blame but myself.

My fixed mindset is part of the problem. See, fixed mindset people think that you should just naturally be gifted at writing. They think that if you have to work hard to accomplish something, i.e. writing a story, it means you must not be very good at it so you should stop.

Here a few more important things that I had to learn the hard way:

1) Writers never stop learning. Just because I know a lot about characterization and dialogue and I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on writing, that doesn’t mean that I can’t learn how to make my technique better. There’s still a long way to go for me in terms of growing as a writer–developing and improving–and I’m okay with that. And let’s face it, we all need to know what our mistakes our in our pieces so we can learn from that and make our work shine.

2) “Use it or lose it” is real. I first read about this from David Morrell, creator of Rambo, who wrote in his The Successful Novelist that if you don’t keep up a consistent and regular writing practice, your skills will atrophy and you’ll regress to a former level of suckiness, so when you do pick up the pen again (or go to the keyboard), you will feel blocked and unable to move forward because you’ve taken too long a break and your writing muscles are out of shape.

It’s like exercise. If you don’t exercise for a long time and then try to run a marathon without building up to it by doing smaller amounts of exercise first, until you can handle marathon-level training, it’s incredibly difficult.

Carol Dweck mentions several growth mindset people in her book. Among them is Michael Jordan, also known as the greatest basketball player of all time. Many people chalked up his massive success as a basketball player to one thing: talent. People believe athletes are superheroes who have amazing genes and don’t have to try to be good. They just are.

Here’s an article that proves why that’s baloney. His height and physical fitness were advantages, but did you know when Jordan got to the NBA playoffs that his team, the Chicago Bulls, got knocked out in the first round? Or that the Boston Celtics swept them the next two years? Or that he missed 9,000 shots in his career?

He excelled because he put in twice the amount of work as everyone. He left the house early in the morning to go to practice before school, then he practiced again after school. He isolated his weak points and he practiced thousands of times until he reached the level of mastery.

I think writing is similar. Many people attribute a writer’s success to talent. They don’t acknowledge the years of persistence and putting in hard work that led to that success.

If I want to excel with my own writing, I have to take the empty pitcher I didn’t stop for the first time and fill it with a lot of effort to fill my tank up again. It’ll be difficult but I’ll get there again.

What do you think? Do you have the fixed mindset approach, believing that talent is the only thing that matters for a writer’s success, or do you have more of a growth mindset approach, believing that while talent can play a part, it’s ultimately hard work and dedication that are what will propel you forward? Sound off below!

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2 thoughts on “Why Talent Can Only Take You So Far”

  1. I definitely have the growth mindset! That being said, I still let my skills sit and lag. I love what you said about going back to your former level of “suckiness” lol. I need to remember that!

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    1. Hi Midnyte! Thanks for stopping by! Well, it was kind of like my piano teacher who warned me when I graduated from the grade 7 level that I should keep up my practice or my skills would go back to a grade 4, which is exactly what happened when I stopped playing. 😉 I’m determined not to let the same thing happen to my writing though 🙂

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