What is talent Essay

Name as many uncommon uses for a hair dryer as you can. I’ll give you thirty seconds.

Did you come up with half a dozen? More than that? Maybe you thought of blowing dust off surfaces. Or maybe you had a grandparent who taught you that a hair dryer could make cake frosting look glossy.

This type of question is what researchers call a divergent thinking test. According to academics, divergent thinking—where the goal is to come up with numerous solutions to problems—is correlated with creativity: the more divergent your thinking, the more creative you are. By looking at the number and originality of your responses, they believe they can accurately assess a person’s creative potential.

Researchers in Austria wanted to further understand the relationship between intelligence and creativity. Did you need a high IQ in order to have creative talent? If so, how high?

To investigate, they recruited 297 people to participate in a study. Some were recruited from a university’s student population, while others were recruited from the surrounding community.

First, the researchers assessed the IQ of each participant. Then they had them answer six divergent-thinking questions to measure their creative potential. Finally, they had a trained panel evaluate the originality of each answer on a scale of one (not original) to four (very original).

What did the results say?

There are multiple ways to measure creative potential. One is to look at how many ideas people come up with.

What the researchers found was that IQ and the quantity of ideas that people came up with were strongly correlated—but only up to an IQ of86 (below the average IQ of 100). Beyond an IQ of 86, that relationship broke down. Meaning that someone with an IQ of 90—below average—could have just as many ideas as someone with an IQ of 150—a certified “genius.”

This is what scientists call the “threshold theory”—the idea that above a certain IQ threshold, every person on earth has the same creative potential.

An IQ threshold of 86 means that roughly the top 80 percent of the population (in terms of IQ score) has the same creative potential. That is a substantial group.

But what if creativity isn’t just the number of ideas that one comes up with?

The researchers also looked at a more rigorous definition of creative potential: the quality of the ideas that individuals came up with.

When they looked at quality, they again found an IQ correlation, yet again only up to a point. This time the correlation stopped at those people with an IQ of 104.

This means that anyone with an IQ over 104 has the same potential to come up with original ideas as someone who falls in the genius IQ range. That, too, is a large group: 40 percent of the population. If you’re reading a nonfiction book, like the one in your hands right now, chances are you fall into that group. Worldwide, that is roughly three billion people. Again, that’s a huge number of people who share the same creative potential as the genius elite many people idolize.How can you release that latent potential?

Thirteen Years of Paint

Do you have to be born with precocious talent to be a great artist? Or can you become one through practice and hard work? More generally, is artistic talent innate? This is a key question in the study of creativity.

One seemingly normal man, Jonathan Hardesty, decided to find out.

Hardesty reminds me of the chatty uncle who speaks to everyone at my family reunion. He is bubbly and talkative, with a bronze-colored beard and matching glasses that I suspect are relics of a bygone decade. A familiar face you’d see at a restaurant or say hello to in a bookstore. What he doesn’t look like is a classical painter. However, Hardesty’s works can fetch five figures. He is not only one of today’s most talented fine artists, but also a prolific instructor who teaches virtually all over the world.

His studio, which I saw through the lens of a webcam we used for our video call, is what can best be described as a large shed in his yard. Paintings hang from the walls and lean on every piece of furniture. Hardesty uses the space not only to paint, but to teach through online courses.

Hardesty didn’t always want to be a painter. Other than going through a brief artistic phase at the age of eight, he did not pick up a pencil or brush to draw seriously until after college.In 2002, having recently graduated and gotten married, Hardesty was working as an assistant at the fundraising office for a university medical center, filing papers, helping with donor research, and doing grunt work.

To hear him describe it, it was a cliché of a bureaucratic office environment. “I’d walk in and look around, and people would be scrambling to get to the last sun-dried tomato bagel from the conference room.”

His boss was dismissive, and disinterested in him. Hardesty spent countless days filing and organizing papers, only to have to file yet more papers the next day. Eventually, to keep himself sane, he decided to pour himself into his work. If he had to be an assistant, he could at least strive to be the best possible one.

To that end, he tried to figure out if the university he worked for could improve its office procedures. By digitizing its filing process, it could potentially have a huge time-savings opportunity. By taking that on, he could make his life easier and save the university some money. But his boss immediately shut him down. The fundraising office was not looking for digital transformation.

Looking around the office, Hardesty realized that all his coworkers were miserable. Everyone seemed to loathe their work.

At that point, he realized he had to make a change. “I felt like my soul was dying",” Hardesty told me.

He decided to be intentional about his life. He would research the perfect job. What would make him truly happy? He ignored his filing duties and spent the rest of the day scribbling down ideas in a notepad.

Hardesty knew he had to dedicate himself to the next job. His bad habit of bouncing between interests was wearing on him. One month he wanted to be a geologist and emptied the library of its geology books. The next month he’d drop geology and was “committed” to getting a pilot license. For a while, he dreamed of being a musician. Envisioning himself a future rock star, he joined a local Pearl Jam wannabe band. His grunge rock band developed a small measure of fame, but the life of a touring musician was a recipe for boredom, “I didn’t like it. It was very monotonous. It was three or four nights a week of the same exact thing.”

He brainstormed different career options. What jobs would allow him to be at home, near his wife and, someday, his children? And could he avoid an office environment? He wanted a creative work culture, not one that reminded him of a random DMV.

Hardesty hashed through various options and found a career that fit the bill: a painter! Artists practiced their trade from their homes or their studios, then shipped their work to galleries, where it was sold. As a fine artist, he would be near his wife and future children, far away from pale gray office ceiling tiles. It was perfect.

The only problem was that the last time he had tried painting was back when he was eight. Nor had he grown up in a family where art was emphasized or valued.

Nevertheless, that night he made a pact with himself: He would draw or paint every day until he became a great painter.

Hardesty’s first drawing was a self-portrait. He was proud when the work was completed, but also horrified. The character looked more like the fictional oddball Napoleon Dynamite than it did Hardesty. Yet while the self-portrait was mediocre, he had fun creating it.

To get honest feedback, he started a thread on ConceptArt.org, a message board for artists. The post was titled Journey of an Absolute Rookie: Paintings and Sketches, and in it he wrote, “I am starting from rock bottom and I am going to paint at least one painting and do at least one sketch every day…probably two on the weekends. The order you see them in is the order that I am painting and/or sketching them…every day starting on 9/15/02. I am baring my soul to everyone. I will post everything I do…whether it is awful or not.”

Hardesty hoped he would gather helpful feedback. For those interested in creativity, however, his postings are also an extraordinary record of one person’s attempt to learn a new skill. For the next thirteen years, he posted continuously on his thread, updating his followers with his progress and uploading his latest paintings. Below you can see one of his very first drawings from 2002, alongside a painting from five years later.

Jonathan Hardesty painting scans. Copyright © 2002 and 2007. Reprinted with permission of Jonathan Hardesty.

Needless to say, Hardesty had improved tremendously over the years. But how? Lots of people paint as a hobby, even for decades, but few reach his level of skill and accomplishment.

So how had he gotten so good?

Becoming an Expert

How do you learn to master a new skill?

Most people would say, “Practice, practice, practice.” You may even have heard the (as we’ll discuss) faulty notion of the “10",000-hour rule.”

However, neither of these ideas gives us a satisfactory answer. Many people practice a skill for a long time but come nowhere near the level of world-class expertise. Think about driving. Most of us have spent thousands of hours behind the wheel, yet few if any of us are professional NASCAR drivers. In fact, studies show that years of experience often bear little relationship with skill. One study looked at experienced stock pickers and found that on average, they were no better at investing than novices. Another study found that experienced therapists do not have better patient outcomes than new therapists.

It turns out that it is not simply years one spends on doing—that is, experience—that is tied to success. There is something else at work.

Researchers who study expertise decided to look at the problem in a different way. What if you compared high performers to lower performers in a specific skill? What differences might you find in how the two groups trained and learned?

One researcher compared elite sprinters to merely decent sprinters. They found that there was not only a physical difference between the two, but also a mental one.

Elite sprinters focus on “monitoring their internal states more closely and focus more on planning their race performance during competition than less accomplished runners.”

Another study evaluated elite chess players and reached a similar conclusion: expert players had more advanced mental patterns of critical chess positions, allowing them to play better than average players.

These patterns are what psychologists call “mental models",” your brain’s representations of concepts or situations. For example, your concept of what a negotiation is like (two sides, going back and forth, trying to find a solution) would be a mental model.

Researchers found the importance of mental models across all types of skills. Additional studies have found similar patterns of enhanced mental models in medical professionals, computer programmers, and video game players.

So how do you learn these mental models if it is not simple experience?

This is where many people fall back on a comfortable answer: talent. They’ll tell you some people are born with certain skills. It is nature, not nurture. Rather than try, they kick back and decide to watch America’s Got Talent, believing that the eight-year-old who can breathe fire simply was born with “it.”

To explore the talent question, researchers decided to see if they could train normal people to accomplish superhuman things.

For example, look at the string of digits below. Memorize as many digits as you can. Take your time, there is no rush.


When you think you’ve memorized as many as you can, look away from the digits and try to recall them.

The sequence above has 80 digits. How many did you remember?

Four? Ten? None?

I usually get about six. Researchers found that the typical college student usually remembers seven (making me feel bad for my lowly six). If you got more than that, give yourself a pat on the back.

Here’s where researchers found something surprising, even seemingly impossible. If they trained average college students using well-known memorization techniques, the students were ultimately able to surpass 80 digits. This study has been repeated multiple times. One researcher summarized the study of these memorization skills by saying, “Recent reviews have not found any scientifically verified evidence that would limit motivated healthy adults, with appropriate instruction and training, from acquiring exceptional levels of performance for specific types of memory tasks.”

It wasn’t hereditary talent that dramatically improved the memory skills of the students—it also wasn’t 10",000 hours of practice (an often repeated but incorrect number that we will discuss later). No, it was the way in which they were trained.

One study that looked at highly skilled artists found that roughly half were child prodigies, while the other half had “undistinguished childhoods, and were not recognized as exceptional until early adulthood.” Perhaps we don’t have to be geniuses to excel in creative fields. We just have to train like them.

South Dakota: An Artist’s Paradise

Jonathan Hardesty’s path to becoming a master painter took him to an unconventional place: South Dakota.

Hardesty was getting lots of online encouragement. Someone with the username Gekitsu—who possessed excellent grammar—said, “i feel he won’t stop practising until he ownz us all i wish i had that energy.”

For his part, Hardesty was drawing or painting every day, and though he initially made quick strides, Hardesty’s progress stalled. Self-doubt started to seep into his forum posts. In May of 2003, he posted online, “I am so frustrated at my lack of ability…I feel like quitting…don’t worry I won’t…but I definitely feel like it tonight…I can’t visualize anything in 3d…I can’t control a pencil or a pen…bleh…I’m going to bed.”

He needed a new way to learn, but how?

Online, he stumbled across a training movement called the atelier movement. This training has origins from the pre-Renaissance era when artists were viewed as craftsmen and learned their art in workshops. In that time, master painters took on a handful of apprentices in their studios who were trained to perfectly replicate the master’s work.

This model became less dominant during the Italian Renaissance, as wealthy patrons began funding individual artists and elite academies. However, in the 1800s a French artist named Jean-Léon Gérôme brought back the workshop (or atelier in French) model and started training students in his studio. He taught numerous painters, many of whom went on to have successful careers.

The modern version of atelier involves four years of full-time study. Throughout, students spend hours each day drawing hyperrealistic sketches of sculptures, a set of classic drawings (called “Bargue drawings”), and live models. Eventually, they add in black and white paint. Only in their final year do they start practicing the essentials of color. After four years, students will have spent thousands of hours slowly perfecting the fundamentals of painting.

The more Hardesty read about this model, the more interested he became. He was convinced this program would teach him the essentials of great painting. He buzzed around the Web, reading all he could on the various ateliers in the United States. Finally, he found one that seemed ideal. It had a respected teacher and an open spot. There was one problem: It was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

He asked his wife if she would be willing to move there. She said yes, but her family was skeptical. They were worried that their son-in-law was going on a wild-goose chase. They weren’t the only ones, either. A contingent of posters on his thread thought it was a scam and warned him to stay away.

Nonetheless, Hardesty packed up his life, and he and his wife drove to South Dakota.

His initial excitement soon faded in the face of the harsh realities of life as an unpaid artist in South Dakota. He got a job at Breadsmith, a local bakery, where he worked for eight hours every morning, starting at 5:00 a.m.. After work each day, he went to the atelier, painted until 9:00 p.m., slept, and repeated it all the next day.

They weren’t just short on time, they were also short on money. Sometimes when bills came in, Hardesty and his wife would face a cash crunch. Hardesty remembers one time when they had only a few dollars left.

They were at a local grocery store shopping for the cheapest food possible. Sick of cheap carbs, they were in search of something with protein. Scurrying around the supermarket, they stumbled

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