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Throw off your mental chains!

One of the most destructive forces in the world we live in is the “talent” mindset. I mean that literally. It underlies not only millions of minor miseries, but also the core of human evil.

In short, if you believe in innate talent, you believe that some people are inherently better than others. It is a short step from there to believing that some people are therefore subhuman. And we all know where that leads.

The stimulus for this blogpost was reading Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, on the recommendation of my friend Devon Boorman. In short, her work in psychology has demonstrated that belief in fixed traits leads to the “fixed mindset” which creates all sorts of problems, which are solvable by switching to a “growth mindset”, a belief that things can be learned. Go read the book. The bit that struck a chord in me, and literally woke me up to what went wrong when I was growing up, was where she wrote that, for “talented” kids, effort equals failure. And that is exactly the problem I had growing up. I could not work at anything, anything at all, because if it did not come easily, then it threatened my fundamental identity. Because only duffers have to try. So I only ever did the things that came easy, and shied away from anything that demanded actual work.

I hope the utter foolishness of this is apparent to all my readers.

I was a star pupil at school. Clever as hell and everyone knew it. I got all the way up to University entrance without ever once revising for an exam or doing a stroke of work beyond the essays or homework set by the teachers. I was a shoo-in for Cambridge, and had been told so from the beginning. My younger sister (every bit as clever as me but actually industrious with it, a year younger but in the same academic year) and I both applied. She got in. I didn’t. I was absolutely furious. I had been betrayed. I was supposed to be super-talented. But Cambridge, I imagine, could spot a dilettante when they saw one and didn’t need one more arrogant and entitled little shit clogging up their colleges. I got into all my other University choices, and chose Edinburgh (‘cos it’s the best). I then managed to get all the way through University on a combination of luck and blather, but by then, I actually had no choice: I did not know how to study.

Yup, I had no idea of what people actually did in libraries across the campus. I read a lot, and wrote essays when asked (never more than one draft), but I had no idea how to actually work through difficult problems, come up with solutions and test them against the evidence, all that sort of thing. Rhetoric, logic and grammar, yes; I could write a decent argument. But nobody had ever taught me how to work things out, how to wrestle a body of knowledge down from unattainably complex to I know this. It wasn’t thought necessary to teach me this, because I was “clever”. And I would have resisted it anyway, because it was equivalent to failure.

Please note that I don’t blame my teachers or parents for this. It was genuinely believed back in those dark ages that praising kids for their attributes was good for them. It wasn’t until Dweck and others started running actual studies that it was discovered to be so counter-productive. Remember; as late as the sixties, some doctors thought smoking was good for you. In years to come, people will say with similar disbelief “they used to praise attributes not effort!!! How dumb must they have been!” (and yes, they will attribute the mistake to an inherent trait: that is how deep this cancer of the mind runs).

One advantage of all this not-studying was that it left me with lots of time for training martial arts; I was doing T’ai Chi, fencing, karate and kobudo in my first year, and through fencing got into looking at historical fencing sources. But even then, my interpretations of historical sources were all about making it fit with what I already knew (parry quarte with a longsword, anyone?) and not a true interpretation of the source.

So how did I escape from this quagmire?


In the year 2000, thanks to some crazy-ass training shit that I am still not ready to write about, I came to realise that the truth of the art was more important to me than my own identity as a “talented” person. Suddenly, being wrong was not such a problem. My inflated ego got out of the way enough that it didn’t feel like I was risking my very self to admit “I don’t know this” and “this is hard”, and I gradually learned how to study. How to break problems down, how to enjoy a challenge, how to embrace failure as a necessary step on the way towards mastering my field. Now when someone hits me in the face with a sword despite my best efforts to stop them, I am elated by the learning opportunity. Really. The result was a massive increase in the speed of my improvement.

I could dwell on the decades of wasted opportunities, created by my stuckness in the quicksand of the talent mindset. But that would lead to bitterness, not growth. Instead, I relish the feeling of my feet being free to run, to trip and sprawl, and to get up again.

As a teacher, then, I have no interest at all in the apparent level of talent in my beginners. None. I am not looking for someone who will win tournaments for me in a year or two: I am looking for students who will grow in their study of the art, from whatever their starting point. In some respects, those who have most trouble learning in the beginning are the most rewarding to teach, because their development is that much easier to see. I sometimes catch myself giving fixed-mindset-inducing praise, and stab myself in the eye to make it stop (that may be a slight exaggeration). I try instead to praise effort over attainment, and whenever students find the things I give them to do difficult, I tell them that I would not waste their time on something easy. The message: Easy is a waste of your valuable time. Effort is what matters.

This is also why I dislike most sports and other physical pursuits. They tend to require a particular body shape to get to the top, such as in ballet. Got stumpy legs and heavy bones? You will never be a top-level ballerina. Sorry. It makes me furious that someone with short legs will never be picked for the solo, because of the aesthetic of the art. Fuck that for a load of fixed-mindset arsery. Likewise, combat sports with their weight requirements, and so on. In these fields, some fixed attributes (like height in basketball, weight in judo, and so on) actually matter. This is so utterly stupid and anti-growth it makes me boil, and in my eyes makes these pursuits fundamentally less worthy.

Swordsmanship is perfect in this regard. There is no ideal body type. Whatever yours is, you can fight on equal terms, so long as you take your relative sizes into account. Sure, tall people can reach further: but their arms break easier. Wrestling with people who are bigger and stronger is really hard (and therefore a great learning environment). But if you can gouge out their eyes, as Fiore would have us do, then the strength difference is less critical. Think little folk can’t take giants apart? I give you the Gurkhas.

It is true that “natural” talent in certain fields appears to exist. In some sports, there are people who do astoundingly well for a short while, with little effort. But actually, if we were to plot performance over time between the plodder (someone with no actual handicaps, just an apparent lack of talent but who is willing to work hard) and the natural, the graphs look like this:


Depending on the activity, and the degree to which genetics play a part, the point at which the lines cross can be at the beginners course or world championship levels. But cross they will. Early performance is simply no predictor of long-term achievement in any worthwhile field. This has been demonstrated over and over, in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Matthew Sayed’s Bounce, and Anders Ericsson’s work studying violinists (which spawned the much misunderstood 10,000 hour rule. As this article explains, 10,000 hours of practice is not sufficient, unless it is mindful practice. Plus you also need luck; no career-ending accidents, for example).

That by itself should be enough to get people to drop this talent nonsense, but it goes deeper than that. For some reason probably related to sabre-toothed tigers and an evolutionary quirk in human cognition, we prefer to believe in inherent traits over learned skills. Think of the utter nonsense of inherited power, which is based on the idea that the inherent trait of being descended from the current ruler makes you the best candidate for being the next one. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m a monarchist through and through: there is just no fun in the republican way; but there is no good reason for monarchy to be hereditary.)

So why do people continue to believe in talent? For two fundamental reasons:

1) We tend to praise attributes over effort, and attribute results to innate factors, rather than processes. It’s the outcome over process problem all over again. So kids grow up believing that some people are just naturally gifted. Which is partly true, but wholly inaccurate, and wildly counter-productive.

2) Attributing success to talent gives us an excuse to fail. He did well because he’s a natural; therefore my failure is not my fault. I am just not naturally good at it.

Make no mistake about it, this is toxic thinking.

Praising talent makes less glamorous kids feel like failures before they even try. And it makes the stars associate effort with failure. It is disastrous for both groups. One gives up, and the other cannot work systematically to improve. I know this because it happened to me.

As a parent, I have had many, many, moments of heart-swelling pride in my kids, and a very few moments where I felt I was a good-enough parent. One such moment came while watching a really good ballerina on TV with my younger daughter, who was then four years old. She loves ballet, and was in awe of this ballerina. And she said in tones of wonder:

“She must have practiced really a lot!”

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

4 Responses

  1. I read this when it first came out. I now found it again, thanks to the Star Wars post. Only now do I realize how many times I’ve talked about this post to friends, and how it was the first time I noticed something really wrong with how I perceive what I do and what I can’t do. And I was 33 when I first read it.

    That is to say: thanks. More than that, however much, and it would still be inadequate.

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