Does Talent Matter? Not if your goal is Personal Transformation.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on November 21st, 2011

HOW people acquire high levels of skill in science, business, music, the arts and sports has been studied intensively for decades. A massive long-term study by FSU psychologist Anders Ericsson and dozens of colleagues around the world showed that a big part of the answer is practice —a lot of it (the “10,000 Hour Rule”). Before this study, most people assumed excellence was pre-ordained by traits inherited at birth. If we weren’t born with certain ‘talents’ being, well, ‘average’ was our fate, whether in academics, music or some sport.

In the article Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters psychologists David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz professors at Michigan State and Southern Illinois respectively, question the impact of practice. They cite a study that showed innate intellect among 2000 ‘intellectually precocious’ adolescents predicted scholarly accomplishment later in life.  Twelve-year olds who scored in the 99.9 percentile on an SAT test were three to five times more likely to later earn a doctorate or patent, or publish an article in a scientific journal or a literary work than peers who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile. Hambrick and Meinz conclude that a “high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.”

They also cite their own research into working memory capacity, a component of intellectual ability. They measured the working memory of piano students by having them sight read music without preparation. While cumulative practice time accounted for nearly half of performance differences, “if you took two pianists with the same amount of practice . . . it’s likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better.”

Hambrick and Meinz badly miss the central point of excellence studies – a point many adult-onset swimmers understand implicitly. Those of us who take up swimming in our 30s or 40s (or who–like me–swam with little success in our youth, aren’t striving to rival Michael Phelps in middle age, or even to outswim peers who were top performers 30 years ago.  What excites us is accomplishing, in middle age, things we never dared dream about in our youth, including times that may pale in comparison to those setting records in our age group.

Even more, they miss the far larger point: Kaizen swimmers don’t practice just to swim faster times. We practice because the keen and purposeful focus produced by pursuit of Continuous Improvement has the potential to Change Your Life.

Hambrick and Meinz also fail to mention the key revelation of Ericsson’s research into excellence: It’s not the amount of practice that predicts excellence, it’s the kind. Deliberate Practice, not rote repetition is the difference maker. Overachievers never just go through the motions (or ‘get in the yards’ as swimmers say). They focus on creating specific and measurable improvement, by uncovering weak points and developing strategies to strengthen them.

Further, recent brain research has proven that intellectual capacities like working memory—formerly thought of as inherited—aren’t fixed. They improve through Deliberate Practice. Working memory—the specific form of ‘brainpower’ we rely on most heavily to improve swimming skills—resides in the cerebral cortex. Research has shown that when you make the brain work harder—with tasks designed to optimize how it processes inputs—your cortex grows new neurons and creates new connections.

And finally, behavioral psychologists have shown that the same behaviors and attitudes common among those who embrace Deliberate Practice are also associated with greater happiness, stronger social connections, better health, and even longer life. We usually begin Deliberate Practice to accomplish some utilitarian goal. We continue because it’s life-changing.  Strivers are never sorry.

Read more on this topic:

A Brief History Part 5: Closing the Loop — Habits, Neurons and Swim Improvement

How to become a World Class Improver: Mindfulness and Visual Input

How to Build World Class Muscle Memory

Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain


10 Responses to “Does Talent Matter? Not if your goal is Personal Transformation.”

  1. Tony Lombardo says:

    This is amazing! Synergistic! I was just discussing this very topic yesterday with a protégé of Terry’s. The discussion came up after I saw that Terry had spoke about myelin in one of his lectures. I read the Talent Code and then did further research and came across Talent is Overrated and research by Ericsson. I’m relatively new to swimming and I’m so glad I found TI. I must give credit where credit is due, Joe Friel, in The Triathlete’s Training Bible, introduces Terry and his concepts. Just last night I read in Friel a quote he has from Terry, “Fitness is something that happens to you while you’re practicing good technique.” That was a really eye opener. I’ll be taking a TI Freestyle Swimming workshop this weekend and I’m pumped!

  2. Tamar says:

    I wonder whether the ability to “uncover weak points and develope strategies to strengthen them” is a talent or something you learn and practice.
    What exactly does working memory means, concerning swimming ?

  3. Tamar
    A focus on weak points is a mindset, not a talent. Some unquestionably have that as an instinct. But when those who don’t do this by instinct learn that it’s a proven success strategy they usually adopt it. Working memory resides in the cerebral cortex, the brain region where we do planning, analysis and reflection. It basically means thinking intently about things before, during and after you do them. In other articles I’ve referred to this as Conscious Competence. This is such a fascinating topic it deserves its own post. I’ll do that. Thanks for suggesting it with your questions.

  4. Steve Howard says:


    Excellent article! Total Immersion goes well beyond teaching how to swim. Your many excellent articles, books and videos teach and convey the precious gift of how to enhance our learning abilities well beyond the pool. As an age 59 practicing Mechanical Engineer – more important than my recently acquired Total Immersion ability to comfortably swim well over 7 miles in open water, TI has enhanced my ability to couple my brain to motor skills and has greatly improved my proprioception and ability to learn new things every single day. Thanks for all you do for so many of us – Total Immersion Coach and Kaizen Swimmer Steve Howard.

  5. Doug Alt says:

    “Strivers are never sorry!!!”
    Now, THERE’S a Life Philosophy to run (swim, live, play…) with!
    Through striving, one learns something new, each time, about ONE’S SELF. Whether the thing learned was positive or negative, it doesn’t matter – one still has a richer field of experience with which to face the next day.
    Terry, thanks for helping keep our brain cells fully engaged while pursuing this TI challenge.

  6. Suzanne says:

    I’ll have to re-read this post and the cited articles a few times. The piece about sight-reading especially intrigues me. I used to consider sight reading a strength for me (not piano, but bass, trombone, tuba, etc). But it was always a conscious choice…”I’m going to sight read this perfectly today” and it was like a rolling focus…always looking a bar ahead, but playing a bar behind, the one you just read. You couldn’t get too far ahead, or you’d forget what you’d seen, but if you played what you just saw, you dindn’t have time to play what came next. Seeing sharps & flats and complex rhthms in your “future peripheral vision”…just a head of the area you were scanning, alerted you to grab those pieces of info, remember the rhythm or flat you just played and discard it just as quickly. But I never really thought of it as a talent or process until just now. Thanks Terry. As usual.

  7. Suzanne
    Just last evening, less than 8 hours ago, I wrote this in a post on the TI Discussion Forum “I swim in a wide range of tempos to improve neural adaptability — essentially to have a nimble brain.” Your comment makes me think of that same idea – that sight reading develops a nimble musical brain. Grist for a blog explaining what is a nimble brain and why it’s a good thing. Suppose we do ‘dueling blogs’ on the topic.I’ll cite you and give my take. You cite me and do likewise. Should be interesting.

  8. Suzanne says:

    Terry, will do!! I’m learning evermore that I love to blog. 😉

  9. Bob Needham says:

    Great piece Terry. Very important stuff. Swimming is an extension of ourselves for some of us, and as I’ve grown in life, swimming has become a metaphor for so many fundamental things.

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