My friend plays golf and tennis exceptionally well. Yet he has never had a lesson. Me? Not so much.
Nature spreads her gifts of raw talent unevenly among us. Why can one person play any song requested by ear with ease on the piano? Remember that handful of kids in high school math and chemistry who just got it, while the rest of us struggled?
The intelligence or aptitude tests you took in school tested you on numerical reasoning, logic, spatial relations, verbal expression and other abilities. The tests probably revealed real strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, career aptitude tests showed that you would be a good police officer, doctor or musician, but not a good referee or pastor.
Other tests have emerged that purport to classify people as having a certain kind of temperament. Perhaps the most famous is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Based on combinations of traits identified by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, the mother-daughter team of Katherine Meyers and Isabel Myers invented their Type Indicator (MBTI). This divides people into 16 general types based on how people relate to other people, take in information, reason and make decisions and express themselves.
The MBTI is widely used by counselors and human resource professionals to help people find their careers, work better with others and explain certain personality features like extroversion, introversion or intuition. Personality profiles like MBTI can open one’s eyes to one’s nature. They also teach us that a trait like introversion, which some people perceive negatively as being anti-social, is simply a neutral trait, not good or bad.
It seems inarguable that some people are richly endowed with natural talent. Certainly, they must practice and hone their talents, but their performance outstrips mere mortals who practice just as much. A host of aptitude, career and personality type testing further cements the notion that people are born with certain talents, temperaments and inclinations. While nurture certainly shapes people through the powerful influences of parents, home, culture, religion, schools and friends, nature strongly disposes us, if not determines us, to become who we are.
The knock on Myers-Briggs and other typing and aptitude tools is that they become deterministic rather than just descriptive. Some people get the sense with these profiles that they’re “stuck” with a certain undesirable personality or set of traits. But Myers and Briggs made it clear that with maturity, a normal person will acquire opposing traits in balance with the traits of his natural temperament.
Also set against the potential determinism of type theory is the strain of research discussed in "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell and "Bounce" by Mathew Syed. Gladwell and Syed posit that it isn’t raw talent, but 10,000 hours of purposeful practice that creates “prodigies” like Mozart, the Beatles and Bill Gates. Gladwell shows how Mozart’s father, a famous musician himself, taught and worked with young Mozart and toured him through the courts of Europe as a prodigy at age 5; however, young Mozart had practiced at least 10,0000 hours in his earliest years. The Beatles honed their skills for years in German nightclubs. As high school students, Bill Gates and Paul Allen had unique access to the University of Washington computer lab, spending countless hours learning about and coding university computers.
Gladwell has received a lot of pushback from the academic community. He gives a nuanced answer to his critics here: “There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in 'Outliers.' It doesn't apply to sports. And practice isn't a sufficient condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I'll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.”
Scholars still debate this issue. Is natural talent the dominant influence in attaining excellence? Will practicing for 10,000 hours make anyone outstanding at playing the piano or playing tennis? Or is it both: the Horowitzes, Michael Jordans and Einsteins can only excel by honing their prodigious natural talent by constant purposeful practicing?
My conclusion: We can all improve in anything with good coaching and persistent practicing.