Is it Nature or Nurture that Determines our Talents?

I definitely don't have the Marathon Gene

I definitely don’t have the Marathon Gene

On a recent post on, I wrote about how I think talent is created, not born. I called the post, You are a Monkey so Stop Thinking You are so Special. I learned a couple of things from the comments, apparently people don’t like being called monkeys and some people place a lot of emphasis on the genetic side of the debate.

Of course genes are important in many circumstances. It is difficult to be a professional basketball player if you are short. It helps to have big hands and feet if you want to be a world class swimmer. Good eyesight is necessary to be a pilot. So yes, genes do shape our future to a degree, but how often does genetic makeup really limit what we can accomplish?

The purpose of the monkey post was to show that since humans have 99.9% of the same genes as chimpanzees, maybe we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on our genetic makeup. The worst part of an over-reliance on nature over nurture is that it causes many people to give up before they even try. “I am tone-deaf so I can’t play musical instruments.” “I not good at math.” “I can’t draw.” “I can’t understand computers.” “I was never good at sports.” When we see others excelling we often say things, like “He is a natural.” “She is so smart.” They have so much talent.” Our language seems biased towards a belief of naturally born talent.

In the article, The Making of an Expert in Harvard Business Review, authors K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely say,

Popular lore is full of stories about unknown athletes, writers, and artists who become famous overnight, seemingly because of innate talent—they’re “naturals,” people say. However, when examining the developmental histories of experts, we unfailingly discover that they spent a lot of time in training and preparation. Sam Snead, who’d been called “the best natural player ever,” told Golf Digest, “People always said I had a natural swing. They thought I wasn’t a hard worker. But when I was young, I’d play and practice all day, then practice more at night by my car’s headlights. My hands bled. Nobody worked harder at golf than I did.”

Even personality traits can be learned, the authors go on to say,

A surprising number of executives believe that charisma is innate and cannot be learned. Yet if they were acting in a play with the help of a director and a coach, most of them would be able to come across as considerably more charismatic, especially over time.

In fact, working with a leading drama school, we have developed a set of acting exercises for managers and leaders that are designed to increase their powers of charm and persuasion. Executives who do these exercises have shown remarkable improvement. So charisma can be learned through deliberate practice.

Do you have the Running Gene?

I ran another marathon last week. I am still painfully slow, but I have managed to drop my time by more than half an hour over my last race in December. I am mentioning this because when I did my first few marathons, I was terrified the night before. Running 42 kilometers is scary if you have never done it before. It sounds like an impossible task. In some of my earlier races, I couldn’t sleep the night before and got incredibly anxious about what I was going to eat, whether or not I could make it to the toilet before the start, what was the weather going to be like, what was I going to wear. I was worried about everything. I always felt that my body isn’t designed for sports.

Now that I have completed many marathons and shorter races I have no anxiety at all. The last 10 kilometers are always a killer but I know I can finish. Like anything in life, the more I train, the better I get. My wife also runs with me and despite the fact that she only runs a few times a month, she is still managing to consistently improve as well.

This same nurture versus nature argument has played out in many different aspects of my life. I never thought I had any artistic skills. However, daily practice with some basic drawing books and Internet tutorials has improved my skills phenomenally. I only wish I started 30 years ago, then maybe I would be a ‘naturally gifted’ artist now. I have found similar results with guitar, business and blogging.

There is no Substitute for Hard Work

It is highly unlikely that people who are better than you have some genetic advantage. The most likely cause of the their success is focused practice with good coaching and other environmental conditions. Blogging is no different. Starting off on the Internet can seem daunting. Everyone appears to have beautifully designed blogs, great technical skills and an innate understanding of social media platforms. How can you possibly catch up? You do it the same way everyone else did, you learn one thing at a time. The more deliberate practice you put in, the more you will learn and the better you will get. Online, everyone is making it up as they go. The difference between the self-proclaimed experts and you is only the hours of time invested.

Sure some may have some genetic advantages, but for most of us trying to earn a living, stay in shape or find our calling in life, our own personal drive is far more important. Giving up on art, blogging or a business idea before you have had an opportunity to develop some competence is not a genetic problem. I have often used the genetic inferiority excuse to justify my lack of effort. Not anymore, for everything I want to accomplish in life I know that any lack of success in my endeavors can only be attributable to lack of practice or quality coaching. Those two factors are definitely within my control. As I often say, we all can do ANYTHING we want, we just can’t do EVERYTHING we want. I just need to focus on what is most important and put in the quantity and quality of practice to excel. Deciding on what to focus on is the difficult part of course, but I am pretty damn fortunate to have excessive choice as my biggest life problem.

What do you think, is nature or nurture more important to to success? What percent is attributable to each? For most life choices I would say that it is 90% nurture, only in certain elite level sports would it shift more towards nature.

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

17 Responses to Is it Nature or Nurture that Determines our Talents?

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Colin Wright, Tara Jacek. Tara Jacek said: RT @colinismyname: Reading: Is it Nature or Nurture that Determines our Talents? […]

  2. Mike says:

    While I strongly agree with you that our own habits, work ethic and discpline determines how successful in our endeavors, I think genetics does to a certain extent determines our personalities and ambitions. Some people are “naturally” more driven than others, it feeds their adrenaline to take on new challenges. Others are naturally inclined to live passively; to them nothing would make them happier than to relax and live in the moment each day. The people who fit the first group have a stronger innate drive to make them want to work harder, achieving more.

    Obviously it ultimately depends on the individual to find the discipline in order to put in the hard work, regardless of which group he fits in.

  3. Alan says:

    30 minutes?! That’s huge, congratulations.

    The last time I thought about this kind of stuff was when reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” If you aren’t familiar with it, he has a 10,000 hour theory; if you do anything for 10,000 hours, you’re bound to be successful at it. While I do believe there are some inherent, genetic factors at play when it comes to skills/talent, I’m with you–persistence and practice will undoubtedly make you better.

  4. John says:

    Hi Alan,

    Yes, Outliers was a great book. There are also a few others that I have read with similar topics. Bounce, Talent is Over-rated and Fooled by Randomness were all good books as well.

  5. John says:

    Are drive and ambition genetically determined? I still feel that our motivations are environmentally determined. My family has a pretty strong work ethic mostly due to the fact that we didn’t have a choice. We were not particularly rich so everyone from my great-grandparents on down haven’t been afraid of hard work. I am sure if we were rich and didn’t need to work long hours, we wouldn’t have.

  6. John R. Sedivy says:

    I have to agree with you and Alan on this one. I had read about the 10,000 hour rule, which I have heard referred to as “deliberate practice” which seems to make sense – the more you practice, or “nurture” the more you perfect your abilities. Another great read is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle which echoes the 10,000 rule – I put together a brief summary of his formula in a SlideShare presentation:

  7. I have personally gone back and forth on this nature vs. nuture idea. I now believe that you can improve almost anything about yourself with hard work. You may not get to good, but you will be adequate. For example, I used to fall a lot and I was told that my balance was genetically bad. When I decided to address this, I got much better, but I’m no gymnast 😉 I wonder how graceful I would have been if I hadn’t gotten the message as a small child that I was unfixable.

    On the other hand, I don’t see the use in smacking your head against a brick wall. If you aren’t good at a business task, for example, why not outsource it? Certain tasks I don’t enjoy and do slowly, so I pay someone else to do those. Other things I could outsource but I don’t because it would be hard (and expensive) to find someone as skilled as I am.
    .-= Jennifer Barry´s last blog ..Discovering Hidden Gems =-.

    • John says:

      Hi Jennifer. Thanks for the comment.

      I agree that it makes sense to outsource work that you are not good at or which can be done more cheaply by others. The important point is that it is probably not genes that determine whether we are good or not. It is our own choices and hard work. That means we need to focus, just like you are advocating.

  8. floreta says:

    Great post and interesting topic!! I definitely think there is at least a little bit of ‘nature’ especially when it comes to creativity/the arts. It’s not uncommon for someone with artistic talent/ability to have a whole family full of artistic ability! Maybe you could argue it’s the nurture of an artistic/creative environment but how do you explain Sean Lennon who didn’t grow up with his father and is a musical genius? I’d agree though that nurture has the most influence. Without nurturing innate talents/abilities, you won’t get anywhere as an artist/writer/musician/athlete. It takes a lot of hard work and practice, no matter where you start! The genes are just an extra bonus, but anyone can do it..
    .-= floreta´s last blog ..Disillusionment =-.

    • John says:

      Hi Floreta,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t know much about Sean Lennon, but I would guess that being John Lennon’s son and Julian Lennon’s brother would open up a lot of doors in the music industry. John Lennon wasn’t born a musician. It was earned through thousands of hours of practice as Gladwell writes in Outliers.

      Perhaps a better example is Mozart, who is often regarded as a child prodigy. What is often over-looked is the fact that his father was a world class violinist who trained his son from and extremely early age. Mozart’s (the famous one) greatest works didn’t come until his early twenties, by which time he already put in his 10,000 of deliberate practice.

  9. Earl says:

    I’ve always felt that using the nature argument was an excuse as well. It’s an easy argument to make and allows us to avoid the guilt of not being ready for a particular challenge.

    Very few people suddenly wake up one day and find themselves able to master a particular craft or sport without ever having practiced before. Sure they may have the bigger hands, as you stated, but if they never get in a pool and spend hours learning how to move their body perfectly in the water, they will never be a swimming champion.

    I will admit that my views are most likely the result of an excellent college professor I once had who would start each class by writing “Natural Talent” on the board and then crossing it out in a dramatic fashion. Since then I realized that the only thing stopping me from achieving anything was my lack of desire to put in the effort.
    .-= Earl´s last blog ..Spending Some Time in a Place Called Old Lyme =-.

    • John says:

      Hi Earl,

      I definitely agree here. The example I have used before is, thousands of hours of training and practice gets you to the Olympics, only then do genetic advantages put you on the podium. Most of us never come close to that level of deliberate practice so we never test whether or not genes would be an advantage.

      I saw some related studies on fast and slow twitch muscle fibers of competitive athletes and genes can make a difference. However, many elite athletes find out after years of training and excelling that their body is better suited for other sports. Should they give up because their genes say shouldn’t be this good or should they just keep putting in the training to do the best they can?

  10. Hey John – The before and after picture looks pretty much the same except for the poses! 🙂

    It’s 20% talent, 80% hard work and focus as far as I’m concerned!


    .-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..Being Overly Content Can Be Detrimental To Your Career =-.

    • John says:

      Thanks Sam,

      I appreciate the kind comment. The poses are different because I couldn’t stand straight anymore at the end of the race. 🙂

      I think the nature/nurture ratio really depends on what we are talking about. I doubt if there is much genetic advantage in travel, blogging or even business. However, genes definitely have a greater effect in sports.

      I would agree that it is 20% genes in sports but I would say that it is only a few percent for business or music. Indeed in Outliers, research shows that there are hundreds of examples of professional musicians who practiced more than their less successful peers, but no innately talented geniuses who got by with lower practice levels. 10,000 hours makes you a virtuoso. 4,000 to 6,000 makes you a music teacher.

  11. JR Riel says:

    Fascinating post. I tweeted a little about my viewpoint, which is that its a combination of both. I have achieved many things in my life that are of my own hard work, drive and goals. That was not natural talent, that was me working hard. But through many of that I’ve also felt the pain of having to work harder than some strictly based on what my ancestors passed on to me genetically. So I truly feel that it is a combination of both nature and nurture, i do however feel that it is more so nurture than it is nature.
    .-= JR Riel´s last blog ..Drifter’s Thoughts: Breaking Down Stereotypes =-.

    • John says:

      Hi JR,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I understand your point about how it seems that you sometimes have to work harder than others to achieve. However, I still believe that people often over-look how hard other apparently ‘natural gifted’ people are working.

      I know a few people who speak 5 or more languages fluently. People often say that they have a natural talent for learning languages. What is ignored is the fact that two or three of the languages were learned because they lived and studied in foreign countries as children or have parents speaking that language to them at home. They got their 10,000 hours in before they were adults.

      Secondly, languages like French, Italian and Spanish are quite similar so learning one makes it much easier to learn the others.

      Thirdly, they know how hard it is too learn languages so they put in the time to master new ones. I know a couple of people who study languages 15 to 25 hours a week, plus live in the country where that language is spoken. That level of dedication gets results.

      Another example is my nephew who several people have commented is a naturally coordinated soccer player. While other young children are just beginning to kick the ball, he has been playing and practicing for a couple of years already. His natural talent is really a two year head start.

      I know similar examples for music, math, art and business. I think we as a society tend to glamorize the Cinderella stories and ignore the value of gold old fashion hard work.

  12. Kirsty says:

    Hey! Long time, no chat. Hope you’re enjoying Canada!

    I love this post and totally agree. Not to toot me own horn or anything, but I’m pretty good at drawing. I aways have people say ‘you’re so talented, blah, blah, blah…’ What they fail to realize is the amount of time I spent drawing as I was growing up and even all through high school. It’s what I loved to do and how I spent almost all of my free time. Spent four or five hours a day or more doing one thing and you’re bound to become good at it.

    I agree that genes help and perhaps there’s something special that sets aside the good from the really great, but I think anyone can become ‘talented’ at anything they put their mind to. It takes effort and practice that’s all.
    .-= Kirsty´s last blog ..The Seven Link Challenge =-.

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