Why Talent Isn’t Everything When It Comes To Building A New Skill

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated March 14, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

We all know that it takes practice and commitment over time to develop a skill. So how can you make sense of people who have natural talent in something you’ve worked hard to learn? Here’s what we know about hard work, talent, and how they’re related, according to research.

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Talent Vs. Hard Work

The research community has long shown an interest in this topic, and many studies have aimed to pinpoint the relative importance of these two factors. Some have found that people can actually be trained to acquire certain abilities that have traditionally been thought of as innate, such as having perfect pitch. One study trained twenty-four children without perfect pitch to a point where they possessed this skill, which seems to support the idea that you don’t have to be born with a talent—you can develop it with hard work.

However, others argue that this study actually proves that there must be another element at play: genetic factors, for example. One paper points out that the children in the perfect-pitch study took anywhere from two to eight years to develop the skill. In other words, some people take a lot more time and training than others to achieve the same skill level in something. This is the basis of the argument for the “multifactorial” view of expertise, which says that training is a required part of becoming an expert at something, but that genetic factors may play an important role at every stage of the process.

In other words, even if you’re not born with a certain talent, you can develop significant expertise in it through training. Rest assured, too, that those who are born with a talent for something will still have to spend plenty of time practicing to become experts. So hard work is key, either way, but there’s another part of the equation for success that’s often overlooked: mindset.

The Growth Mindset

The paradigm of the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset can be a useful part of this discussion. Having a growth mindset means that you believe in malleability when it comes to intelligence, talents, and abilities—that these things can be learned and improved through hard work and practice. Having a fixed mindset means that you believe intelligence, talents, and abilities are inherently fixed and can’t be changed over time.

Since plentiful research shows that these traits actually can be changed over time and with effort, the growth mindset is actually quite accurate for many situations. Research also shows that whether you believe it or not can impact how well you’re able to build new skills and talents. In other words, believing that the skills and abilities you’re born with are the only ones you’ll ever be able to have can become a self-fulling prophecy—as can the reverse. Let’s take a look at some findings from a 2018 study that looked at students with a growth mindset against a control group:

  • Post-error accuracy. Learners who have a growth mindset are better at both catching errors in their performance and receiving constructive feedback. They were also shown to perform with higher accuracy after making mistakes.
  • Resilience in the learning process. Students like the ones studied generally don’t like to take risks that show their weaknesses, but the growth mindset can balance this fear. The study found that growth-minded students are “more resilient and self-managed when faced with obstacles or challenges during their learning process.”
  • Motivation. The study highlights the positive correlation between people having “intrinsic motivation for performing a task at work or school” and their performance on that task, and found that the growth mindset can have a positive impact on this type of motivation.

In summary, the researchers state that “the promotion of a growth mindset can nurture individuals to learn.” The mind is a powerful thing.

If you’re trying to attain a new skill or talent—especially if you weren’t an expert at it right out of the gate—adopting the growth mindset may help.

Defining Success

Something else to think about when approaching the hard work vs. talent topic is how you define success. It can look different for everyone, and holding yourself to a standard that doesn’t even interest or excite you is generally quite unlikely to motivate you to keep going on your path to skill acquisition. Since we know from the study referenced above that motivation correlates to performance, this factor is worth considering.

So what does success mean to you? Is it about being better than everyone else in the field? Or does it mean being at the top of your personal abilities and engaging in activities that make you happy? Is it enough to know that you’ve worked hard and have improved your skills as a result? Think about what you really want to prioritize. If you are trying to take home the Olympic gold medal in a sport you’ve just picked up, you may have to accept that those who have the combination of natural talent plus years of practice will likely have the edge. But opening yourself up to other definitions of success can help you get joy and satisfaction from the learning process rather than focusing on where your skills are lacking in comparison to others.

Tips For Improving A Skill, Talent, Or Ability

We know that hard work is a crucial part of improving a skill, talent, or ability, regardless of what level of proficiency may come naturally to you. What else can you do to help yourself along in the process? Here are a few tips.

1. Ask For (And Accept) Feedback

Research from 2020 shows that feedback can have a positive impact on cognitive and motor skills, though not so much on motivational and behavioral outcomes. This tracks with the research referenced previously about motivation being important for skill acquisition and being positively impacted by a student’s growth mindset. To actually improve cognitive or motor skills, receiving, accepting, and applying constructive feedback is likely important.

2. Watch Your Language

There’s been significant research on the power of self-talk, or the way we speak to ourselves in our minds. Interestingly, many studies have focused on applying the power of self-talk in sports settings. One study tested it with tennis players. Its findings suggest that positive self-talk improved task performance, reduced anxiety, and moderately increased self-confidence in the athletes who employed it. It may be related to the growth mindset: Believing you can do well at or improve at something can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

3. Learn From Your Mistakes

Don’t be afraid to fail and make mistakes along the way: They’re generally a crucial part of the learning and growth process. After all, only pursuing activities you can perform perfectly from day one would be quite limiting. Remember the findings highlighted above from the 2018 study about students and the growth mindset:

Learning from one’s mistakes can be followed by higher accuracy on the task the next time, as long as the student believes in their ability to build new skills and talents.

4. Be Willing To Move The Goal Post

If you’ve tried all of the above, have put in the time and effort, and still aren’t seeing results, you may want to see if you need to adjust your goal. Remember the point above about defining success. Is your goal what you feel like you should be working toward? Was it actually set by someone else? Is it realistic for you? These questions may lead to a helpful adjustment in your desired end point. Or, you might find that your overall vision is realistic but your timeline is not. Breaking your end goal into smaller pieces that you can achieve one by one over time may help.

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Adjusting Your Mindset Through Therapy

Shifting to a more positive mindset can take some effort in itself. If you’d like support in developing more positive self-talk, building your self-confidence, or shifting your perspective on your own skills and abilities, you might consider speaking with a therapist who may help with all of the above. If online therapy feels more comfortable for you, platforms like BetterHelp can connect you with a therapist who you can speak to virtually. Since research suggests that virtual therapy offers similar benefits to in-person therapy, it’s an option that some people choose when they decide it’s time to seek the help of a counselor. Whatever format you prefer, a trained counselor may be able to help you shift your mindset so you have a better chance of achieving your goals.


Natural talent can certainly help someone hone a skill, but research shows that it’s not everything. Practicing, making mistakes, and approaching it all with the right mindset can also be important components in the process of acquiring an ability. If you want help approaching this process in a constructive frame of mind, consider connecting with a therapist.

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