Let's Face The Cold Hard Truth About Talent

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I started taking electric bass lessons.

I used to play electric bass quite a bit (even studied it in a post-secondary environment). I worked very hard at it. I had private lessons, would attend jam sessions, played in a couple of bands and a whole lot more. At around the same time, I became much more interested in writing and managed to finagle a career as a freelance music journalist. I spent a whole lot of time interviewing lots of rock stars (hundreds… maybe even thousands… over the years). No joke. In 1989, my first assignment was interviewing Tommy Lee from Motley Crue (I jokingly tell people that my entire career has been downhill from there). Was I any good at playing the electric bass? I was. Was going to be the next Jaco Pastorius or Stanley Clarke? Maybe if I just practiced harder?

It’s a tough talk to have.

I haven’t played the bass in over twenty years. I’m beyond rusty. It’s frustrating. On top of that, I’ve spent a lot of time watching what contemporary bassists are doing, and I am amazed at just how much progress has been made with the instrument. Have you ever heard of Michael Manring? Watch what he can do with the electric bass…

It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

I’ve been watching a lot of videos like this over the past few months, as my interest in the electric bass continues to grow. Personally, I find that it is opening up many different creative roads for me, and just thinking about the language of music has been inspiring (not a bad thing). I was thinking back to the time when I decided that I didn’t want to pursue a career as a professional musician because the calling of a life in media was far more interesting. The truth is that I also wasn’t that talented with the electric bass. I was good. I could play. But, I clearly didn’t have the "secret sauce." It also became apparent to me recently (after watching several interviews with these stellar musicians) that they, themselves, were unable to communicate where their talent comes from. They all seem to chalk it up to practice and hard work. I don’t believe them.

Malcolm Gladwell is wrong.

In his bestselling business book, Outliers, Gladwell points to the now-famous notion that anybody whose work/art that we appreciate in the world has put in the hard work to master it. The 10,000 hour rule (as it has become known). I’m not so sure. Here’s my take-away: if you practice the electric bass really hard (let’s call is 10,000 hours), my guess is that the vast majority of people will know how to play the electric bass very well, but very few of them will be true bass players. You can practice writing for 10,000 hours, and my guess is that the vast majority of people will be better at writing, but very few of them will be true writers. The same goes for painting, photography… and maybe even the work that you do?

There are those who can play the bass and then there are bass players. Those that have a gift for it.

It’s a tough concept to wrap one’s head around, but it’s true. The real experts seem to be the ones who put in their 10,000 hours BUT they also have some semblance of a gift/knack/aptitude for it. Of course, there are varying levels of skills and people’s opinions as to who is great at something is relative. That’s fine. This isn’t a negative concept, either. I’d hate for anybody to think that this blog post is intended to deflate your tires or make anyone feel like they’re not great at the work that they’re doing. Talent is not always something that can be developed with a simple application of a little elbow grease. Talent is usually something that shines when one individual taps into something that they actually have an aptitude for and can then nurture it to their advantage.

What do you think? Can everyone be a bass player or will most people simply know how to play bass?


  1. I think this is one of the more brilliant blogs I’ve seen written – and dead on. I believe that we have a baseline obligation to do our best and work hard at those things we are either responsible for, or pursuing from passion. Work ethic does matter. But – at the end of the day, we will have “each to his own ability”. Either an innate true talent/gift – or not. This doesn’t remove our responsibility to work hard and certainly doesn’t remove the joy of pursuing a passion, and becoming very skilled at that passion. But for me, it is a reminder of humility – to appreciate the gifts that others have, and not to waste the gifts that I have been given.

  2. I am a big fan of yours and Malcolm’s works (mostly his books). I claim 10,000 hours doing what I love (passionate about) to do. I think I do it well. I have been told by others more experienced, that what I do is special and effective. My mistake in adopting what Malcolm said was that I “presumed” he was talking about someone like me (and you) pursuing your bent (your gifts) and you happened to do so for at least 10,000 hours you could be labeled an outlier. My error for making that assumption. Bill Gates is given as one example in Malcolm’s book. If he was not gifted and passionate, I am not sure how else to describe him. For him, I suspect, the 10,000 hours flew by plus, plus, plus. And I (here I go again) presume he never thought of himself as an outlier.

  3. I think it’s the sum total of 10,000 hours + true passion that makes the difference of whether one is a bass player or someone who knows how to play the bass. Both are necessary and the passion can’t be faked!

  4. Only you and the people who are connected to your work, your art, etc… will know for sure. It’s easy to take this thought in a negative way. That was not my intent. I’m simply expressing my own personal journey and realizations that there are many things (no matter how hard that I try) that I will never be overly talented at. I may be able to do it… and maybe even do it well, but I may not truly has a knack for it. That also doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to pursue it. In short: I will know how to play bass (hopefully well), but I don’t think I’ll ever truly be a “bass player” πŸ˜‰

  5. Like me, Stephen, it’s all about that “secret sauce.” So many want to know the ingredients and – what I’m learning as I get older – is that the people we’re asking often have no idea what the ingredients are… or where they got them.

  6. I think you’re wrong (no disrespect!). I think it comes down to this: no-one is going to dedicate 10,000 hours to something they a: aren’t interested in and b: don’t enjoy (which sort of go hand in hand). I don’t think that amounts to ‘secret sauce’, I think that’s just having a passion for something or not.
    I read another blog post about this recently that argued for the fact that the vast majority of what we recognise as ‘talent’ is just pure hard work. Most of us won’t put this into one thing but it seems that everyone who does, turn out to be the ‘talented’ ones. I don’t think this is a coincidence. You’re always going to get the exceptions, the geniuses and the prodigies but I think for the most part, if you want it enough and enjoy it enough, the hard work will set you apart from the rest.

  7. No disrespect taken. I see people dedicate decades of their lives to work in a job that they’re not all that amazing at. They fell into it. Because of school. Because of a guidance councillor. Because a friend hooked them up with a job. I’ve seen people toil away for years on an instrument and most people will never even think that they are all that much of a musician. I’ve been to comedy clubs and seen the same stand-up comedians attempts for years to build an audience to no avail. I see bloggers still plugging away with no true growth or development of an audience. What am I missing? It’s a question I ask of my own “skills.” I don’t see anything wrong with practicing something that someone is passionate about. I just don’t see the correlation between that and being acknowledged as someone who has a talent for it or an aptitude, simply because the time was put in. I do believe that there is something more.

  8. I agree that there are the gifted that make the difference between good and extraordinary. Victor Wooten is an example of a true gifted artist. Not to mention he is an inspirational, humble dude.
    I was in NYC the last few days attending fabric print shows. There are one or two standout artists in the print show that shine. The rest were a sea of commercial sameness. Easy to stand out as an artist there but so many of the buyers/designers do not have the eye or the will to take a risk to buy outside of the sameness.

  9. In Talent is Overrated, Colvin expands the 10,000 hours discussion. He says that top performers often practice less time than the people slightly below them and that they actually enjoy their practice less. The measurable difference between top performers and just-below-top performers is what they practice and how much effort they perceive themselves putting in. Top performers practice the hard stuff. They are diligent and their efforts are directed at improving what’s not good. Just-below-top performers practice – often for longer – but they don’t work specifically to improve what they don’t enjoy, what they’re not good at.
    Now, do only top performers have talent and that somehow makes them willing to work on the hard stuff? Or, is it rather work ethic? I tend to believe it’s more about work ethic, but that that work ethic gets built because a person has an early talent and gets the support they need in order to recognize they 1) have a talent and 2) get more out of diligent practice than our of just practice.

  10. I agree about 10,000 hours not being the only thing to some extent.
    As someone who’s hired people for just enough years at a couple companies, I’ve realized there are so many more experiences that meld together than the obvious. To keep it on the music topic – how much of the difference between bass players could be explained by everything else in their lives? Their parents, their taste in movies, their relationships in life, their high school job, or their favorite flavor of ice cream? These connections might sound odd, yet I always find that people who connect ideas and experiences outside the domain bring the most to the table.
    After all, the most potent Marketing ideas often fall outside of following how to do the job by the textbook.
    Love the post!

  11. I do agree that more people would do well to be more objective by what they commit their time to and how fruitful this is.
    CGP Grey recommended a book on his channel recently, So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. Still to give it a read, but it touches upon the themes we’re discussing (instead of trying for years to attain your ‘dream’ job, realise there might be something about your current situation that is working and could be far better built on in the present. It might end up being that ‘dream’ job after all).

  12. Correlation isn’t causation. Sometimes we take something that is easy to measure as a proxy for a more complex and dynamic system. Be it “World Class” = 10,000 hours or “Health” = BMI of 23, the examples of simplified explanations for complex processes/systems is our way to explain and make concrete a very uncertain world.
    10,000 Hours is NECESSARY but not sufficient. However, 10,000 Hours is such a huge sacrifice of time and effort that only those that have the knack, momentum, necessary feedback and faith in their gift will keep at it long enough for it to pay off.

  13. Good comments. As Eric Pratum referenced, I have also ready “Talent is overrated”. You should read it Mr. Joel as it may challenge some of your assumptions/gut feelings. The “cold hard truth” may be that under that “gift” is really just a pair of overalls.

  14. … and it’s that talent part that I’m talking about. I think we dismiss it and simply think that if we apply ourselves and practice that we’ll be great at stuff. I’m not sure I buy that ideology any more.

  15. We find this a lot at our agency as well. We will have people who have put in the time and hard work to get great at something and then see someone come in with divergent skills and they easily lap the other people. No matter how much hard work the others have put into it.

  16. Read it. Loved it. Talent is overrated if you don’t work at it and nurture it. Talent is everything if you’re working at something and not really getting anywhere with it. I would also recommend checking out The Dip by Seth Godin. Still, I will say that you don’t have to quit at something just because you’re not a prodigy (especially if it brings you fulfillment). It’s not about that. It’s about the fact that I keep seeing lots and lots of people wearing through those overalls and not getting much further from where they started.

  17. Joel, thank you for this piece.
    Like you, I do have talent in some areas. I wouldn’t even reach “good” as a bass player. (Unlike you, nor would I want to — I’m a classical-contemporary music fan.)
    But if life had taken me in another direction, I’d have made a hell of a modern art curator.
    What about intelligence? As someone who is lucky enough (and it is pure luck) to test very high — as I’ll bet you do, too — I’ve become increasingly aware that talent is, much like intelligence, unsayable in our culture.
    I think this is wrong. Then again, I would. I’m eligible for Intertel membership (top 1% of the world’s population in intelligence) and Mensa (top 2%). To my distress, I find even colleagues whom I enjoy and respect writing these days about how talent has “nothing to do with success” — and Malcolm’s 10,000 hours.

  18. I play bass passively πŸ˜‰ meaning, I am just strating to get rid of rust after a few years break. This post could sound a bit negative, if you don’t add the fact that every person has an unique combination of experience and talents that work together for one thing better than any other person could do.
    Bass for example. There are no bass players who are best in all playing styles and music styles and moods and band-setups and stage-entertainment-wise. Each good bass player is the best in doing exactly what he is doing – his/her style, feeling for a specific mood of music. That is a combination of talents and character coming together.
    The other part is finding YOUR thing. Knowing your background and your talent COMBINATION and finding what the thing is you’re most talented do do. Then comes 10000 hours (which is just a number – depending on how you set out to practise, those hours could be double useful or not very efficient).

  19. Small world! I’m looking forward to reading it (and checking yours out too).
    Thanks again for the stuff you put out on the mailing list, I find most of it really useful (especially the six links and these blog posts).

  20. Joel, this touches on a topic I’ve been thinking about since reading Seth Godin’s December 27th post, “No one reads a comic strip because it’s drawn well” (which I’m sure you’ve read). Here’s a secret I’m guessing most true bass players learned well before 10,000 hours of practice: skill really only matters to a certain point. In fact, too much focus on technique can actually make art sterile. What is your favorite bass line of all time? I’m guessing its magic lies in something other than precision and intricacy.

  21. Have to agree with several commenters (Chris Roden, Eric Pratem, and Morgan Howard) about the 10,000 hours. Seems as research results falls on the “deliberate practice” side rather than talent. Colvin: Talent is Overrated is a good book on the subject as is Coyle: The Talent Code.

  22. I will have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. I also feel you didn’t grasp the entirety of Malcolm Gladwell’s work. I don’t believe there is any innate talent for the various and complex skills, arts, and professions that exist.
    Speaking about innate talent infers that there is something born into a person, biologically, that allows them to excel at a specific skill. I can’t see the logic in that. What would be the natural purpose for having an innate ability to play the bass guitar?
    In “Outliers”, one of the key components-other than the 10000 hours-was the individuals starting point. For Bill Gates, it was being the child of wealthy parents that gave him access to computers in a time when almost no one did, along with his 10000+ hours that helped him out. On the music front, you have Eddie Van Halen, and even Jaco Pastorious. Both very successful musicians, and also both the children of musicians. This goes for many other musicians, actors, artists, and writers.
    So, what do I think? I believe almost anyone could be a master at a specific skill, but it takes a lifetime of work to achieve that high level of ability. I think the belief in innate talent may stem from the inability for the average person to understand the “talented” person’s experience. Believing in innate talent itself could be seen as arrogant. It’s a way of saying, “I could be as good as that person, if I was born with the talent they had.” You give credit for their success to an accident of biology rather than acknowledging all the hard work, and practice they put in to reach their level of ability.

  23. Paul McCartney: Not a technically brilliant bassist, but consistently came up with catchy and memorable lines for music that changed the world. Jaco Pastorious – rewrote many of the rules for modern electric bass with creativity and jaw-dropping performances. Two very different players with different definitions of mastery.
    I guess it depends on your goals and whether or not you have 10,000 hours available. The adage “Practice doesn’t make perfect – PERFECT practice makes perfect” makes a lot of sense. It’s possible to make remarkable progress – maybe not all the way to Michael Manring level – in much less time.
    PS – love the podcast, I listen on Stitcher while crawling slowly southward on 680 to San Jose.

  24. I disagree somewhat, as the 10,00 will invalidate those without talent and those with talent.
    The mere act of practice will not make you a master bass player, or anything for that matter, but only those with the commitment to put in the hours will pass the test.
    The truth that most people don’t want to admit is their own laziness to not put in the time to perfect their craft, and then use the fact that “they are less talented” as an excuse.
    I do like to ask, “really, you’ve put in LITERALLY 10,000 hours to perfect your craft”? Few will ever answer yes in a true tone of conviction.
    Great post by the way!

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