Perseverance is greater than talent

Recently, I finished a fascinating book called, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature
by Geoffrey Miller. In it, Miller makes the case that many of the things that make us human are the result of sexual selection, not natural selection. Our capacity for language, music, art, kindness, intelligence and charity are all traits or abilities that made us more attractive to the opposite sex. They did not evolve because they helped us survive better, instead they evolved because they are ways for us to display how fit our genes are. Our minds evolved to be an entertainment center for potential mates. The better we could sing, or tell stories, or make other people laugh, the more attractive we were. This meant we could attract fitter mates and especially in the case of men, have more offspring, ensuring that the next generation would be even better at singing, telling stories and making other people laugh.

It’s an interesting idea. If you are like me and interested in evolution, but haven’t read much about Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, you should take a look. But I’ll leave it Miller to actually lay out the argument. He does a much better job than I could.

Near the end of the book came the following passage. As an artist, this passage jumped off the page.

Among competent professionals in any field, there appears to be a fairly constant probability of success in any given endeavor. (Psychologist Dean Keith) Simonton’s data show that excellent composers do not produce a higher proportion of excellent music than good composers—they simply produce a higher total number of works. People who achieve extreme success in any creative field are almost always extremely prolific. Hans Eysenck became a famous psychologist not because all of his papers were excellent, but because he wrote over a hundred books and a thousand papers, and some of them happened to be excellent. Those who write only ten papers are much less likely to strike gold with any of them. Likewise with Picasso: if you paint 14,000 paintings in your lifetime, some of them are likely to be pretty good, even if most are mediocre. Simonton’s results are surprising. The constant probability of success idea sounds counterintuitive and of course there are exceptions to this generalization. Yet Simonton’s data on creative achievement are the most comprehensive ever collected and in every domain that he studied, creative achievement was a good indicator of the energy, time, and motivation invested in creative activity.

Let that sink in a little bit. No really. Let that sink in. Ponder it for a little bit before you read on.

I think most creative people I know would think something similar to this. If you want to be good at something, do it as much as you can. But I think we all tend to temper this by thinking that there is such a thing as talent, and talent is what separates the great from the good. Of course there is some truth to that. We have all met people who seem to have some special innate talent for music or art or comedy. We think they are great, just because they have a great talent.

In my field of comedy, I’ve often heard it said that some people are just funny. You can’t teach it. There have been a number of people I’ve met who were hilarious in their first improv class. I met Tina Fey and Jack McBrayer (of 30 Rock) years ago, when they were just starting out in improv, long before they were famous. They both seemed amazingly talented right from the beginning. Comedy seemed natural for both of them, and their success is no surprise to anyone who knew them years ago.

But maybe even then, they were simply more prolific than the rest of us. Perhaps they spent a lot more time when they were kids making people laugh or telling stories to their friends. By the time I met them in their early 20s, they had already spent much more time and effort developing their sense of humor than the average competent improvisor, as a natural part of their daily interactions.

Of course, we are talking about a correlation here, not necessarily a causation. It may simply be that those who are great at something are driven to be prolific. Perhaps those who are merely good are just naturally less prolific. In fact, that thing we call talent might not be what we think it is. Instead of talent being this innate ability to create, maybe talent is simply the drive to devote lots of time and energy to the things we feel passionate about. But I don’t that is the right conclusion. That’s not what Simonton is saying. He is saying that as long as you have reached a certain competence the chance of any one piece of work being great is generally about the same. Since we can’t really know if there is a causation either way, it’s reasonable to suppose that being prolific has a good chance of resulting in greatness.

I’ve always thought that determination and perseverance are much more important than talent. Writing is a great example. I’ve known lots of people who dabbled in writing and seemed competent at it. I’ve also known people who are great writers. What is the difference between the two? The great writers have spent much more time and energy writing. If you are competent at writing and think you can’t be great, you are wrong. The only thing that separates you from being great is time and energy.

Want to be a great actor? Act in a lot of plays, the more the better. Want to be a great playwright? Write lots of plays, hundreds of them if you can. Want to be a great songwriter? Write a new song every day. Eventually you will write some great ones.

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