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On Natural Talent

July 11, 2016

I believe there are two kinds of extreme intelligence in the world.

Perhaps extreme intelligence isn't the word for it. I'm talking about people who perform at an expert level in certain fields as children and teenagers, the people who can win competitions without studying, the people who effortlessly drift from field to field, attaining mastery without a sweat. These aren't the people who get the highest GPA's in school, but these are the people whose works impress and stand out without trying. Their talent isn't necessarily expressed in school, but their ability to create, to analyze, to remember, and to visualize is something on the order of exceptional.

Musical improvisation at the spur of the moment, rapid, almost superhuman memory of numbers and words, an acute sense of figures and geometry...these traits are rare, so when they're observed, they stick out. Most of the time, they go by the name, "gifted".

It's an interesting word to call someone -- gifted. What's the gift? The common interpretation would say that they were born with the gift of whatever made them exceptional.

Which brings me back to my opening line -- I believe there are two kinds of extreme intelligence in the world, differentiated by how they're obtained. Often times, the exceptionality just comes from hours and hours of relentless practicing and studying. But sometimes these talents are indeed born with. I think people can be born with natural talent in specific fields. And if they are, they can do the same tasks others learn to do over hundreds of hours, effortlessly.

I think people can be born with natural talent in specific fields. And if they are, they can do the same tasks others learn to do over hundreds of hours, effortlessly.

More importantly, I think we overemphasize to ourselves the abnormality of exceptionality. In other words, I don't think people who are born with exceptional natural talent are any more or less significant than, say, people with exceptionally pale skin or unusually sharp eyes, and I think we do ourselves a disservice by telling ourselves a crooked narrative of talents*.

I don't think we should believe in the viral myth that natural talents** often come with the baggage of some social or mental disorder. This is probably popularized by the media more than anything. It's not difficult to find documentaries that take the story of perfectly normal, gifted people and paint a picture of mentally tortured geniuses whose talent cannot be explained by anything but the supernatural, and whose gift comes with the burden of some social ineptitude, some behavioral problem, or some combination of both. Except in very rare cases, that's a myth, and while TV networks take advantage of those rare individuals by pretending they're freaks of nature, I think it's fair to say that exceptional intelligence has, in all but the negligible cases, no direct correlation to autism or behavioral disorders.

In fact, the mass media is guilty of more than just that kind of misrepresentation of talents. For many, the idea of a genius or exceptional minds conjure up images of people multiplying huge numbers in an instant in their minds, of people reciting the calendar or the day of the week of birthdays, of some things that a very specific group of people are capable of doing, which mostly has nothing to do with the general idea of giftedness.

In general, I think we as a culture tend to separate ourselves from the artificially constructed group of "exceptional natural talents". While we see them performing, innovating, or working, we never see them as the same kinds of people we hang out with in coffee shops or go on walks with, even when there's nothing that tells us we should treat them any differently. And for some reason, perhaps as a way to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we aren't as gifted or talented, we also impose upon them the false veil of social or physical ineptitude.

It's a different kind of prejudice, and while it's not as severe or as noticeable as other forms, it's still present, and its effects are not exactly positive, for them, or for us.

As with nearly any human trait, intelligence is a spectrum, not a binary. You are neither average nor gifted, and you are neither talentless nor exceptional. While drawing lines based on popularized narratives of what exceptional talent looks like might make things appear clearer, people are never that simple, and lines are never that defined. Natural talent is not a thing that you have or lack, it's a trait, just like any other, that exists to some extent in everyone, albeit sometimes ignored.

Natural talent is a weird idea. In a society we dream to be a perfect meritocracy, the idea that someone can be born lucky enough to possess traits that put them at an advantage over the less fortunate without doing extra work seems wrong, and I think we've developed our own coping mechanisms for that. Namely, to give us a false sense of security by imposing on many naturally talented people the trait of social ineptitude they probably don't have.

Exceptionality is not abnormality. A world, where nobody was exceptional, would be an abnormality, and I think we often forget that distinction.


* In this post, I'm assuming the validity of the claim that natural talent is a thing -- that gifted people are often born with minds that think differently. My basis for that claim, aside from anecdotes, comes from the existence of child prodigies and exceptional thinkers, like Mozart, like Einstein, and like Gauss.

** I'll use the phrase "natural talent" here to refer to people with natural talent, as well as the trait itself.