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I have noticed that when someone mentions an excellent surgeon, the adjective used is often something similar to “highly skilled”. On the other hand, when listening to an excellently played piano concerto on the radio, I often hear people praising the pianist as being very “talented”. Both the surgeon and pianist have probably devoted 30 or more years of their lives painstakingly working, practicing, and honing their skills, so why do we use “skilled” for a surgeon (or other professions) and “talented’” for musicians? One word implies training and practice and other implies an innate ability. In this article, I explore this seeming dichotomy from a scientific perspective and by studying the Baha’i Writings.
As a music teacher in Australia, when I talk to the parents of newly enrolled singing students, I see that many believe that their child must possess musical talent innately or else taking lessons is useless. Many students also hope they can just sing beautifully without practice or play the piano without too much effort. This excessive fixation on talent might be a result of a combination of factors such as: a materialistic attitude of wanting the best results immediately with highly marketed advertisements such as “learn to sing with these three easy steps”; a fixed mindset which puts pressure on children to “have talent” versus the growth mindset which encourages effort and praises progress and persistence; and the rise of computer programs, such as Auto-Tune, that enhance musicality and emphasize innate talent and ease, vs hard work.
The scientific world has not been able to find much proof that innate talent exists. In a 2007 study, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, a world-renowned researcher in the field of expertise and giftedness found “no rigorous reproducible evidence that innate abilities, excepting height and body size, prevent healthy individuals from attaining expert levels of performance.” 1 Rather, Ericsson and his colleagues concluded that deliberate practice is a much stronger predictor of high performance levels.
In other words, deliberate practice is a much stronger predictor of high performance levels. If you want to become a good athlete, doctor, plumber, writer, you have to practice over and over again, day after day, year after year. The same thing goes for music.
Another study, conducted by psychologists Michael Howe and John Sloboda in collaboration with musician Jane Davidson, examined the two main approaches to talent: do individuals need to possess identifiable innate potential or can outstanding accomplishments be reached without inner potential? They found that “there is a striking lack of evidence” of early indicators for potential, but did find that, when early precociousness is noticed, this was due to special opportunities or a propitious environment that existed before the signs of unusual ability. These special circumstances can include being born in a musical family, receiving high encouragement and help from parents to learn music, being immersed in music in any way, or other external factors.
In short, for scientists, talent doesn’t exist, but hard work and persistence are highly effective in reaching great performance skills.
Let’s now turn to the Baha’i Writings. Abdu’l-Baha assures us that God has “endowed each and all with talents and faculties.” 2 I understand this to mean that we do receive certain gifts from God, and this explains why each one of us tends to have certain skills that come easier than others.
Baha’u’llah expands further about our inner capacities:
Unto each one hath been prescribed a pre-ordained measure, as decreed in God’s mighty and guarded Tablets. All that which ye potentially possess can, however, be manifested only as a result of your own volition. 3
In other words, it is my understanding that Baha’u’llah confirms that we have inner capacities but also specifies that these abilities require training and honing. Without hard work, we can’t develop our gifts. Abdu’l-Baha explains how important this training is:
…the Manifestations also consider that training and education demonstrably exert a tremendous influence. If, for example, a child is deprived of schooling he will certainly remain ignorant, and his knowledge will be limited to what he is able to find out for himself; but if he is brought to a qualified teacher to study the sciences and arts, he will learn of the discoveries made by thousands of other human beings. 4
He also says:
Effort in itself is one of the noblest traits of human character. Devotion to one’s calling, effort in its speedy execution, simplicity of spirit and steadfastness through all the ups and downs, these are the hallmarks of success. A person characterized with these attributes will gather the fruits of his labors and will win the happiness of the kingdom. 5
The way I understand the above quotes is that our gifts are like seeds that we have to nurture, water, and till the soil so to speak, in order to give the best chance for our inner gifts to grow and bear fruit.
But how do we help our children discover their talents? Abdu’l-Baha is reported to have said:
Parents must discover that calling or profession for which their children show the most aptitude and inclination, and then they must train them in the same, by engaging their attention in that direction – for sooner or later, a child will make known his natural abilities and gifts. 6
It seems that one of the many parental duties is to pay close attention to what children are interested in and exposing them to a multitude of fields. I believe it also means not forcing children to pursue what the parents wish. 7
To conclude, the Baha’i Writings indicate that each one of us possesses inner gifts, but these are latent. They require a propitious environment in order to grow. Training, working hard and persistence are needed to develop them. Talents, or divine gifts are just the beginning. They are like stepping stones. Hard work is how our inner gifts will become polished.
- K. Anders Ericsson, Roy W. Roring and Kiruthiga Nandagopal. Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance: an account based on the expert performance framework. High Ability Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, June 2007, p. 3
- Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i Prayers: A Selection of Prayers Revealed by Baha’u’llah, the Bab, and Abdu’l-Baha. US Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1991 edition, pp. 101-102
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 149
- Abdu’l-Baha, Compilation on Education, No. 36, p. 12.
- Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 18, Issue 2
- Words of Abdu’l-Baha, written down by Florence Breed’s husband, Ali-Kuli Khan, quoted in Marzieh Gail, Summon Up Remembrance, Oxford: George Ronald, 1987, p. 237
- Words of Abdu’l-Baha, quoted in Earl Redman: Visiting Abdu’l-Baha: Volume 1: The West Discovers the Master, 1897-1911, p. 149. The original reference in Redman’s book: Gail, Summon Up Remembrance, Oxford: George Ronald, 1987, pp. 237-8
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