Talent is a destructive myth, claims new book

A new book argues that the ‘myth’ of innate talent is holding students back, and crippling people’s life chances. It’s the latest salvo in a long and controversial debate.

In a famous experiment from 1966, pupils at a US Elementary School took an IQ test. Their teachers were then given a list of names. The pupils on the list, said the scientists, had real talent, and could be expected to make huge leaps in the following year.

One year later, the pupils took the test again. The pupils on the ‘talented list’ had indeed made more progress than their classmates.

But scientists were surprised. Why? Because the ‘list’ was a fake: the names had been chosen completely at random. Unconsciously, teachers were signalling to the pupils on the list that they were ‘talented’. This unconscious encouragement made their performance improve.

Now, a new book by journalist and Ping-Pong champion Matthew Syed says that talent is a myth. By labelling pupils, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where those who are encouraged succeed, and those who believe they lack the talent do badly.

Psychologist Carol Dweck agrees. She identified two common mindsets among pupils: some, with a ‘fixed mindset’ believe that ability is innate, fixed by genetics. Others, with a ‘growth mindset’, think abilities can be learnt through hard work.

In an experiment with pupils from both these groups, Dweck found that while they all performed equally on easy tasks, the ‘fixed’ group quickly lost confidence and gave up when confronted with difficult tasks, while the ‘growth’ group kept on trying and eventually did alright.

Writer Malcolm Gladwell agrees that we’re wrong to explain success as a result of talent. In his book, Outliers, he examines people who have gone on to achieve extraordinary things. What they have in common, he writes, isn’t ‘talent’ but desire and drive. Those who do best, he says, are simply those who work hardest.

Yes we can
You could easily take this argument too far, warn psychologists. Experiments show pretty clearly that there is such a thing as talent. Not everyone can be an Einstein or a Mozart.

And in a way, some argue, there’s something to be said for recognising that everyone is different. That we each have our own particular abilities, our areas in which we can shine. Why force children to do things that don’t come naturally?

But let’s not, says Syed, allow some to believe that they’re untalented, can’t do English, don’t have a head for Maths, or any of the other discouraging things we tell ourselves. Low expectations ruin our chances. If we believe can learn something, and are willing to try, we’re almost guaranteed to achieve success.

You Decide

  1. What’s more important – talent or effort?
  2. Why would expectations affect people’s performance? What do you think people expect of you? Why? And can you change it?


  1. Watch basketball star Michael Jordan’s famous ‘failure to succeed’ commercial for Nikehere. What does it mean? Why is failure important for success?
  2. Do some further research into IQ. What, if anything, does it measure? Write a short article explaining what it is and whether it matters.

Some People Say...

“A person is only as good as their IQ score.”

What do you think?


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.