Imagine you had a superpower to learn and master anything you want: a language, a musical instrument or any other skill. What would you choose? Think for a moment. What would you learn if you were talented enough if you had whatever it takes to get really good at anything you choose? What if it were possible for you to become a genius?
We’ve been told that geniuses are born like that. We’ve heard so many times that talent is innate: you either have it or you don’t. Is this really the case? Many learning specialists affirm it’s quite the opposite. They say that talent is the result of a lot of hard work and good practice throughout many years. In this article, I will share with you some facts and data to prove this point: that it is possible to become a genius.
What is a genius? There are many definitions: most of them are centered around skill/intelligence and creative/original work. Here I’ll be focusing on the first part, related to skills. According to the Oxford dictionary, a genius is ‘an exceptionally intelligent person or one with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity.’ We could say that a genius has talent in a certain field. And here’s where it gets tricky. What is talent? Again, according to its definition, talent is a ‘natural aptitude or skill.’ In other words, a talented person is someone possessing natural aptitude or skill. And what about an untalented person? The opposite: someone not having a natural aptitude or skill.
In my opinion, these definitions can be very disempowering. They take our learning power away from us. They don’t serve us, but we are used to them. We think of ourselves in terms of talent or lack of it. We say we’re good at speaking with people, or that we are excellent dancers or singers. And that we can’t draw, or are utterly bad in the kitchen. There are things we find easy to do, and other things we find difficult. And we believe we’ve been born like this. That it’s in our genes, in our DNA. We think we’ve been born with a limited amount of talent. People put limits on themselves. They think they don’t have the necessary talent for music, art, languages or whatever. And then use it as an excuse to avoid even trying to learn a new skill. We say we can’t, even before starting.
But, is there such a thing as a natural skill? Let’s see a couple examples of genius skill in action.
Mozart and his Innate Talent
At 7 years old, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was touring Europe as a music performer. He could play many keyboard instruments and the violin. And it seemed he was pretty good at it. The public was astonished to know that he had absolute pitch (also known as ‘perfect pitch’). Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize the note name of any sound, without any external reference. Someone would play a key on the piano and little Mozart would immediately know it was a C, or a D (the note name). Now we know that around one in every ten thousand people has this skill. This special ability was credit for much of the young Wolfgang’s success, first as a performer and later on as a composer.
Perfect pitch is widely known as an innate talent. Something you’re born with if you are lucky enough. This is what everybody repeated, until a few years ago. In 2014 a music school in Japan carried out an experiment, to see if it was possible for children to develop this skill. They recruited 24 children between 2 and 6 years old and put them under a several-months-long training course designed to teach them to identify chords played on the piano. The children would have 4/5 short sessions per day, each one lasting a few minutes until they could identify the fourteen different target chords selected. After the training —that for some children took less than a year and for others, a year and a half— every single one of them had developed perfect pitch. That’s right: 24 out of 24 (while in ‘normal’ circumstances just 1 out of 10000 develops this skill).
Perfect pitch is not a gift or an innate talent. It’s just a skill that almost anyone can develop under the right training. And this was available to little Mozart. His father, Leopold Mozart, was a pioneer music pedagogue in Europe. By the time his son Wolfgang was four years old, he was working full time with him on the violin, keyboard, and other instruments. What if Mozart had been raised in some other family without exposure to music? He would probably have never developed his genius music skill.
Even Mozart had to put an incredible amount of work to create his works and to reach his genius level as a performer. He confessed this to a friend in a letter:
‘People err when they think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.’
Mozart trained a lot, practiced a lot. But it wasn’t any practice. He used what we now call deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is the secret of top learners and top performers. You can also adopt it to improve your learning process and results.
It has five principles:
- Push beyond your comfort zone
- Set specific learning goals
- Focus intently when you practice
- Get high-quality feedback
- Develop a mental model of expertise
Michelangelo was one of the most accomplished renaissance artists. He was a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet. Considered to be the greatest living artist during his lifetime, and described as one of the most accomplished of all time. Was he born like that? Now we know that between ages six to ten he lived with a stonecutter and his family. He actually learns how to sculpt before he could read and write. He was lucky enough to be tutored by master sculptors and great artists of his time. Michelangelo worked very hard on his craft throughout all his teenage and beyond. At 24 years old he painted the Pietá, regarded as an artwork of pure genius. Michelangelo, though, disagreed with this statement: ‘If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery it would not seem so wonderful at all.’
Michelangelo was not the only renaissance man. There were many others just as accomplished as him. It’s not about a specific gene that was activated during that part of the human history. What we see now is that most renaissance men had something in common: the willingness to practice and master skills during thousands of hours, getting feedback, correcting mistakes, pushing each other, and improving their skills. As Daniel Coyle says, ‘they each took part in the greatest work of art anyone can construct: the architecture of their own talent’.
How does genius skill work in sports? We can take a look at someone as Messi, widely regarded as the best football player of the moment (and possibly of all times). From a young age, he was also committed to making the football dream come true. As opposed to loads of young boys who share the same dream, Messi showed the discipline necessary to make this dream a reality. The discipline to train, practice and learn as much and as well as he could. This even involved getting through major setbacks, such as his growth hormone deficit. In his early teenage years, he displayed incredible skill, but it wasn’t clear yet if he was going to be a professional football player. He had to prove his ability, and he still needed to put a lot of time and effort, just as anyone else who aspires to reach the highest high in any field.
Was he a good player as a child? Absolutely, and a very good one. At 5 years old he was already playing football and scoring a lot of goals, just as many kids his age do still nowadays. But, is this —and only this— going to get you a contract with Barcelona and make you earn five times the Golden Ball prize (Ballon d’Or)? It takes time and effort. This was a process that took years and years of very hard work. On top of that, he was able to increase his ability thanks to the people he surrounded him with. At 14 he was part of the ‘Baby Dream Team’, Barcelona’s greatest-ever-youth team. He refined his craft during his teenage and beyond. In his early 20’s he had already put an incredible amount of diligent practice, day after day. Does it really look as innate talent and nothing else? Messi is also ready to acknowledge all the work behind his ability. It took him 17 years to become an overnight success.
You Can Also Become a Genius
Everyone of us is gifted. We have so much potential waiting to be unleashed. So many things we could learn. Why do we limit ourselves?
Now, what skill would you like to pick? What would you choose if talent wasn’t necessary? Because I’ll tell you something: you don’t need talent. Forget about it. Just choose something and get started.
Messi chose football. Michelangelo chose art. Mozart chose music. They chose the skills they wanted to grow and eventually became geniuses. Do you also want to develop genius-like skill? You absolutely can. The choice is yours.