Misunderstanding Talent: I’m the Thing that Goes Bump in the Night

At some point in my childhood, I realized I had amazing night vision. I could move about the house in stealth, avoiding furniture, making my way from room to room without disturbing a thing, without disturbing a person.

Then my parents rearranged the furniture.

I stubbed my toes and tripped over chairs, running into every solid object in every room I walked through. It didn’t take long to realize where I had gone wrong. I had mistaken my familiarity with the layout, my constant interaction with an unchanged environment, as a natural ability to navigate with limited light. It was just a misunderstanding, one that I haven’t made again. Although, I have made some similar mistakes.

Often, I have some quick success in a new task–playing poker, for example–and I interpret that winning as a sign that I am good at that task, that I have an innate ability. Maybe that has been true on occasion, but most likely it was coincidence. Most likely it was luck. Sometimes the luck runs for a while, allowing me to continue the fantasy. Other times, I push the luck to its limits, ignoring the evidence that might lead me to a different conclusion and giving undue significance to the evidence that supports my belief (this is known as confirmation bias).

I used to play poker on a semi-regular basis with a few different groups of guys, mostly Texas Holdem, mostly cash games that went too long into the night. I did alright, probably breaking even or just above on the whole. I also participated in two different “tournaments” that had fewer than twenty people and were held unofficially at a bowling alley with all money exchanging hands outside the building because somehow that was going to ensure that no one got into any trouble.

At the first one, I came in third, which meant that I got my money back. At the second one, I won and pocketed a little bit of cash. This lead me to believe that I might be good at Texas Holdem tournaments, maybe even just good at poker. I tested this theory more than a few times on the Internet, and eventually discovered that I was probably just lucky for those couple of wins.

Or maybe I did have a little bit of inherent talent. Maybe what I should have discovered is that whatever talent I had, it was not enough to compete against players who had experience, who had spent time learning strategy and psychology, who had made an investment in their game.

Raw talent (when it exists) can give us a minor advantage; it can place us slightly ahead of our competition for a time. But that time is quite short in the context of an entire career, a life of dedication to a craft. What really allows us to stay in the game is a commitment to improving over time, a commitment to practice and sweat and grinding through the parts that don’t come as easily.

This knowledge may or may not have helped me walk around the house at night. But it might have allowed me to appreciate a skill I did have–memory–and encouraged me to pursue that. Instead I learned a simpler lesson: keep your hands out front when walking around in the dark.

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