Natural Ability vs. Nurtured Ability – 3 Ways To Improve Your Skills

Just what is a ‘natural’ ability? Is there such a thing? The question was raised when I shared a point from an article with my friend Jonathon Ogden. The article in question stated that ‘natural abilities’ could be enhanced, and went on to give examples of craftsmanship and design. You can read Jonathon’s thoughts on whether this is wholly accurate here.

Semantics aside, the article and the subsequent discussion got me thinking on how much our skills are down to innate natural abilities. This probably comes out more in the realms of physical activities. We tend to think of the professional athletes, the Olympians and so on as being genetically gifted. However, this classification does reach out further; chess grandmasters, nuclear physicists, the classic artists, musicians and indeed, authors. In short, anyone we perceive as better than us. We say they’re gifted, but what we mean is lucky. They got the genes jackpot. In doing so, what we really say is that what these people have achieved is nothing. Anyone with the right selection of genes could have done it. Is that true?

In his book ‘On Writing’ Stephen King writes about the various types of writers, ranging from the bad to the great.

‘Above them – above almost all of us – are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain … [M]ost geniuses aren’t able to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones and with breasts which fit the image of an age.’

So is that it? Are we doomed by our genes to whatever fate has in store for us? Not quite. Natural ability is important, but overall it’s not even half the story. In the January’s WIRED magazine, Cecile Janssens, a professor of translational epidemiology, writes about how DNA might not be quite the great predictor that people think.

‘Ten years after the Human Genome Project ended,the most consistent research finding is that common DNA variants aren’t very predictive.’

While the article focuses on prediction of disease, the thoughts apply equally to ‘natural’ abilities and skills. The sheer number of factors, both on a genetic level and an external level means that it’s improbable that we’ll be ever to genetically produce the Usain Bolts, Steve Jobs and William Shakespeares of the future.

I believe that with the right conditions, someone without any ‘natural’ ability can surpass someone with the perfect genetic make up. I believe that right now there are hundreds, maybe thousands of ‘geniuses’ that we know nothing about. Why? Because they’re sat in front of the telly. Because they were told that they weren’t smart / strong / insert appropriate adjective here, and they believed it. After Stephen King’s description of the great writers, the ‘fortunate freaks,’ he goes on to state that while he believes that ‘it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.’

I’m not going to get your hopes up. You may never be the world’s greatest writer, coder, artist or sportsman. But I believe that you can do better than what your genes say, better than your natural abilities. You are greater than the sum of your parts, and in the above quote Mr King gives us a clue how.

Turn Up – I can’t emphasise this step enough, as it’s the most important. It doesn’t matter how naturally gifted you are if you don’t turn up. There’s a proverb that says ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’ What does this mean practically?
Don’t dream about writing the next classic novel; start writing.
Don’t dream about being a top programmer; start coding.
Don’t dream about getting the gold medal; start training.

Hard Work – If you’ve turned up, that’s great. Now the hard work begins. Michael Jordan, one of the all time great basketball players, was described as always being the first on the court and the last off, and you guarantee that he didn’t spend all that time standing on the sidelines. Hard work and dedication is more than the amount of time you spend on something but also the effort you put in. Push the boundaries. Find out just what you’re truly capable of.

Get Help – The great thing is you’re not expected to do this on your own. I’ve been lucky enough to have friends and family that have encouraged me to reach my goals. But even if you don’t have a network of people in place to motivate and guide you, we live in the information age, and there are no shortage of resources out there. As a writer, I’ve set up a Twitter profile and I follow the tweets of authors that I respect, both established and aspiring. I can find out what books are most recommended, what actions I should take next. Just make sure that you don’t spend all your time researching instead of doing.

Do we have natural abilities? Sure. But what we do is far more important than what DNA we have.

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