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Talent vs. Skill

Several years ago, Dr. Carol Dweck, a researcher from Stanford, published a book titled Mindset, in which she discusses how a student’s mindset can impact their success. In her book, she discusses two basic types of mindsets: Fixed and Growth. In a fixed mindset, qualities such as intelligence, charisma, and virtue are all set traits. You have a certain amount and you can’t get any more. In a growth mindset, however, those traits are all things that can be developed. Learned. You can get smarter. You can learn to be more personable. To be a better person.

In Dweck’s research, she found that students who were told they were “smart” had a tendency to have a fixed mindset, where students who were told they had worked hard and put in good effort toward improvement tended toward a growth mindset. And the result? Fixed mindset students only wanted to do things they knew they were amazing at. They didn’t want to challenge themselves, because they might be wrong and getting a wrong answer meant you weren’t as smart as everyone thought you were. Life was an exercise in proving you were smart, not an exercise in learning.

But the growth mindset kids? They liked challenges. They wanted to learn. They wanted to improve. They were excited by the idea that they could get better. They could chase their passions because they believed they could learn to be amazing at them.

I think about this often when people imply that writing is all about talent and not about developed skill. If writing is talent, then we can’t learn to be better – you’re either Shakespeare at birth, or you’re not. But if it’s a skill, then we can become Shakespeare. Cuz the thing is? Even Shakespeare didn’t start out as Shakespeare.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits that 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to become an expert at something. Now, I’m not saying that practice is the only thing that matters when it comes to literary genius, but it does seem crazy to me that writing is one of the few activities that people seem to think you can sit down and simply do the very first time with no false starts.

In Groundhog Day, we all think it would be ridiculous if Bill Murray sat down at the piano for his first lesson and could immediately play Rachmaninoff. But we buy into the idea that with an eternity to practice (or 10,000 hours) he can become the leader of the band. He may not be ready to conquer Carnegie Hall, but he can play. And he had to practice to get there.

So why do we assume that talent is more important than practice when it comes to writing? Why do we let ourselves get discouraged if we bumble through a few notes as we are starting our careers? Are we stuck in that fixed mindset? Have we lost our passion in the fear that writing talent is a fixed sum and we can’t get any better?

I used to think I couldn’t write short – and then when I told myself I would try to learn, the first thing I ever sold was a novella. I used to think I couldn’t write paranormal, because my sister criticized my world-building in my first (admittedly crappy) manuscript and I got down on myself about my lack of talent in that area – but the first book I ever sold? Paranormal.

Success comes when we believe in our ability to learn. To grow. To improve our weak spots.

I can become a marketing maven if I set my mind to it. I can become a better speaker. (Now I just have to get up the gumption to set my mind to those things!)  And I can continue to be a better writer with each book that I put out, each hour that I put in the practice and dedicate myself to learning.  I believe I can grow.

Do you have a growth mindset?  What are you trying to learn? Are you putting in the hours?

16 responses to “Talent vs. Skill”

  1. Darynda says:

    I adore this, Vivi!!! I think every parent and every teacher should read it. It’s amazing how words can change not only how we feel about ourselves and others, but how we learn! I’m fascinated.

    Thanks for this!

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  2. Heather McCollum says:

    Great post, Vivi!
    I have a book I want to write about my grandparents in WWII. Every other book I write, I feel like I’m improving my skill so that one day I’ll be able to write that book with brilliance. I’m definitely growing a little each day that I sit down at my computer and write.

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  3. Susan Craig says:

    Thanks, Vivi!
    What you say is so true, yet something we all need to be reminded of–it is so easy to move into a fixed mindset, especially when we’ve grown a little and then hit a plateau. If we keep plugging away, we’ll start to improve again.
    And sometimes we just need to be willing to be willing to try. (not a typo)
    Great way to start the day!!

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    • Yes! It can be so tempting to slide into that fixed mindset when we feel like we’ve stopped getting better, but if we keep working we WILL keep growing. I firmly believe that our best tool is an open mind, ready to learn.

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  4. Jennifer Whitney Bray-Weber says:

    Love, LOVE this post, Vivi! I have not heard it put this way, but you are absolutely right. I know that with each book I write I am getting better. Sometimes I feel embarrassed by my first book. I have come a long way, have learned so much. But then I have to remind myself that the book would not have been published had I not had at least some skill and talent. For me, I can never stop learning, whether that be a new genre, a new writing technique, marketing, or whatever because if I stop learning, I stop growing.

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    • YES. All of this!! I could cringe when I think of some of my first books because I wouldn’t write them the same way now – or I can be proud of my growth and the way they represent that change. May we never stop learning!

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  5. Addison Fox says:

    I LOVE THIS POST!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Every. Single. Word.

    We control the work and our effort and our time invested. And we can get better with time and practice and effort.

    Wonderful inspiration here, Ruby Sis!!!

    xo,
    Addison

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  6. Rita Henuber says:

    WoW! Lots to think about here. But this “Success comes when we believe in our ability to learn. To grow. To improve our weak spots.” is powerful. I think of weak spots as a challenge. Like a character arc. A weakness becomes a strength. Thanks for a great post.

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  7. Elisa Beatty says:

    This is such a powerful lesson!

    All the teachers at my school read Dweck’s book together a couple years ago, and we’ve been working to help our students use the growth mindset.

    A favorite slogan of one of our math teachers is “Are you confused yet?” According to him, confusion is a sign that you’re in the process of learning something new.

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    • Yes! This reminds me of a CEO I saw talking about entrepreneurship and mistakes. I wish I could remember which company she started, but she was talking about how her father used to ask them which mistakes they made today each night at dinner. He wanted them to learn, which meant trying things they would fail at, taking risks, and learning from them. I just love that idea – that confusion and failure are what we NEED to get where we want to go.

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  8. Fantastic post. And so reassuring! Thanks, Vivi!

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  9. Elise Hayes says:

    Love this post, Vivi! I’m a huge fan of Dweck’s work. It’s made me rethink so many things about myself and my approach to the world. And I love your points about learning to write short (the novella) and learning to world-build. I think one of the things I’ve valued about the Rubies over the years is exactly this growth mindset of believing in learning and the ability to develop all sorts of skills. Thank you for this post!

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