Is it talent or skill?

March 1, 2017

There is an ongoing controversy surrounding the importance of talent for athletes, musicians, physicians, and other professionals. Some argue talented people are better at learning certain things (developing skills). What is the truth when it comes to ophthalmology?

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”
--Michael Jordan

 

My colleague, Bert, an ophthalmologist and loyal Ophthalmology Times reader, shared with me a best-selling book entitled: “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else.” The author, Geoff Colvin, argues that our successes are more the product of hard work and less a function of our DNA.

There is an ongoing controversy surrounding the importance of talent for athletes, musicians, physicians, and other professionals. Some argue talented people are better at learning certain things (developing skills).

Others maintain that use of the term “talent” is really a cop-out, an excuse for those who don’t want to devote the time and effort required to master the skills we see others exhibiting. To this way of thinking, a decision not to do something (“I just don’t have his/her talent”) is likely flawed because we are thinking a talent is just a skill in disguise.

Which is it?

What is the truth when it comes to ophthalmology? To address, I assembled a group of ophthalmologists of varying ages, from different countries and ethnic backgrounds, and with different career paths (academia, private practice). What they all had in common is that, by all appearances, they are extremely successful and admired in their communities.

These ophthalmologists agreed that if something can be learned, it is a skill. If something is innate, they agreed to call it a talent. They also agreed on the spelling of “skill” and “talent,” but on little else.

“How much of your success in your profession is due to talent and how much to skill?” I asked the group. This was a forced-choice question--talent or skill--ignoring other variables, such as luck. The answers varied tremendously and no consensus emerged:

  •  “Eighty percent is due to talent,” answered one colleague. “I was born with a maniacal attention to detail, and this allows me to rapidly recognize if something in the clinic or operating room is not going perfectly and make a correction so as to avoid a serious problem developing.”

  •  “Thirty percent is talent,” said the next respondent. “My skills are the result of many years of hard work, study, and excellent training.”

  •  “Fifty percent is talent and 50% is skill,” said another colleague. “I have the talent but I was taught how to use and take advantage of it. In particular, I was taught how to talk to patients.”

 

One respondent made a comment that seemed to resonate with most of the others: “I can recognize talent because I teach young ophthalmology residents and fellows. Some of them learn more readily because they have a gift or talent in an area, while some of them have a better work ethic. Some go faster than others, but they all get there eventually: whether they become superlative is a function of effort.”

They did agree that while having talent is wonderful, it is not sufficient. They considered themselves and their fellow ophthalmologists, who, in their opinions were very successful, to have unusually strong work ethics.

Another ophthalmologist offered this perspective that seemed to enjoy wide support: “Our field is disproportionately populated by people willing to spend the time to develop our skills to the highest level and we are inspired to do so by others. We are spurred on by failures because our own standards are so high.”