The Talent Myth
Too many of us believe in the “talent” myth — that top performers are born, rather than built. But Syed shows that in almost every arena in which tasks are complex, top performers excel not because of innate ability but because of dedicated practice.
Sometimes people say to me, “you’re just good at languages”. Maybe I am 1% better at learning languages than most people (and maybe I’m not). But I’ve successfully learned Chinese because I was motivated and spent hours and hours memorizing vocabulary, writing essays, reading, and practicing pronunciation, period. That’s not to say that all that practice doesn’t help. I’m better at memorizing words than I used to be. I can notice and correct my pronunciation mistakes faster. The time spent learning Chinese has made me a better learner, but I’m better because I spent all that time practicing.
The Road to Success
Saying you’re bad at language is setting yourself up for failures (see my related post). Most people are born with the same general abilities, and learning languages (even one like Chinese) doesn’t take super intelligence. What separates the top students from middle-of-the-road isn’t intelligence or innate ability: it’s the mindset.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that what she calls “mindset” (in her 2006 book of that name) plays a crucial role in sustaining the necessary type of intense practice — and that the right mindset can be quite useful even if your goal is not to win the gold. Dweck puts forward two mindsets — a fixed mindset, which occurs when someone believes that personal qualities like intelligence are immutable, and a growth mindset, which occurs when someone believes that skills and characteristics can be cultivated through effort. In the fixed mindset, success is showing you’re talented; in the growth mindset, it’s developing yourself.
The first step to success is believing you can do it. Over 800 million people have learned how to speak Mandarin Chinese. You can be number 800,000,001. Think about it, someone who has average intelligence is smarter than around 200 million Chinese speakers. So it’s not about intelligence. It’s about effort.
All it takes is effort. Anyone can learn Chinese.