How “Natural Talent” Stops Most Guitar Players From Reaching Their Potential, And How You Can Avoid The Trap

How “Natural Talent” Stops Most Guitar Players From Reaching Their Potential, And How You Can Avoid The Trap

By Leo Smith

When you think about the guitar, are you worried that you don’t have “it”? That beautiful, mysterious “it,” always dancing just out of reach? That special something the best seem to have, that effortless ability to be great, that talent? Are you worried that without “it,” you’ll never be able to play guitar the way you desire?

If so, you’ve fallen into a sweet and sticky trap. It’s been called the ‘talent myth,’ and it goes something like this: for one to excel in a given pursuit, one must be born with a certain level of ‘natural’ ability. Our idols got where they are and can do what they do because they have that natural ability. They are ‘gifted,’ and woe to those mere mortals who are not so fortunate.

This is poppycock. Yet the idea has great power to hold you back if you buy into it. The power of the mind to change one’s life cannot be exaggerated. Attitudes and beliefs that are often entirely subconscious have a profound impact on the goals we allow ourselves to set, and the actions we allow ourselves to take in pursuit of them. Many are those who lurch through life bound and chained — shackled by the limitations they’ve set for themselves — when they could and should be flying. And they would fly, if they could only recognize and correct the damaging beliefs that weigh them down.

The talent myth is pervasive and entrenched in our society, and every day it stops people from taking even the first step towards pursuing their goals. To be sure, one may be born with certain aptitudes that others do not have, but the role of such aptitudes is dangerously overemphasized. More often than not, what we call ‘aptitude’ for something is really just an innate infatuation with something, love at first sight, an obsession from the start that drives a person to devote themselves to a craft in ways others wouldn’t think to do. Even a person with genuine natural ability at something must work hard to develop that ability, yet few consider that fuller picture. For all the talk of Mozart as a child prodigy, and by all accounts there are few better examples of natural aptitude, not much thought is spent on his meticulous grooming from infancy to be and do exactly what he was and did. There is little doubt that child Mozart took to music like a fish to water, but it didn’t hurt if his father was an accomplished composer who instructed him in music as a toddler and then relentlessly shuttled him and his sister around Europe to play for royalty.

So the talent myth persists. It is relentlessly reinforced, primarily through the interaction of a particular phenomenon with two other common beliefs. The phenomenon is this: when we see our idols perform, we see only the result of what they have done. We do not see the process. There is an idiom in Chinese that goes ‘every minute on stage is the result of ten years of work off stage.’ (It sounds better when they say it). We see the minute on stage, but are completely oblivious to the ten years that made it possible. Whether or not we consciously admit that the idiom must be true, it’s still too easy to accept in our heart of hearts that, for our idols, the work was not so hard and the hours not so long. It is still too easy to believe that their work only paid off because they have “it.”

Unfortunately, two other prevalent myths compound this problem. The first is the idea that ‘it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master in any field,’ and the second is the idea that ‘practice makes perfect.’ At face value these may both seem to contradict the talent myth, and they are certainly closer to the mark. The problem with these two ideas is that they are incomplete, and their common omission makes them dangerously misleading. They both suggest that ‘practice’ must necessarily improve someone in her craft, and that the quantity of practice is the only concern. They both ignore the importance of the quality of practice.

For the first few years I played guitar, I wasted countless hours combing through random videos, posts, and comments online, random advice from random people with dubious qualifications or none at all. I spent all kinds of money on one-size-fits-all books and DVDs. I spent even more money on teachers at the local music shops, but quickly became bored with the aimless lessons and went back to doing my own thing, even more discouraged and with a lighter wallet. Every day I played the same scales, the same songs, the same random drills over and over. I had no idea what I was doing or why, but when I didn’t get results from my hard work I just figured it was because I was somehow innately not good enough. At the time, I hadn’t yet met a teacher who could make me understand that quality of practice is far more important than quantity. Without that understanding, it’s no wonder if you mistakenly believe the money and hours spent pursuing your guitar goals are failing to pay off because you lack talent. But it is a mistake, and it is killing your dreams.

There is no better way to ultimately reject the suffocating ‘talent myth’ than to take action and demonstrate to yourself the power of hard AND intelligent work. But you can’t do this with videos, books, and arbitrary programs designed for anyone who comes along. You need a teacher who can help you define your goals, assess your strengths and weaknesses, and create a personalized plan of action to smash through the obstacles in your path as efficiently as possible.

(c) 2015 Leo Smith