I recently came across an infographic from The Practice of Practice that did a great job illustrating the difference between those who regard talent as something you have (static) and those who regard talent as something you have to earn (variable). Although the graphic references musical skill, it applies well to the struggle of fencing. I recreated this graphic in Section I
The dichotomy between the static and variable beliefs about talent is nowhere near absolute. In fact, few fencers subscribe entirely to one belief or the other. In other words, most fencers feel that some degree of talent is innate and some is earned. Some fencers also wrestle with incompatible/contrasting beliefs—also known as cognitive dissonance—which I’ll get into more in Section III.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ve written this with the assumption that the dominant belief tends to manifest itself more often and to a greater degree than the less dominant belief. The characterizations I’ve laid out below represent the fencers near the extreme ends of the spectrum. Even so, I recognize that this view is flawed, as two extremes present a false binary. There are many beliefs one might adopt about the nature of talent that fall to greater or lesser degree outside the dichotomy presented here.
Although few fencers ever articulate their assumptions about the nature of talent, their dominant beliefs about talent dictate much of the attitudes they display, both as observable behavior or as conscious thoughts. Outwardly, fencers express their beliefs in their confidence and composure. Internally, fencers typically experience their beliefs in their method of validation. The static-talent fencer (STF) seeks external validation (the praise and respect of others), while the variable-talent fencer (VTF) seeks internal satisfaction (a feeling of accomplishment). Another way of stating this is that the STF wants to be good at fencing, while the VTF wants to become good at fencing.
I’d caution against using your experience of others people’s demeanor alone to assess their underlying mentality or the degree to which they subscribe to one belief or the other. Being quick to judge others based solely on their apparent demeanor is a slippery slope and can lead you to some to conclusions that aren’t helpful to anyone, and likely cause harm. Instead, use these observations (gained through many deep conversations) to analyze your own beliefs and help you make adjustments to your mentality when necessary.
In my own struggles, I found that it’s entirely possible to fool yourself about where you fall between these two extremes. In fact, I’d argue that this is a natural part of the process of reforming your mentality. There’s a certain “fake it till you make it” aspect to habit change, and make no mistake, the assumptions you make that reinforce your beliefs are habits.
In Section I offer a brief overview of the two mentalities, reimagining the infographic I mentioned before as it applies to fencing. In Section II, I flesh out the contrasting attitude outlined in Section I. You can skip straight to these explanations by clicking on the summary text. Finally, in Section III, I go over one of my pet theories about how fencers come to these beliefs about talent.
To be clear, the summaries and the explanations in Section III represent the far extremes of the static and variable beliefs about talent. Even then, they are generalizations and suffer all of the shortcomings of all generalizations.
Static-talent Fencers (STF)
I believe that you’re either born with talent, or you aren’t. Any advancements you make are the result of learning techniques that require some degree of innate talent to use.
Variable-talent Fencers (VTF)
I believe you earn your talent through hard word and practice. Any advancements you make reflect your understanding of core concepts and continuous training.
If I win, then I’ll live up to my expectations. If I fail, then everyone will think I’m not talented.more
If I win, then I’ll get validation on my progress. If I fail, then I will know what I need to work on.more
Surrenders to Failure
Whenever I’m defeated, something must have gone wrong or my opponent must have gotten lucky. When I’m defeated often, it’s a sign that I’m just not talented and will never be good.more
Learns from Losses
Whenever I’m defeated, I have a valuable opportunity to figure out what I did wrong and how to improve. When I’m defeated often, it’s a sign I have to train harder and practice more.more
Training is something people without talent do to try to catch up to those with talent. I don’t have to train, because I’m naturally good at this.more
Training is something everyone should do to learn new skills and hone the ones they have. If I want to improve, then I need to put in the work.more
When I get criticism, people are telling me that I’m not good enough. Feedback isn’t valuable, because I don’t need anyone to tell me what I’m doing wrong.more
When I get criticism, people are helping me identify what I need to work on. Feedback is invaluable, because I don’t always see what I’m doing wrong.more
Scorns the Success of Rivals
Every time someone else advances, my status is threatened. If I think that person is doesn’t deserve it, then I will hold them in contempt.more
Celebrates the Progress of Peers
Every time someone else advances, it show the strength of our community. If I think that person isn’t there yet, then I will offer my support.more
Before you read this next section and assume I don’t realize how repetitive I’m being, let me assure you that I do. I wrote this section as a reference for Section I, intending for each explanation to stand on its own. If you’re reading this straight though, than first, thank you for taking the time to do that, and second, I hope you find my arguments worth the tedium of the repetition.
Protects Ego (static)
Regardless of their competence, the static-talent fencer (STF) identifies with their often inflated belief in their innate martial prowess.* For them, talent is an objective thing: a fencer either is or is not talented, and their level of talent fixes them somewhere in the pecking order. To reinforce their identity as talented, the STF prefers to face opponents below their level. They use each victory to reinforce their ego, without having to become better at fencing.back
*I deliberately use the “singular they” throughout this article and elsewhere. It’s cool—I know what I’m doing.
Seeks Challenges (variable)
If there’s any one concept that an variable-talent fencer’s belief in the earned nature of talent reinforces, it’s that they don’t have to be competent to be relatively confident. In this case, the VTF’s confidence shows in their willingness—or even eagerness—to take on challenges. A lot of this has the do with the way they develop their skills through hard work and careful practice.back
Surrenders to Failure (static)
Most often, when a static-talent fencer (STF) fails, their first response is to come up with some excuse. Their second response is to become utterly despondent. The underlying logic of this ins’t hard to follow. By holding the beliefs that they are talented and talented fencers don’t lose and contrasting that with the reality that they just lost, the fencer is faced with a state of cognitive dissonance. The brain can’t abide cognitive dissonance and must strive to resolve it, either by giving up/revising the underlying beliefs or by disavowing the evidence that contradicts them.back
Learns from Losses (variable)
As opposed to the static-talent fencer (STF), the variable-talent fencer (VTF) has less to lose from failure and often finds inspiration in it. To be clear, this fencer is not without ego and thus free from the struggle with cognitive dissonance, but the way they resolve it is significantly different. They assume that they are talented to an extent reinforced by their own experiences, and that the more talented they are in general, the more likely they are to win.back
Disdains Effort (static)
One of the problems of watching highly skilled practitioners of any art is that they make what they do look easy. When a static-talent fencer (STF) sees top-tier competitors, it’s easy for them to develop the assumption that talented people don’t need to put effort into fencing. This impression is further reinforced by the fact that many A-list fencers don’t appear to practice at all, neither drilling nor working on specific skills during the abundant free play in most groups.back
Values Persistence (variable)
The variable-talent fencer’s (VTF) attitude about effort contrasts heavily with the static-talent fencer’s (STF) belief, both when it comes to their own motivation and in regard to seeing other fencers training. Fencers who are quick to adopt the variable-talent belief often struggled to some degree in the beginning, if only to catch up to their peers who were naturally gifted with attributes they don’t have. This minor disadvantage initially forces the less-gifted fencer to rely on diligent effort to grow, and since this fencer’s approach to learning already revolves around practicing specific skills, their relationship with failure is less likely to be entirely negative.back
Avoids Criticism (static)
Since the determinate-talent fencer (STF) subscribes to a belief that skill is a product of natural abilities plus acquired knowledge, they assume that any perceived shortcomings in their performance are either related to their innate talent or their grasp of the techniques they’ve learned. In the last section on effort and training, I covered a lot of the internal criticism the STF faces when struggling with their performance. However, the way they tend to deal with external criticism is equally negative and/or dismissive.back
Accepts Feedback (variable)
The difference between criticism and constructive criticism is largely an illusion. While the intention of the person providing the feedback does matter, the way the recipient perceives it is significantly more important, and that largely comes down to the recipient’s disposition. The priority of the determinate-talent fencer (STF) is to protect their ego, which makes them inclined to see even positive feedback as negative criticism. Conversely, the priority of the indeterminate-talent fencer (VTF) is to pursue their development, inclining them to find value in even brusquely delivered feedback.back
Scorns the Success of Rivals (static)
A fencer’s view of relative talent strongly reflects their belief about the nature of talent itself. For the static-talent fencer (STF), their fixed-view of talent presents itself in their view of a wholly relative talent pool, with each fencer jockeying for their position in the greater pecking order. When another fencer shows signs of improvement, it’s a direct threat to the STF’s ego.back
Celebrates the Progress of Peers (variable)
The internal focus of the indeterminate-talent fencer (VTF) makes them relatively immune to the destructive negativity (if not outright jealously) the determinate-talent fencer (STF) experiences when they see other fencers succeed and progress. The VTF’s primary focus is on their own development and they use their own performance as the benchmark of their growing prowess. As a result, they aren’t threatened by the success of others—even fencers they don’t particularly respect—and are happy to see their peers advance.back
Attributes and Origin of Talent Beliefs
I could posit a dozen or more reasons why anyone might lean toward either the static- or variable-talent belief. It could be something as overt as falling in with a crowd of others who hold and reinforce one mentality, or it could be something as subtle as genetics. In this section, I focus primarily on the contribution of attributes (often thought of as “natural abilities”) on shaping beliefs about talent.
That said, there are many factors that are likely to contribute to each person’s beliefs, both disposing them to aspects of the static-talent belief and the variable-talent belief. And, as I mentioned before, it’s unlikely for anyone to completely subscribe to either one entirely, without entering a state of perpetual or acute cognitive dissonance.
I once found myself embroiled in an argument about whether natural talent was more or less important than earned talent. I took the side that natural talent was more important, acknowledging that earned talent would still be necessary for anyone to fully develop. My opponent considered natural talent to be a barrier to achievement, as it makes people lazy and unwilling to eventually put in the kind of work that a person with less natural talent would have to commit to from the beginning.
Years later, I haven’t exactly adopted my opponent’s view as I have discarded the argument altogether. I now consider “natural talent” to be an inaccurate way to describe the tendency to capitalize on favorable attributes. World-class fencing teachers such as Devon Boorman use the term “attributes” to describe variables including height/reach, speed/agility, and strength. Tall, swift, and/or strong people have distinct advantages over average fencers. Based on my own experience as an attribute fencer, I’d add another advantage to the list: left-handedness.
The effect of these advantages are particularly prominent in the beginning of an attribute fencer’s career. Bolstered by early successes, the attribute fencer is immediately rewarded with greater success than (and particularly against) their peers. This immediate success may begin as an encouragement to continue fencing, but it can also convince the fencer that they don’t need to practice, fostering the static-talent belief.
While a few naturally talented fencers continue to develop without investing considerable effort, this is extremely rare. In most cases, belief in the superiority of their innate talent eventually turns any natural advantage into a crutch and even a liability. As the attribute fencer begins competing against better opponents, their self-image comes under fire and their underlying assumptions about talent are jeopardized. The characteristic attitudes (listed above and explained below) this fencer displays are largely the result of the cognitive dissonance caused when their ego and their performance become mutually incompatible.
Conversely, the fencer with no “natural talent” never experiences these rocky waves of success and failure, or, at least, not to the same extent. With no immediate advantages to draw on, the average fencer must earn every success through diligent practice and determination, often facing the challenge of competing against attribute fencers. This can be extremely discouraging, and, unlike the majority of successful attribute fencers, many average fencers quickly lose interest in fencing entirely.
For those who do stick around, the journey becomes progressively easier as they develop the habit of training hard. With no inflated ego to maintain, this fencer is far more likely to seek feedback, persevere though failure, and seek challenges. Their path is often far less stressful, and while many average fencers eventually coast, those who continue to strive for excellence have fewer bad habits to bar their success or crutches to rely on. What’s more, they experience firsthand what effort can accomplish so they never have to reevaluate their assumptions.
This has not turned out to be the short and sweet article I’d intended to write. That article would have cut off after Section I. Instead, I’ve made a ton of assumptions and over generalizations. I feel that I must address one of these: attitude and assumption about talent do not have to go hand in hand. That is to say, I believe they are often connected, but not always. I’ve presented the determinate-talent fencer as extremely negative and the indeterminate-talent fencer as almost saintly in their positivity, but that isn’t always the case.
It’s entirely possible for a fencer to feel talent is fluid and be painfully negative, especially if they’ve struggled (or even neglected to practice) and do poorly. Likewise, some of the most supportive people I’ve met clearly hold the belief that talent is finite, but their own success (or some ulterior motive, perhaps) has made them extremely positive. Likewise, some people are simply disposed to be one way or another. According to many accounts, running legend Steve Prefontaine began every competition run by reciting a litany of reasons he wasn’t going to perform well, yet he trained like crazy and held many long-standing records before his untimely death.
Here’s the bottom line: only you, if anyone, know how you really feel about talent. Nonetheless, others will always judge you by your attitude and actions… and mostly, they’ll be right.