Nature vs. Nurture

It’s a long-standing debate and it has been studied for a long time. Can we do the things we do because it is our natural ability (nature) or is it things we have learned (nurture)? The nature vs. nurture question comes up with anyone who sets out to call himself an artist.

Would you expect to sit down at drums, like in this image, pick up the sticks, and be a master immediately? Of course not. If you take lessons and practice for a long time will you become a famous drummer? Probably not. You may be a good one, but not necessarily great.

So what should natural ability do for us? I think it makes it easier for some people to learn to do some things. We say they “take to” things naturally. Whether it is playing tennis, or doing math, or playing the drums, there is no doubt that it is less of a struggle for some. Note, though, that it is “less” of a struggle. It’s still a struggle. I’ve never met anyone with natural talent who did not have to also work very hard to excel.

On the nurture side, should we expect that anyone can master anything if they are determined enough? Yes, but. Sorry to break it to you, but you probably can’t become a world class ballerina just because you practice enough. Most people can learn to be good at almost anything if they apply themselves diligently. Some things take certain inherent physical characteristics that cannot be learned. E.g., don’t expect to be the next Michael Jackson unless you are about 7 feet tall.

If I decide I want to play tennis well, I can take lessons and practice hard. I might get to the point where I can beat most of the people in my area, but I won’t be competing at Wimbledon. There is a huge gap between good and great.

10,000 Hours

It is often quoted that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to master something. That may be correct, but what does it mean? That study is documenting that it takes those 10,000 hours of great practice to get to the level of a Tiger Woods in golf or a Yo-Yo Ma on the cello.

The number gets thrown around a lot to prove how hard it is to learn things, but it is not as daunting as that. Most of us rightly get discouraged at he prospect of taking 10,000 hours to get good at something, so we don’t do it. Remember, though, that this is the investment to get to be the best in the world. Other studies, and common sense. show that it takes a much lower level of investment to get to proficiency or a level of expertise. Common numbers I hear are 20 to 40 hours.

Try it yourself. Pick out something you think you are interested in but know nothing about. Take knife throwing as a weird example. Get a simple throwing knife at your local sporting goods store, watch some You-tube videos and practice for 40 hours. Good practice where you evaluate your mistakes and learn to correct them. You will probably be the most expert knife thrower in your area.


I asked the question of nature vs. nurture in the context of an artist. Do you have to have natural talent or else you should give up? If you have natural talent do you need training?

What I have observed is that “making it” – whatever that means to you – takes work. Lots of work. If you have a natural talent you may get there with less pain. If it takes pain, you will probably learn more deeply because of it. Either way you have to put in the work. If you want to be an artist, put in the time. Artists don’t have to suffer, but they do have to work long and hard at their craft.

So, nature or nurture? For me, it’s a don’t care. If you put in the time and keep developing yourself you will not need to ask the question. Some luck doesn’t hurt, too.