Talent Versus Skill

How many times have you heard someone say, “Oh, that guy’s a natural.” Well, is he, or has he simply been given awesome instruction? Years ago my Olympic shooting coach told me how he enjoyed getting students who had little or no experience versus those who had been learning bad habits, and thought they knew what they were doing. We spent hours discussing how the latter would say things like, “Well, that doesn’t feel right to me,” or “That’s not the way I do it,” or “That’s not what my last coach taught me.” On the other hand, students who were “blank slates,” when given good instruction, progressed quicker and with better results.

Recently a good friend asked me the difference between skill versus talent when speaking of racing cars and how to make the most of each. It’s important to remember a talent occurs only in a limited number of people. A skill can be acquired by anyone who has the capacity, potential and willingness to learn. This is where NASA comes in. That’s not to say there are no talented NASA drivers. Quite the contrary. It’s because of the plethora of talent within NASA’s ranks, from years of racing and instruction that so many people have been able to benefit and learn, thus creating even more great drivers.

Talent is somewhat rare. Some people have it and others do not, but talent can be developed and improved over time with instruction and training. Consistent improvement of any ability or craft provides an advantage for any individual. This also can be said about a skill. Unlike a talent, a skill is an ability that is learned and practiced for a period of time. A skill is an acquired or obtained ability, which often is the result of constant performance and improvement on a particular task.

Having instructed and observed many student drivers over the years, I find it interesting that I can see the difference between talent and skill in a student driver’s ability to perform well on the track. It’s easy to see who has talent, but even a talented driver cannot perform until after he or she has been given proper instruction and training. However, with proper instruction and training, even someone without natural talent also can become a great performer.

NASA can assist drivers using skill or talent to help them achieve success and fulfill a life goal. Skill is no substitute for talent, nor is a talent a substitute for skill. Like anything else, a skill requires instruction, time, training and practice to actually learn. The training involved in developing a skill, such as performing well in a racecar also can result in positive attributes, such as hard work, perseverance, dedication and excellence.

We know people are born with different tendencies and traits, but that knowledge is still largely academic. Schools do not distinguish us by our natural talents. In the eyes of the education system, we are all equals, blank slates whom are judged by and rewarded for our hard work. Something I love about NASA is that the instructors are some of the best around, all of whom have been racing long enough to know what’s lacking in each new driver and can fix what’s broken or lacking faster than most other racing organizations.

One of the most beautiful things to watch is when you see a student driver who has skill and talent at the moment when they “get it.” The instructor teaches, the student listens, and then works at it until that magic moment when the switch flips and the student becomes the teacher.

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