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Szymanski: We all have a talent; recognize it and nurture it

I’ve always held the notion that we are each born with a specific talent. Nurturing that talent gives the child the upper hand as they follow their heart, ambition and intuition. Scientists frequently debate this. Is it nature or nurture, or is it a bit of both?

I think I knew I loved horses even before I could verbalize it. My earliest memories are of scanning the countryside to look for horses while riding in the car. By the time I was 6, I was taking regular walks down our country road to talk to and feed handfuls of grass to the horses that lived a quarter mile away. My parents didn’t like it and didn’t encourage it. They thought horses were an expensive waste of time and good for only two things, pulling a plow or dog food.

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It was my sister who brought me books by Marguerite Henry, Anna Sewell and Walter Farley. That’s when I fell in love with the written word. The way Marguerite Henry strung her words together made my heart soar. I’d read certain parts over and over again.

“The Phantom don’t wear that white map on her withers for nothing. It stands for Liberty, and ain’t no human being going to take her liberty away from her.” That was Grandpa Beebe in Henry’s book about Misty. “She ain’t a hoss. She ain’t even a lady. She’s just a piece of wind and sky.”

Her words were magical to me. Who knew that I would grow up to write horse books, too, even though my words could never be as masterful as hers? I was born with that need. My husband once asked me, “If we hit the lottery would you quit writing?” Never!

In their book, “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson and science writer Robert Pool argue that — except for height and body size — the idea that we are limited by genetic factors or that we have innate talent is a crazy myth. They share studies they feel demonstrate how intensive training is what creates talent.

In one study, Ericsson and colleague, William Chase found that a college student was able to increase the number of random digits he could recall from seven to nearly 80 after 230 hours of practice. In another study, Japanese psychologist Ayako Sakakibara took 24 children from a private music school and dropped them into a training program designed to develop perfect pitch. With a trainer playing a piano, the kids learned to identify chords using colored flags. Afterward, they were tested on their ability to identify the pitch of each individual note and all of the children seemed to have acquired perfect pitch. Ericsson and Pool’s concluded, perfect pitch is not something we are born with, but something anyone can develop with proper training.

What this pair did not consider are the handful of children who identify perfect pitch with limited or zero training. My argument is, just because someone can train to learn any skill does not mean no one is born with it.

When my daughter, Ashley, was little her voice blew me away. How could she listen to a song just one time and know every word, every note, and then sing it back to me verbatim? While she couldn’t seem to sit still in class, she would behave perfectly to be able to sing or perform for a crowd. So, we made a deal with her. If she could get stickers in her notebook from her teacher proving she’d behaved all week, we would let her sing karaoke on the weekend.

So began our weekly visits to local eateries with karaoke on the menu. Karaoke master, Lew Marshall came to know us well. While she was learning to sit still in class, she was also mastering her singing skills. By age 14, she’d opened up for Martina McBride, the Dixie Chicks, and Shenandoah, and by age 15 she had her own band. Now in her 30s, she makes a living singing and writing songs. No one can convince me that she wasn’t born with a natural ability.

How does that natural ability happen? Is it innate? Or do we begin absorbing while in the womb? When I was pregnant with Ashley, I constantly played music. Was she taking it in? This is a question that linguists have grappled with, too. They’ve long debated about the instinct for language, and although they don’t all agree, many scientists say that language we are exposed to while in utero may affect the language ability we are born with.

In 2013, an international team of researchers examined the brains of babies by brain-mapping sensors through electroencephalography. They discovered traces of auditory learning — evidence that these infants had heard different languages and sounds while still in their mothers’ wombs. According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, the part of a fetus’ brain that processes sounds becomes active in the last trimester of pregnancy. Another study found that babies as young as 6 months old could tell the difference between groups of 20 items and 10 items. Those who showed this talent early also received higher scores on standardized math tests later — at around 3 years old.

Recently, my daughter shared a letter to the editor that her new husband wrote when he was just a kid. It was published in the Frederick News-Post. The letter, about drug use, had the headline, “Not only not cool, it’s actually stupid.” While we laughed at his kid language, we marveled at his use of words and his common sense.

“That letter is proof that he was a writer even before he made a living at it,” I told my daughter, and she agreed.

Jason is the entertainment editor at WTOP radio. He reviews movies and interviews stars, writing beautiful articles about them and he’s written numerous screenplays. He was clearly born to be a writer. No one can convince me otherwise.

Maya Angelou once said, “I believe that every person is born with talent.”

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I agree! If you love something, never settle. Go after it with all you’ve got. Don’t give up when it gets tough. Don’t let naysayers sway your heart. Follow your dream.

We are all gifted in one way or another. We only have to recognize and own that gift. We can achieve beyond our wildest expectations when we simply follow our hearts and never give up.

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