Talent, skills, and coaching

Photo: Russian International News Agency (RIA Novosti) via Wikimedia Commons

I am now a writer and a writing coach. I wanted to reflect on the relationship between those two activities. Is writing unconscious? Does deconstructing it for coaching purposes make you self-conscious? Or does coaching help, not just the person coached, but the person doing the coaching?

When people are good at something — standup comedy, tennis, writing, singing — critics say the people have talent. I think that’s really the smallest factor. Admittedly, Rob Gronkowski is not going excel at ballet, and Misty Copeland would make a poor tight end. But my experience of how people develop skill is different.

How talent and skill develop

Here’s my concept of how people get good at something.

At some point, often at a young age, they try something and they like it. If you love writing, playing the piano, or math, you’ll do more of it — even if you’re no good.

outliersThen you get better. Coaches tell you how to improve. You try different things — some work, some don’t. In a Darwinian process, your brain and your body do more of the things that work, and less of the things that don’t work.

Malcolm Gladwell says that you that you need 10,000 hours of practice to get great.

My view is that you won’t put in 10,000 hours unless you love something, you are improving, and you are getting positive feedback. It’s not the hours, it’s the progress that matters.

Notice how little difference “talent” makes when you think of it this way. Talent means you like something, and you learn quickly from experience. It’s 90% work, and 10% talent. No talent, and you’ll never get started. But the work, not the talent, is what gets you there.

Coaching and performing

Some people think they are natural writers (like Gladwell). They probably couldn’t tell you how they do it. They want to write, not teach.

stephen kingOther people enjoy deconstructing what they do (like Stephen King). They are thoughtful about their process and technique. They want to share what got them there.

What distinguishes the Malcolm Gladwell-types from the Stephen King-types is not talent — they both have talent. It’s not skill either — they both have that, too. It’s introspection.

As I learned to write, I (apparently) took mental notes on what I was learning. I both internalized it, and externalized it. As I began to edit people, I took note of their challenges as well. They made different mistakes, and had different strengths, from me. I made note of their mistakes so I could teach, not only them, but others with similar problems. And I made note of their strengths, not just to praise them, but to spread them.

After 50 years or so of writing, getting edited, editing, and coaching, I find that I have amassed a huge mental collection of tips and techniques. Here’s why that matters.

  • They’re all available to me, as I write.
  • I can apply them exactly as needed, in a personal way, to each person that I edit or coach.

Every time I write, I learn more. Every time I edit, I learn more. Editing and coaching makes my writing better. Writing makes my editing and coaching better.

Now it’s really paying off.

It means I can crank out writing tips posts just by thinking about a topic and pulling tips from my mental library.

And it made “Writing Without Bullshit” the easiest book I ever wrote. All I had to do, basically, was organize several hundred tips into chapters.

I’m glad that introspection about my process makes me better, rather than disrupting my flow. I love writing. I love editing. I love coaching. It’s all good.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. 150% spot on with this post! There I a book entitled, “Talent is Overrated” (can’t recall the author). In it much is said about “deliberate practice ” and its role in producing what amazing skills that we often hear referred to as “God-given talent “. You, I think, summarize that concept extremely well here

  2. “What distinguishes the Malcolm Gladwell-types from the Stephen King-types is not talent — they both have talent. It’s not skill either — they both have that, too. It’s introspection.”

    The people who change the world all seem to share this tendency toward introspection. They don’t realize that many people have never once observed themselves in the process of learning.

  3. OK, but what if you DON’T love it?? I’ve been paralyzed by a blank page since childhood. I LOVE to read, but I LOATHE having to write. Is there a strategy for improving a skill you hate? I’d love to get help with this.

    1. Write something you do love to write. Poetry. Fiction. Shopping lists. Stream-of-consciousness. Jokes.

      Frankly, you can’t have it both ways. “I want to be a writer.” and “I don’t like writing.” are not compatible.

      1. I would like to see one of your reading lists on writing one day Josh. I have On Writing and Stephen Pinker’s new one, and a few others, but I’m always eager to find more. I actually like reading about how to write better more than writing in some ways, which is kind of ananoying!