Riding On Talent: Why Musicians Need the Growth Mindset to Succeed

Working with the high-level graduate students at the Yale School of Music reveals an undercurrent that pervades a lot of high-achievers: riding on talent.  It stems from a mindset (known as the Fixed Mindset) that does not allow failure.  Paradoxically, those who ride on talent are not as likely to experience success as those who work hard and learn from their setbacks and have a Growth Mindset.  Let’s take a closer look.

If you are at a high-level conservatory like the Yale School of Music, chances are that you were the best player in your high school band or orchestra. You probably were one of the top musicians in your undergraduate studies. You played in the best ensembles, you won competitions, you were accepted at prestigious summer festivals. You thought you had it made!

And then you come to graduate school. Now the competitions are for professional orchestras, tenure-track college teaching jobs, prestigious DMA programs and Fulbright Scholarships. And you realize that pretty much everyone else is at the level and that things are a lot different. You are not advancing in professional auditions. You don’t get into every doctoral program. Perhaps you listen to old recordings that you made in college and suddenly the fear creeps in that you may have peaked.

In the words of one of my students, “I was riding on talent.”

What do you do when you hit a wall and think that your best days are behind you?

This was the question that came up in one of my coaching groups.

As we discovered, a lot turns on your mindset: because if you are riding on talent, chances are that you have a fixed mindset.

So let’s turn to Dr. Carol Dweck, the brilliant psychologist whose research, documented in her eminently readable book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has uncovered two distinct mindsets about how to approach challenges and obstacles: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

Her conclusion: your ability to succeed turns on how you view your talent and intelligence and those with the Growth Mindset have much higher chances of succeeding than those with a Fixed Mindset.

And the good news is that you can change your mindset.

Let’s examine these two mindsets and delve more deeply into the idea of riding on talent.

Fixed Mindset

People with a fixed mindset believe that you are either born with talent and intelligence or you are not, which means you cannot change how talented or smart you are. As a result, you are afraid to take risks and rock the boat because you might make a mistake—which would prove that you really are not talented. Those with the fixed mindset are locked into perfectionism. They tend to play it safe and avoid experimentation. They also shy away from asking others for help, which they perceive as sign of weakness and further proof of a lack of talent and intelligence.

Growth Mindset

The growth mindset stems from a belief that your talent and intelligence are the starting point and that success comes as a result of effort, experimentation, learning, and persistence. Those with a growth mindset are more resilient, work harder, embrace collaboration with others, and achieve greater success than those with a fixed mindset because they are motivated by the desire to grow and learn. You reach out to others for help. You examine the strategies that work and keep building on them. You discard the strategies that don’t work. And you keep the faith, no matter what!

Talent and Effort

One of the hallmarks of the fixed mindset is that if you are talented, you don’t have to exert effort to be good. Why? There is an underlying belief that if you have to work hard to get results, it means you lack talent. Moreover, if you actually put forth effort and don’t succeed, it robs you of all your excuses—and exposes your lack of talent.

In her book Mindset, Dr. Dweck discusses this very challenge with the story of a world-famous musician who rode on talent: violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonenberg , a child prodigy who had made her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 10 and arrived at Juilliard to study with the great violin teacher, Dorothy DeLay. Ms. DeLay found that the young violinist had developed terrible habits which she refused to change. As the years went by, other students began to catch up with Nadja and by the time she was in her late teens, she had a crisis in confidence. She was afraid to try—because if she tried and failed, it would be unbearable to give it your all and then not succeed. Things got so bad that Nadja stopped bringing her violin to lessons whereupon Ms. DeLay announced that she had had enough:

“If you are going to waste your talent, I am not going to be a part of it.”

The fear of losing DeLay was the wake-up call that Nadja needed and she changed her approach:  for the first time in her life, she put in 100% effort on an upcoming competition. The result was that she won the competition and went on to achieve the fame that she enjoys today—all with a lot of hard work.

Our group was relieved to hear that you don’t have to be stuck in the Fixed Mindset and that it is possible to develop a Growth Mindset approach to music. So my coaching group is now going on a Growth Mindset campaign to experiment with managing their fixed mindsets and relieving some stress. It involves a lot of smart hard work!! But these musicians are used to hard work so they are relishing the challenge.

Next time:

The latest word on the growth mindset and how to change your mindset!