I’ve already written two entries about Ed Sheeran on this blog (see here and here). So, before I get any stick for the title of this article suggesting that Ed Sheeran doesn’t have talent, let me establish that I am one of his biggest fans. I find his music, live performances, personality, and work ethic incredible and he is definitely one of my favourite artists as well as arguably the greatest songwriter of his generation. So when I discuss Ed Sheeran not having talent, I am not saying he isn’t good at what he does, I am just saying that he isn’t good at what he does because of a natural talent, he is good at what he does because of development. The argument for talent vs. development is a much debated topic. It is closely associated with another debate in psychology called Nature vs. Nurture.
The Nature vs. Nurture debate attempts to explain whether peoples’ actions are as a result of their surroundings and environment, or their innate natural biological makeup. The framework of the Nature vs. Nurture debate is used in social science and economics to attempt to explain why people do things like commit crimes, succeed in business, or become leaders in their respective fields. Essentially it tries to provide answers as to whether people are naturally predisposed towards doing what they end up doing, or whether their upbringing and environment is the deciding factor in how they turn out. Usually in this debate people try to err on the side of caution and say that it’s a mixture of both nature and nurture that determine what people end up doing. Personally however, I think that’s a bit of a cop out, and while this is a controversial opinion to say the least, I don’t think that natural talent exists and I’m going to use Ed Sheeran’s career path to try explain why I believe this.
The definition of the word talent is “a natural aptitude or skill”. The word natural here implies that the level of skill someone possesses is something which they are born with and therefore presumably their skill is present and observable from a very young age. This is not the case with Ed Sheeran. If you go to the video here you will be directed to a clip from the Jonathan Ross show where Ed Sheeran says that he was not born with talent and even provides an old recorded clip of him singing (very poorly) years ago as proof that he had to put a lot of work into singing to get good at it. This doesn’t seem to just be a once off statement from Sheeran either. If you follow the link here you will see a video of Sheeran advocating the 10,000 hour theory. The 10,000 theory is a concept which says in order to be at a world class level in an activity, you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice at it. Just to put that into context it’s the equivalent of practicing for nearly 417 days straight (24 hours a day).
A part of Ed Sheeran’s story which often gets ignored by the general public is that he essentially made himself homeless at the age of 16 to pursue music. He dropped out of mainstream education, left home to move to London, and slept on the couches of whoever would have him for years while he was trying to make it as a musician. He even admits to spending nights in underground stations when he had nowhere else to go. Sheeran even wrote his first big hit (The A Team) after a night he spent performing in a shelter. He also played live relentlessly, sometimes performing two and three gigs a day to crowds as small as one or two people. The point I am trying to make here is that Ed Sheeran obviously practiced a lot. So, is it just a coincidence that he used to be bad at singing and after 4 years of constant practice he was all of a sudden good at singing?
This argument that development is the causal factor in determining an individual’s level of success is also evident in the careers of the Beatles who, before becoming a global phenomenon, played 6 gigs a week, every week in Hamburg at the start of their careers. It is also evident in the world of sport drawing from former golf pro Gary Player’s famous quote “The more I practice, the luckier I get”. Of course, it’s easy to look at people who are incredibly proficient at something now and observe their skill as talent that they’ve always had, but that’s just because you haven’t seen the years of development and training they went through before now. If you put all their ability down to a natural talent you’re actually belittling the hours of grueling work and hardship they endured to become as good as they are. I firmly believe that “talent” is earned and not gifted to people. Ed Sheeran isn’t a great musician because he was born that way; he’s a great musician because he made it that way.
by Daragh O’Leary