There's a notion, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that if someone puts in ten thousand hours of practice, he or she can master almost any cognitively demanding field. The theory has been disputed, but a lot of people have heard about it and seem to subscribe to it. David Brooks even used the theory to claim that Mozart, the quintessential child prodigy, owed his success to practice, not genetics.
Personally, I'm skeptical. I don't doubt that practice is essential to perfect any skill. But it seems to me that some people have inborn talents that allow them to achieve a higher degree of mastery than their less gifted rivals, and that these talents manifest almost immediately, long before ten thousand hours of work has been logged.
I was reminded of this while reading a recent book, Master of the Majicks, Vol. I - a look at the early years of stop-motion animator and special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, who passed away at age 92 earlier his year. The book includes coverage of the teenage animator's experiments with a 16mm camera.
One of the young Ray's early models was this wooly mammoth, seen here in somewhat deteriorated condition many decades later:
I don't know how good the interior mechanism (the "armature") was, but certainly in terms of proportions, detail, and overall sculptural quality, this figure is of professional caliber. It is noticeably superior to models built for feature films like The Lost Continent and The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Yet Harryhausen was only a teenager when he made it.
Below is an impressive shot of a brontosaurus model animated in a double exposure with live-action water. Again, by the standards of the 1930s (or any time, really, prior to the advent of digital effects), this is professional quality work, yet it was done by a teenage hobbyist working in his parents' garage.
Here's a shot of the high school age Harryhausen's tabletop animation setup, complete with painted backdrop, miniature foliage, and foreground glass painting:
Below is the finished effect produced with the above setup:
The bottom line is that Harryhausen just had a knack for this kind of thing. It may well have taken him ten thousand hours to refine his talents, but the raw ability - the intuitive sense of design, movement, and drama - was there right from the start. Most other animators and model makers, equally dedicated, never reached his level of skill, no matter how many hours of effort they put in, because they just didn't have "the gift."
Of course, there are countless other examples from other fields. I picked Harryhausen simply because the issue occurred to me while I was reading a book about him, and because I still enjoy hand-crafted effects work like this.
It would be nice to think that everyone is born equal, and that only hard work makes the difference, but when it comes to talent, I suspect we're largely fated to play the hand we're dealt at birth.