Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is Talent Overrated?

My review of Geoff Colvin's new book, Talent is Overrated, ran at The American's website (and in their daily email to subscribers) today. I'd mentioned on this blog a few weeks ago that I thought the book was quite interesting, and now that the review has run, I can talk about it some more.

Colvin's thesis is that the formula for achieving world-class performance in many fields is quite simple. You have to put in many thousands of hours of "deliberate practice." This deliberate practice involves analyzing your weak spots through constant feedback, working on the specific skills that will make you better, and learning as much as possible about your field. There is no way to rush this process -- it's a matter of getting in the hours. When people achieve world-class status at something at a young age -- like Mozart -- it's because they started very young and spent their youth putting in these effective hours of practice.

Colvin tells some stories that really seem to show that superstars are made, not born. From my review: "The story of the Polgar sisters, which Colvin tells at length, also seems to undermine the notion of God-given talent. In the 1960s, Hungarian educational psychologist Laszlo Polgar postulated that great performers are made, not born. To test this theory, he designed an experiment. Polgar and his wife, Klara, devoted their lives to turning their three daughters into brilliant chess players. Laszlo was only a mediocre player, and Klara hadn’t played much at all, but they filled their home with chess books and homeschooled their girls so they could spend several hours each day mastering the game. As a result, their oldest daughter, Susan, was eventually named a grand master. The other daughters also became top players."

Unfortunately, there wasn't space to get into this in the review, but what I find most fascinating about this story is the ultimate outcome. The Polgar sisters did all achieve world-class status, but they did not achieve the same, and none of them became the world's top player.

Colvin writes: "The middle sister, Sophia, did not reach the heights scaled by her two sisters (though she did become the sixth-ranked woman in the world), and everyone seems to agree that she was the least committed. A lengthy magazine profile of the sisters quoted chess champion Josh Waitzkin as saying Sophia 'was a brilliant speed player, sharp as a tack. But she didn't work as hard as the others.' Susan said that Sophia 'was lazy.' And even Sophia agreed: 'I could give up easier than Judit. I never worked as hard as she did.' Similarly, everyone seems to agree that Judit, who rose highest, worked hardest at practice. It would also stand to reason that by the time Judit, the youngest, came along, Laszlo had refined his methods of practice design.

"As for the fact that none of the sisters became a world champion, it may be hazardous to speculate on why things work out as they do in the rarefied air of the very highest levels. But it's certainly worth noting that when they were in their twenties, when future champions are typically still fighting for their shot at the top, all three sisters decided there was more to life than chess."

It may be hazardous to speculate, but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway. Here's my thesis on what went on with the Polgar sisters: You can train someone right up to the precipice of the top. But ultimately, world-class achievement requires both practice, passion, and opportunity. You can force the practice. But you cannot force the passion. None of the Polgar sisters chose chess as kids (other than the fact that it was what their family did, which probably made it cool in its own right). Perhaps Sophia was lazy, or perhaps chess just wasn't where her real interests ever lay. When the sisters ultimately had the opportunity to choose what to do with their lives, they eased up on the chess.

Opportunity is the trickiest part of the equation. As I once put in an as-told-to essay I wrote on behalf of Lang Lang (the pianist), stardom is about working "to reach the lucky place where fortune spots you, and lets you shine." Chess is at least relatively straight forward, as there are lots of matches and it's pretty clear who is in the top tier of players. But if you have the misfortune to be born in an era where there are many great chess players, you will have a harder time becoming the world champion. Actually forging new ground in other, less regimented fields, is harder. To break new ground in math and physics you have to find the right problem, the problem that uniquely taps your abilities. There are many great physicists who never win the Nobel Prize. And even if you win the Nobel Prize, you probably won't be a household name like Einstein or Newton. The top physicists all have the practice and passion. They just didn't happen across the absolute right opportunity. Possibly that's even because they were born too late (as one former physicist told me, "all the fun simple stuff has already been done.")

So what does all this mean for gifted kids? Even with future professional musicians, mathematicians and the like, parents occasionally have to force a child to practice. But as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Outliers, this nagging takes a different form among kids with the potential for top achievement. It's not "practice the piano or you're grounded" -- it's "you'd better practice or we'll sell the piano." The child has an intrinsic passion and motivation toward the topic. Polgar sisters or not, I don't think you can force this.

You also can't force the opportunity -- but that's a topic for a different post.

1 comment:

Siiri said...

very intresting article again. Talent, passion, practice and opportunities have to be in the right place. It is hard for parents to actually spot right talent and nuture it from the beginning. Even when parents notice that they have talented kid, for a regular middle class family its hard to find helpful recources and support.
Here i am- i have a 6 year old gifted girl. From early on we could see that she is ahead of her peers in everything. She could read at 3 and write at 4 with no spelling mistakes, so we thought she could became a writer maybe one day. She started piano classes at age 4, after 2 years we were told that she is very talented in music (we are not so we didn't know that) and music school called her for audition which she sucessfully passed. Now she is learning piano and music for practicing hours during a week. I do have to tell her sometimes to practice, but she like to play.
So reading your reviews now i see how important is to keep up practice, but same time i'm thinking that parents themselves need to be talented as well. In order to spot talent and then encourage to work hard in creative ways and not threatening ways.
And on top of this there needs to be motivation and goals to look forward to.