are always coming up with the kind of glib yet ingenious formulations that make me first read the piece with enjoyment & then dig in my heels & feel like a scrupulous and nit-picking academic, but they've got a thought-provoking article in this week's NYT magazine on the idea that "the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated":
Or, put another way, expert performers - whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming - are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of cliches that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular cliches just happen to be true.
[Anders] Ericsson's research [on talents and learning] suggests a third cliche as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love - because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't 'good' at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.
This seems to me pretty much right (in the full article they do make allowances for what I always in my head though I am a non-believer call "god-given talent," cf. Michael Jordan).
I was particularly thinking about it this afternoon (this is a ludicrous but apt example) because I had a surprisingly stimulating afternoon at the gym on the elliptical trainer; the first and more familiar part of the stimulus was the Prince Hits/B-sides stuff I've been listening to a lot recently, but the second (I am the product of long-term television self-deprivation, thus my jaw-dropped enthrallment) was the truly amazing PBA Skills Challenge.
It was extraordinary!
Seriously, it's a little bit goofy of course, watching these guys (for example) use a pin instead of a bowling ball to do their strike, or having to bowl up over a ramp, or having to bounce the ball off two chairs halfway down the lane. But the thing that's amazing about it (aside from the fact that it's so much more playful than real professional bowling) is that you just can see when one of these guys gets it totally right on some completely absurd and farfetched bowling stunt that (a) he has an amazing talent and (b) he has spent a GAZILLION hours under the artificial light of the bowling lanes doing the same thing again and again. You have to love it to be that obsessive, and it's the obsessiveness that makes it all work. I always take pleasure in seeing something done well; you know how it is a great pleasure when you get your hair cut by someone who really cares about and understands how to cut hair well? (It can be somewhere very modest, this is not a thing about fanciness.) This is the pleasure in seeing a really beautifully decorated cake, or even on a more minor note watching someone tie up a parcel with string in a particularly accomplished & elegant way. Most delightful.
(In a more literary afterthought, I will add that as I watched the stunt bowling I couldn't stop thinking about Charlie Williams' protagonist Royston Blake, narrator of the Mangel trilogy--here are my thoughts on the first volume, here's a good one on the sequel Fags and Lager--just now available in the US--and here is my "all good things come to an end" post on volume three, King of the Road. This bowling thing is very Blake, I couldn't get the idea out of my head of him having a very serious opinion about how the regular professional bowlers were low-class, this "skills" bowling thing would be the sort of thing that Blakey would turn his hand to & make his name on television, but only in a high-class way and donating all the proceeds to a charity of some doormanish sort.)