Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Freakanomics guys

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.)


  1. But the real question is why people gravitate to the ones they believe are natural born talents?

    The Mozarts over The Salieris (movie not historical)

    LeBron James' over Gilbert Arenas' (one straight from high school versus the one who learned the craft in college)

    Maybe prodigies are percieved to be divine?

  2. I love this post--and I love that you sidestep the question of kids and innate talent which is such a boring topic among the compulsive parenting set. One of the things that made me love my husband was spending a few months as a hostess at a restaurant where he cooked and getting to watch him cook. He was just so good at it. Things done well, whatever they are, are such a joy.

  3. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.

    I don't know... I trained as a classical pianist for god knows how many years, and when I was at the conservatory, there were a hundred other kids who had also spent 6 hours a day practicing for the last 15 years and also had a desire to be good -- and there were still, even at that level (at a professional school where you could be kicked out for not being incredible), people who just weren't as good.

    I think obsessive, deliberate work is one huge part of it, but still -- even among very determined, dedicated, highly skilled and trained accomplished people, talent is key. Not everybody will be amazing just because they practice or work at it the same amount as someone else. There is just more to it than practicing something for 20 years.

  4. Music and sports are two of the places where you see the most marked differences between the natural talents people start off with, for sure. And yet in both of these cases it is possible to waste a talent, or on the other hand to cultivate a smaller (though of course still substantial) talent and in the end achieve by a kind of grace something virtually indistinguishable from the prodigy-like talent. (There is a good conversation about this at the end of my favorite novel of all time, Rebecca West's "The Fountain Overflows.")

    We partly don't like talking about these things because of the deeply inegalitarian nature of inborn talent. But I must say that I think it's a bad deal when someone gets the 'talent' on its own but not the will to work, it really rather takes both for anything good to happen: so much so that the psychological drive to practice the skills surrounding the talent is almost itself part of that talent.

  5. I have again surfed over here from Becca, and have to thank you both for this post, which is terrific, and for recommending Magic or Madness, which I just finished. Though I have to say, now it looks like I've got to buy the hardcover of vol. II, since I'm not sure I can wait for the paperback. Oh well.

    And to link this post to writing, duh. Lots of talent out there--but it's the practice. I think more people believe, though, that writing is a teachable skill, one in which talent can be developed, because we all have to learn to write anyway; whereas sports and music are to some degree self-chosen, and then we (tend to) believe they are self- chosen out of innate talent.

    This seems to me intuitively true:
    the psychological drive to practice the skills surrounding the talent is almost itself part of that talent. Well said.