Sunday, April 24, 2011

On the worthlessness of talent

Barrick Stees blogged about the Geoff Colvin book, Talent is Overrated. It's essentially a business book, reviewing a number of studies about the  I think I've heard about some of those studies before, eg 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything, but I was nevertheless interested enough to pick up a copy and read it. It's having a fairly substantial effect on how I think about things, and I'm still processing the message. The central story, which I don't think I'd really heard or believed, is that talent doesn't exist. There's a single key factor that separates the great from the merely excellent, as well as the mediocre from the absymal, and the adequate from the good. It can be summed up in a single word, and you know it already. Everyone knows it, in fact, it's the punchline to a well-worn joke ("How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"), and yet, despite that, hardly anyone is able to do it. (Otherwise, we'd all be great, wouldn't we?)

The key is simply practice. Concentrated, dedicated, difficult, mentally taxing practice. Hour after hour, day after day, whether people say you're good or not, whether you met last week's objective or not. Talent, in the sense of an inborn aptitude, a gift, doesn't appear to factor, as far as anyone can tell. All differences can be explained by the total amount of high quality practice. Colvin spends some time describing the knife edge of self-perspective that performers must walk: seeing far enough ahead to be able to work effectively on what needs doing next, but not so far that attaining the ultimate goal seems impossible. An accurate view of what's required to achieve excellence, and the cost in time, money, pain, and relationships, is probably inimical to getting there.

I'm having a hard time letting go of talent, though. I've always thought (and been told!) that I had some kind of talent. I took easily to things, was good at math, sight read my way through lessons soon after starting... And I know, from comparing with classmates, and standardized exams, that there are other people who are worse at this stuff. I'd try to keep my classes interesting by avoiding doing any studying or paying attention in class and still see if I could ace the test, which worked in math all the way up to integral calculus. So isn't there talent there? Well yeah. It's a new task effect: some people are able to get through the very earliest stages of a new thing more quickly than others. And academic metrics like math contests, standardized aptitude tests and so on essentially test *only* this phase. So yes, I pick up things easily, always have. Indeed, my positive self-image has been mostly based on this attribute for my entire life. Unfortunately, as Colvin expands on in detail, and I've learned to my detriment only over many years, this effect does not extend. In particular, it does not correlate with rate of improvement, ultimate achievement, nor can it be used to predict how good you'll be good if you work at it. In a sense, that's what the student wants to know, "Am I any good?" And by that they mean, Will I ever be any good? Am I wasting my time? Is the investment worth it, or should I do something else with my life? And unfortunately, the ease of picking something up is useless in answering these questions. (In fact, initial ease can be counterproductive, if you then don't learn the skills required to overcome all the inevitable difficulties that you will encounter. I thought, when I was a kid, that I should do something that I found easy, that that was where my special talent lay. This is wrong: difficulty is inevitable, in any area. Learning how to work should be the first step in anything.)

A better attitude is that I'll be better if I practice than if I don't. That the frustrations that I encounter, and the physical limitations that I have, aren't in fact signs of being unsuitable (or worthless!), they are normal things that everyone deals with. And to accept where I'm at, while looking just a few feet in front of my shoelaces, trying to take a few steps forward. And to keep practicing.

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