Creating talent May 11 2006
The Stev(ph)ens Dubner and Levitt report on some recent research suggesting that people who are good at things got good at them primarily through practice and not because of innate talent.
Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: 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.
The talent myth described here seems to be distinct from that which Malcolm Gladwell talks about in relation to talented people and companies, but I'm sure parallels could be drawn. But back to the original article...I was particularly taken with the concept of "deliberate practice":
Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task -- playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.
"Deliberate practice" reminds me of a video game a bunch of my friends are currently hooked on called Brain Age. Available for the handheld Nintendo DS, Brain Age is based on a Japanese brain training "game" developed by Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. The game measures the "age" of your brain based on your performance of simple tasks like memorizing a list of words or addition of small numbers. As you practice (deliberately), you get faster and more skilled at solving these mini-games and your brain age approaches that of a smarty-pants, twitchy-fingered teenager.
Speaking of talented teenagers, this week's New Yorker contains an article (not online) on Ivan Lendl's golfing daughters. In it, Lendl agrees that talent is created, not born:
"Can you create athletes, or do they just happen?" [Lendl] asked me not long ago. "I think you can create them, and I think that Tiger Woods's father proved that. People will sometimes ask me, 'How much talent did you have in tennis?' I say, 'Well, how do you measure talent?' Yeah, sure, McEnroe had more feel for the ball. But I knew how to work, and I worked harder than he did. Is that a talent in itself? I think it is."
Translation: there's more than one way to be good at something. There's something very encouraging and American about it, this idea that through hard work, you can become proficient and talented at pretty much anything.