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Creating talent

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 โ€” whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming โ€” 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 โ€” 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.

Reader comments

Andrew KaufmannMay 11, 2006 at 3:32PM

I think people can get good at things through practice at work. But to become an elite-level professional at something, there needs to be a combination of work and talent (and in professional sports, a specific body helps).

I think you can create an athlete, but only if the person you're turning into that athlete has the innate level of skill required. We hear about the successes; we never hear about the countless failures. For every Tiger Woods that made it, there are golfers whose parents pushed just as hard and worked just as hard, if not harder, who simply couldn't get it done.

Those kids might have been high school success stories, maybe even colleagiate success stories, but very few are also professional success stories.

I think usually, though, an athlete becomes elite through a combination of work and body. Take Dirk Nowitzki for example. At a young age, he was identified as a basketball talent, and had a lot of private coaching and prepration. He works hard to this day, and is one of the top players in the NBA. He's also 7'0. If he were 6'0, would any of us have heard of him? I'd argue no. 6'0 jump shooters are a dime a dozen.

The same holds true outside of athletics, but it's less obvious. I think you can become a great designer through study and work, but an elite designer is born with some sort of "eye." A great writer can read and work at his craft, an elite writer will work just as hard but be born with a sharper knack for words.

It's American, indeed -- and I believe you can get good at anything by working at it. But not world-class good. Sometimes you have to just get lucky at the genetic level.

JemaleddinMay 11, 2006 at 3:42PM

I can't say that I disagree with the research, but I think that your conclusion is a bit broad: not everyone can become proficient at everything. What really troubles me about it is that it's too general. I can imagine some red-state conservative screaming such things from the rooftops to explain why we don't need affirmative action or other such nonsense.

jkottkeMay 11, 2006 at 3:57PM

I think that your conclusion is a bit broad

Agreed. Talent is just one facet to success in a given endeavor. Just because you have the talent to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a best-selling science fiction writer, or a tool machinist doesn't mean it's a done deal.

Scott BerkunMay 11, 2006 at 4:14PM

I think there's a psychological benefit to believing in talent: it makes it easier to accept sucking at things. Every great athlete gets 5 times more credit for their "talent" than their work ethic, in part because we'd rather not admit that a large part of why we, ourselves, suck at things is completely under our control, and we project that out onto how we view others. Focusing on Michael Jordan's talent, but ignoring his work ethic, was one of the great travesties of sports coverage over the course of his career.

BobMay 11, 2006 at 4:18PM

Reminds me of Paul Graham on geniuses:

"If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that's one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy."

eafarrisMay 11, 2006 at 4:45PM

One of the few things that has stuck with me from high school was something a guest conductor told our band:

Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

I believe that's close to the concept of "deliberate practice" that you write about above; it's not enough to go through the motions -- there must be some progress, some goal. It's not enough to do it; you must do it right.

NeilMay 11, 2006 at 4:52PM

eafarris beat me to it. But since there's no such thing a perfect practice (otherwise how do you ever improve?) I prefer the construction "Practice doesn't make perfect: Practice makes permanent." You can learn bad habits as well as good ones.

This sounds to me like a reframing of the old nature/nurture debate, and as such, it doesn't strike me as a very controversial or groundbreaking assertion.

timoniMay 11, 2006 at 5:16PM

It may not be groundbreaking, but I think it's nice to hear, especially with 900+ pages of respectable academia behind it. As Kottke said, the sentiment is encouraging and American, and it also tickles that little voice in the back of your head that always whispers you could do things just as well if only you'd bother to practice eight hours a day.

BenMay 11, 2006 at 5:35PM

This would not be the first time (see these groups of authors have sparred with each other. I wonder if Gladwell and those two will ever see eye to eye?

r. vacaMay 11, 2006 at 5:47PM

I agree with the first poster. Practice matters but only to a degree.

I don't believe the reason Kenyans win marathons is simply because they are better at practicing.

We are all born with different amounts of potential. Practice involves squeezing every bit of potential out of us.

Personally, I think what Tiger Woods showed is that there are sports, Golf being one, that are underdeveloped. Unlike Running or Baseball or Soccer, there aren't legions of young kids undergoing intense practice in Golf.

So, the distinction is twofold here: Yes, the USA sucks at soccer because of unfulfilled potential (not enough Americans want it bad enough) but once everyone or most are close to their potential, then genetics wins: the Kenyans.

selfish crabMay 11, 2006 at 6:08PM

In the book Complications by Atul Gawande, there's a chapter about med students and what makes a good doctor. And he mentions the idea of "tolerance of practice" as a talent itself, and is required to become a world class performer of anything.

In other words, you need both agile fingers and the ability to put up with 7 hours of practice a day to make it to Carnegie Hall (to use an incredibly simplistic example.)

Maybe this is the "heart" aspect of sports? Is internal drive considered a talent?

markMay 11, 2006 at 6:16PM

An old guitar teacher once said that It's 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Most people have the talent to be a musician, the 1%, but it's the 99% that counts. You have to have the will to practice.

I imagine that the 1% is more of a sliding scale. Some people are more predisposed towards certain talents than others. If they nurture that talent by putting in the perspiration, they will get better. Maybe mozart had 10% inspiration, and I imagine that made the other 90% that much easier for him. I, on the other hand, have maybe .5%, so mozart will always be better than I, bastard!

As Neil mentions, It seems like a nurture vs. nature thing to me. In this case if you have a lot of nature, and you nurture it with lots of practice, you will be very good.

To expand on what crab eludes to, maybe it's the nature that helps some practice more as well. Are some people predisposed to practice hard, so their nature encourages more nurture?

agmMay 11, 2006 at 6:17PM

I'm a dancer. In fact, if you believe a lot of people (I don't, since I've reached the point where I measure myself against other dancers instead of the general population), I'm a heck of a social dancer (swing, blues, salsa, etc). Which means exactly squat. I've worked hard, taken classes, danced way more than my advisor would approve of if she knew to avoid going postal. All it takes is a dance with some of the better people in the scene, who aren't even nearly good enough to compete, for me to know that I don't have the same innate talent as a lot of them. The difference is partly that they started dancing years and years earlier, partly that I have different demands on my life (as a grad student I can hardly spend 20-30 hours a week dancing, taking lessons, or practicing), and partly that I simply am not capable, on the level of forming synapses, of picking things up as quickly as many of them. Part of it is attitude and priorities: where am I putting that 20-30 hours a week? The mere fact that I'm posting...

"Talent" exists and makes a difference. Talent is the better eye-muscle coordination that allows two people, neither of whom were born playing a violin, to practice the same, study under the same master, indeed to solo on the very same instrument, and one can be determined to be better than the other and thus get the gig. Talent is what we call it when one girl is mercilessly savaged by her ballet instructor for having boobs and curves when her fellow student, who fits the visual ideal as well as the performance ideal, receives nothing but praise. The word covers all sorts of things ranging from biological and neuromuscular differences (is your hand big enough to grasp a basketball? I'm told there's a life-size sculpture in Chicago of MJ's hand on a ball; compare...), to training differences (Lance Armstrong supposedly has some amazing training regimen that no one else does), to better fitting into an image society has built (how is it Anna Kournikova is still relatively famous after everyone realized that she wasn't going to be winning at Wimbledon?). From the Stephens' article:

"This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn't spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was."

Anecdotal as it is, I've seen too varied a result from people putting in the same hours learning to do the same things to believe that it's as simple as "Anyone can be a star if only they focus and work hard enough and well enough at it." I'll believe it when we start pumping out Feynmans with regularity; check with the offshores bookies for the odds of that happening any time soon.

jkottkeMay 11, 2006 at 6:32PM

I'm personally skeptical that the Kenyan dominance of distance running is rooted entirely in genetics, but I can't point to specific data that supports that view. A quick Google reveals this and this. Without study, it's difficult to know which data and interpretations to believe when dealing with such a politically and culturally charged issue; when each side uses perfectly valid data to support their views, who to believe?

IQpierceMay 11, 2006 at 6:36PM

Talent isn't created...

Talent is purchased.

If you don't have the talent you need, you buy it.

This works on a corporate level; I offer no guarantees that it works on a personal level though.

Sam RyanMay 11, 2006 at 6:40PM

Andy Kaufman lives.
(1st commenter, I had to)

BuzzMay 11, 2006 at 9:00PM

"There's something very encouraging and American about it..."

Encouraging, yes, but American? I'm not playing incredulous here -- I know roughly what you mean -- but isn't that just a little bit of redwhiteblue boilerplate? And it followed the example of a Czechoslovak athlete who became the dominant tennis player of his time, more often than not defeating an arguably more talented but flawed (less dedicated? distractable?) American player. Again, the sentiment is mostly harmless -- bootstraps and the protestant work ethic and all that -- but what does it add to say that? Why is the differentiation necessary?

BTW, I despised Lendl when he played. That stoic manner and machine-like consistency (and, while we're at it, sunken eyes) always drove me crazy. I wanted flair and touch and emotion, like the kind possessed by my favorite player: McEnroe.

brianMay 11, 2006 at 11:12PM

I agreed with most of the article, too...hard work plays a large role, but there is a sense of genetic disposition that lends some people to be better at some things than others. A great example is gym class dodge ball. Or, perhaps a better picture may be that some people are more bent to being addicts than others, and some just feel more comforatble with a ball than others. No?

Matt HaugheyMay 11, 2006 at 11:15PM

I think Gladwell would fully agree that talent is overrated and really it's tons of practice.

The iTunes store has a great piece by Gladwell: it's his 2005 New Yorker talk about precocious kids is in there and he goes to great lengths to tell the story of how he never became a champion runner (he held Canadian records as a teen) and how Mozart (or Beethoven, I forget) wasn't all that great and just had a psycho dad that made him practice 4 hours a day when he was 3, letting him sound amazing at age 7 when most kids just start to pick it up. Here's the iTunes store URL:

Erik KastnerMay 11, 2006 at 11:22PM

mark says:
An old guitar teacher once said that It's 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration

mark - you took guitar lessons from Thomas Edison, ROCK ON! :) (sorry, couldn't resist)

As for kenyan dominance, see here:
Like the super strong russian boy, this could be a genetic mutation that just makes a better machine.
However, I truly do believe that if you fall within a range of natural ability (a very BROAD range at that), then you, with the right type and amount of practice and dedication, can compete on elite levels.

I started taking Taekwondo when I was 10, by 12 I could do a split in any direction and was competing with adults. Am I naturally gifted? probably not, I loved it so much, it was my life. I was at the school for up to 5 hours a night, teaching, taking class, practicing, etc. Same with skating, same with origami, etc etc. I am predisposed to getting totally engrossed in a subject (usually at the detriment to other subjects), that I give the appearance of being a "natural".

I think this is worth an experiment - take an average joe (or jane) and give them the right kind of coaching and flexibility to not work, and see if they can compete at national type levels. In ANYTHING.

Who's game? I volunteer ;)

danboarderMay 12, 2006 at 3:01AM

Erik says:
I think this is worth an experiment - take an average joe (or jane)...

Erik - Not another reality show, please! ;)

Craig MunroMay 12, 2006 at 4:50AM

In many ways I think this way of thinking echos the sentiments of David Blaines recent antics - he's continually trying to prove that you can do things which you may assume is above their level of skill.

PatrikMay 12, 2006 at 8:35AM

When it comes to sport, your physical make up is probably just as important.
With a lot of pain and practice, yes, I probably would be able to complete a marathon but I would probably perform slower then the avarage person that went through the same amount of practice.
On the other hand, when it comes to very short distances, I'm very much capable of out-running the majority of people without having done any practice at all or breaking a sweat. My body is simply capable of producing a huge amount of energy in a very short period of time but it is not efficient at all when it comes to duration activities.
If I ever did want to become an athlete, becoming a sprinter would have cost me the least amount of effort to achieve the top simply because it comes naturaly. Long distance running is hard work for me.

Currently, I'm a designer, but I guess I've always been a designer all my life. If I had to split up my designing skills, it would equate to the following:
Practice. Part of my skill set was tought to me and with a lot of practice, I've been able to refine it.
Experience. Over time, you learn that some things work and some things don't.
Then there is the raw talent. I have no idea where I got this from. Maybe it's because I saw the world differently then most people as a child and unknowingly practiced my skill set this way. Fact is, this part is as natural to me as breathing. I don't have to think about it. If I look at people who descided to become designers later in life, they always seem to be strugling with things I find very fundamental.

I've also noticed that the best teachers I had where not the ones who had this so called natural talent, but those who had to learn it the hard way by tryial an error. While they were not the best artists, they were at least able to explain their actions.
Those teachers with natural talent were able to create some magnificent art with just a few brush strokes but would have no clue as to how they did it or why it worked. To them, it just felt right.

So as I see it, the less effort it costs you to achieve a particular goal, the more talent you have.

ErikMay 12, 2006 at 10:35AM

Patrik, there has been some research showing that you can convert Fast-twitch muscle fibers (sprint) into slow twitch (marathon). Even without drugs :)

Also, do you think you came out of the womb with an innate sense of "seeing the world differently"? - I think it can be argued that people want to pratice what they're naturally good at, but since we are born into this world without much in the way of pre-programming, It's possible that "what we're good at" are things that we were exposed to early (and in a positive manner, etc).

Part of this discussion is the old "Nature vs. Nurture"... on second thought, the whole argument is ;)

ErikMay 12, 2006 at 10:36AM

danboarder - not a tv show - a website ;)

DeonMay 12, 2006 at 12:46PM

You can't teach talent. Tiger Woods was hitting a golf ball far and straight at five years old. Later training only enhanced his talent. Michelle Wie shot a three under at eleven years old. Tom Kite outworked Ben Crenshaw when they were in college in Austin but BC would always win because he had more talent...

steveMay 12, 2006 at 4:27PM

I heartily agree with kgm. Practice makes you better at a particular task, but it cannot remove your ability ceiling at that particular task. There are certainly a variety of factors that come into play when assessing talent vs. work ethic, but at the end of the day, Anna Kournikova cannot ever be an effective NFL offensive lineman, regardless of how hard she works at it.

That may seem to be an absurd example, but ultimately, gender is a genetic trait and is difficult / expensive to modify. She doesn't have the 'talent' to accomplish this specific task at a high level.

Many of the examples in this thread revolve around physical ability, since that is much more easily quantifiable than cognitive ability. There currently isn't enough knowledge in the public domain to gauge how adaptable our cognitive processes are, which is what gives life to the debate on learned versus inborn intelligence.

AaronMay 12, 2006 at 4:46PM

There's probably a distinction between talent and ability.

One may have talent at singing, but if they have laryngitis, their ability to do it is gone, at least temporarily.

Talent may be created, but ability is born.

KarenoMay 12, 2006 at 9:18PM

I think drive is a large factor. As my friend said, it's not a coincidence that the greatest basketball player worked harder than everyone else. Could any kid do what Jordan did? Sure, he'd just need to have the patience to do so, and a strong enough desire to get better.

What I think is unique is creativity. For example, I'm not sure that learning all the math and physics theorems, or spending years learning how to paint, would make you a great mathematician or a great artist. Technical ability can only go so far.

Ben SaundersMay 15, 2006 at 2:32PM

'Talent' means very little.

Lance Armstrong was nowhere near the perfect build for a cyclist (an archetypal mesomorph, he had to diet obsessively to keep his muscle mass low enough to be competitive in the mountains).

Spudd Webb (5'7") once won the NBA slam-dunk contest.

And as for Kenyans 'dominating' marathon running, they can't get close to the world record set by the (white) British athlete Paula Radcliffe.

I can't imagine a bigger insult to a world-class athlete than to have their records dismissed as a result of 'genetics'.

Human beings are infinitely adaptable, it's just that so few of us do any more than merely scratching the surface of the enormous potential we're all born with.

LesMay 18, 2006 at 12:00PM

In the reality TV consideration, has anyone seen the British TV show Faking It? I believe it went stateside at some point.

The basics premise meant that each episode featured round a person 'chosen' to try out something completely alien to them and then be judged against 'professionals' in that field by a panel that doesn't know the 'fake' is there.

I wonder (innocently forgetting about how staged 'reality' tv is these days), if the original ideas came from the nature vs nurture argument.

I agree with Ben, I've had the pleasure of seeing people who have the passion and drive to excel beyond everyones expectations, and it was their work ethic that set them apart from the other contenders.

DKRMay 20, 2006 at 12:06AM

This concept is relative.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.