In providing an overview for this new blog's approach, I've so far touched on genetics and intelligence; now it's onto studies of talent and expertise that provide the third key puzzle piece. Taken together, they suggest -- to me at least -- a whole new way to think about high achievement.
Many of you have already read about some of the key research -- the famous 10,000-hours-to-greatness observation of Anders Ericsson and others, described in several recent smart books, including Geoff Colvin's Talent Is Overrated, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code.*
These studies are important, not because they put a specific hour-number on what it takes to be a champion, but because of the big idea behind that number. The breathtaking insight that comes through in the work of Ericsson and colleagues is this: talent is not a thing, but a process -- a very slow, largely invisible process that, up till now, has been nearly impossible to document and therefore very easy to misread. As long as this slow accretion of skills went unseen and unarticulated, the mature skills themselves seemed almost magic. For many centuries, greatness appeared to be god-given; later, in the 20th century, it was understood as gene-given. All along, these ideas were reinforced by astounding child prodigy stories that seemed to be explainable only by unusual innate "gifts."**
Now, Ericsson and colleagues -- there are many, with hundreds of studies already published -- are making the invisible visible.*** They are showing how all abilities are based in process. They are exploding the myth of "giftedness."
Their work also dovetails with genetic-environment interaction, and with research showing how extraordinarily plastic the human brain is -- how we constantly change its structure with our moment-to-moment actions.
A new understanding thus emerges: the limits we think we see in ourselves and our kids are really more like obstacles, difficult but not impossible to overcome. What appear to be innate/genetic brick walls are actually just very steep hills to climb. According to this view, the real marvel of genetics is how their dynamic properties allow us to expand and expand and expand our abilities -- if we push hard enough and have the right resources. (These are big ifs.)
Which brings us back to the public fixation with innateness. Given what we've all been told about genes, it's perfectly understandable when we look at a clumsy 8 year-old boy and surmise: "He's got no athletic talent. He just doesn't have the genes for it." But the new science of talent suggests a very different conclusion:
• His clumsiness was developed, not inborn. He became clumsy over time in response to many gene-environment interactions.
• His development continues, and nothing is set in stone. While the odds are of course against him, no can say for certain whether this clumsy boy has professional sports in his future.
We simply don't know his ultimate potential, and neither will he until he marshals all of his resources to get there.
Genes will play a huge role, of course, and will ultimately limit him in some way. But we don't know precisely how.
Discovering our own potential is part of the marvel of being alive.
* I began writing (and blogging) about this stuff in 2007, long before any of these books were published. My book will come late behind these books, and will probably be dismissed by some as Johnny-come-lately. But I think mine has much to add, and hope it will be seen as a complement to them. The reality is, all of these books (including mine) were written concurrently; I, for one, did not read any of them before finishing mine.
** I'll tackle the issue of child prodigies in future posts, and in my book.
*** Here's a tiny sampling of the studies from Ericsson and colleagues:
Salthouse, T. A. EFFECTS OF AGE AND SKILL IN TYPING. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 1984.
Abernethy, B., et al. VISUAL-PERCEPTUAL AND COGNITIVE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN EXPERT, INTERMEDIATE, AND NOVICE SNOOKER PLAYERS. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 1994.
Krampe, R. Th., et al. MAINTAINING EXCELLENCE: DELIBERATE PRACTICE AND ELITE PERFORMANCE IN YOUNG AND OLDER PIANISTS. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1996.
Higbee, K. L. NOVICES, APPRENTICES, AND MNEMONISTS: ACQUIRING EXPERTISE WITH THE PHONETIC MNEMONIC. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 1997.
Nevett, M. E., et al. THE DEVELOPMENT OF SPORT-SPECIFIC PLANNING, REHEARSAL, AND UPDATING OF PLANS DURING DEFENSIVE YOUTH BASEBALL GAME PERFORMANCE. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 1997.
Gabrielsson, A. THE PERFORMANCE OF MUSIC. In D. Deutsch (Ed.), The psychology of music, 1999.
Helson, W. F., et al. A MULTIDIMENSIONAL APPROACH TO SKILLED PERCEPTION AND PERFORMANCE IN SPORT. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 1999.
Helgerud, J., et al. AEROBIC ENDURANCE TRAINING IMPROVES SOCCER PERFORMANCE. Medicine and science in Sports and Exercise, 2001.
Goldspink, G. GENE EXPRESSION IN MUSCLE IN RESPONSE TO EXERCISE. Journal of Muscle Research and Cell Motility, 2003.
McPherson, S., et al. TACTICS, THE NEGLECTED ATTRIBUTE OF EXPERTISE: PROBLEM REPRESENTATIONS AND PERFORMANCE SKILLS IN TENNIS, 2003.
Pantev, C. et al. MUSIC AND LEARNING-INDUCED CORTICAL PLASTICITY. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2003.
Duffy, L. J., et al. DART PERFORMANCE AS A FUNCTION OF FACETS OF PRACTICE AMONGST PROFESSIONAL AND AMATEUR MEN AND WOMEN PLAYERS. Int'l Journal of Sport Psychology, 2004.
Ericsson, K. A. DELIBERATE PRACTICE AND THE ACQUISITION AND MAINTENANCE OF EXPERT PERFORMANCE IN MEDICINE AND RELATED DOMAINS. Academic Medicine, 2004.
(Photo credit for the picture of the brain: http://www.flickr.com/photos/17657816@N05/1971827663)
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
Atheism is intellectually fashionable. In the past month, The New York Times has run severalstories about lack of faith in its series on religion. The New Yorker ran an article on the history of non-belief in reaction to twonew books on the subject that were released within a week of each other in February. The veteran writer, Adam Gopnik, concludes this:
What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.
This is a perfect summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false: Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war” between the caricatures of godless liberals and Bible-thumping conservatives in America: One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
At a large distribution center located north of Boston, a robot lifts a shelf holding merchandise and navigates it through the warehouse to the workstation of an employee who then picks the item needed for an order and places it in a shipping box. Incoming orders are processed by a computer that sends picking requests to sixty-nine robots. Then, the robots deliver storage units to roughly a hundred workers, saving the workers the task of walking through the warehouse to find the items. In other distribution centers, this is work that warehouse workers do.
The distribution center, run by Quiet Logistics—a company that fills orders for sellers of premium-branded apparel, is featured in the60 Minutes episode “Are Robots Hurting Job Growth?” In the segment, Steve Kroft poses the following question to Bruce Welty, the CEO of Quiet Logistics: "If you had to replace the robots with people, how many people would you have to hire?" Welty estimates that he would have to hire one and a half people for every robot, and that the robots are saving him a lot of money.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
On Monday afternoon the funeral for Freddie Gray took place in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died last week from spinal injuries suffered while in Baltimore Police custody. After the funeral, against the wishes of the Gray family, some peaceful demonstrations took place, but other protests became violent, devolving into chaotic clashes.