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"What are the odds," asks the incurably curious Tyler Cowen, "that the best chess player in the world has never played chess?" Is there a would-be Yo-Yo Ma out there who will never lay hands on a cello and thus never realize his or her potential? This isn't a purely frivolous question. "The more general issues," economist Cowen explains, "are how well the modern world allocates talent and how much exposure you need to something you eventually will be very good at." Here's his stab at the question:

My view is that people who are born into a reasonably good educational infrastructure get exposed repeatedly--albeit briefly--to lots of the activities which might intrigue them.  If the activity is going to click with them, it has the chance.  To borrow the initial example, most high schools and junior high schools have chess clubs and not just in the wealthiest countries.  Virtually everyone is put in touch with math, music, kite-flying, poetry, and so on at relatively young ages.

Cowen also lists exceptions: "Billions of people," he allows, "are not exposed to quality economics, math, music, etc., but those people also don't have the nutrition, the education, the infrastructure, or whatever, to excel at world class levels." Some people also "get stuck in local genres," not making it to their particular best-suited niche. He thinks those are less significant problems than that of, for example, "mistreated savants" or children "placed on medication at early ages," thus preventing them "from responding to potential interests." Cowen decides that "the odds that 'the best (modal) chess player in the world' has never played chess is well under fifty percent but probably above ten percent."

So where does that leave us? How many would-be world-class athletes, scientists or artists are there in the world, currently employed as mediocre carpenters or sales representatives? If it is a large number, should we be worried?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.