Does Talent Matter?

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The critic Terry Teachout is the latest conservative pundit to defend the idea of genius against what they consider egalitarian snake oil, despite its pedigree in influential academic psychology:

The theory is known in England as "the 10-year rule" and in the U.S., where it has been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of "Outliers," as "the 10,000-hour rule." The premise is the same: To become successful at anything, you must spend 10 years working at it for 20 hours each week. Do so, however, and success is all but inevitable. You don't have to be a genius--in fact, there's no such thing.

K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist who is widely credited with having formulated the 10,000-hour rule, says in "The Making of an Expert," a 2007 article summarizing his research, that "experts are always made, not born." He discounts the role played by innate talent, citing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as an example: "Nobody questions that Mozart's achievements were extraordinary. . . . What's often forgotten, however, is that his development was equally exceptional for his time. His musical tutelage started before he was four years old, and his father, also a skilled composer, was a famous music teacher and had written one of the first books on violin instruction. Like other world-class performers, Mozart was not born an expert--he became one."

I haven't read the book Mr. Teachout is reviewing, so can't comment on it. But while I also found problems in Gladwell's Outliers, I don't think Gladwell was really suggesting that everybody can spend 10,000 hours or ten years (whichever comes first) and be another Mozart, only that even the most prodigiously talented need years of training and practice. Mozart's musical education may have begun in early childhood, but no amount of practice explains his ability to transcribe note for note one of his time's most celebrated compositions,  Allegri's Miserere, at the age of fourteen, from his memory of a single concert in the Sistine Chapel.

The best commentary on genius may be the three-word motto of Bobby Fischer: "Practice! Study! Talent!" That is, all competitive chess players base their skills on playing through thousands of classic games and developing both specific moves and intuition. (This is now much easier thanks to free and relatively inexpensive electronic resources, as I've discussed here. Teachout's review neglects the importance of Fischer's grueling, systematic study of obscure games in chess club files and library stacks in pre-Web days.) These they refine by reading books and articles by the game's theorists. But among tournament finalists it may be innate differences that count, even though innate ability is the summit of the pyramid and not the base, as many supposed before Ericsson's work.

I'm surprised that Mr. Teachout didn't quote the most devastating putdown of a claim to genius, the essayist Charles Lamb's retort to the poet William Wordsworth's supposed boast that he could write like Shakespeare if he had a mind to: Wordsworth was right, "nothing is wanting but the mind."

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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