What Is Talent?

By David Shenk

Thanks to Edward Tenner for alerting us to a new WSJ piece by Terry Teachout that attacks Anders Ericsson's so-called "10,000-hour rule." Teachout summarizes the Ericsson rule in the following way:


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. 

A superb straw man. So simple to understand, so easy to knock down. But think about it for a moment: Would anyone with half a brain actually argue that a simple *amount* of practice time could *guarantee* success? Of course not, and that's not even remotely what Anders Ericsson does. 

The real Anders Ericsson is one of the leaders of a fascinating new academic field called "expertise studies" which carefully deconstructs the longstanding notion of innate talent by looking for hidden components that might actually help to explain success.

This is what science does. It seeks to understand how things actually work rather than settle for mysterious formulations like "gifted," "natural-born," and "genius."  

Teachout also writes that "The problem with the 10,000-hour rule is that many of its most ardent proponents are political ideologues who see the existence of genius as an affront to their vision of human equality, and will do anything to explain it away."

I honestly do not know which proponents Teachout is referring to. The writers that I'm most familiar with on the subject of understanding talent and success -- Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Coyle, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Geoff Colvin, Carol Dweck -- are all actually trying to understand what goes into talent and success. 

He might be referring to the title of my book, The Genius in All of Us, which some non-readers have misinterpreted as a blank-slate argument of pure egalitarianism. But, again, that's a straw man. No one here is arguing that we're all equal or equally capable of the exact same achievements. We all have differences, and are therefore assured of becoming different people.

When it comes to the question of individual potential, though, it's important to avoid what neuroscientist and musicologist Daniel J. Levitin calls "the circular logic of talent." "When we say that someone is talented," he says, "we think we mean that they have some innate predisposition to excel, but in the end, we only apply the term retrospectively, after they have made significant achievements."

So what is "talent"? Is it some magic or genetic stuff that gives some of us a springboard to success? The closer we look at the building blocks of success, the more we understand that talent is not a thing; rather, it is the process itself. 

Part of this new understanding requires a new insight into genetics that helps us get past the myth of genetic-giftedness. Genes influence our traits, but in a dynamic way. They do not directly determine our traits. In fact, it turns out that while it is correct to say that "genes influence us," it's just as correct to say that "we influence our genes."

Everything about our lives is a process, and we are indebted to Anders Ericsson and others for helping us to obtain a richer understanding of that process. 

It's interesting that Teachout pounds so hard on (nameless) obstinate ideologues who refuse to open their minds to evidence. Blind ideology is exactly what I'm seeing in his confident (and factless) assertion that Wolfgang Mozart's success as a composer (as opposed to his sister Nannerl's lack-of-success) is simply due to this: "He had something to say and she didn't. Or, to put it even more bluntly, he was a genius and she wasn't." Twenty minutes of reading about their early lives and the cultural context provides a much richer understanding than that. Why rush to enshrine a myth when we have so many rich facts and observations to help us come closer to a true understanding?

Teachout also writes that any suggestion of genius as a process "fails to account for the impenetrable mystery that enshrouds such birds of paradise as Bobby Fischer, who started playing chess at the age of 6. Nine years later, he became the U.S. chess champion." Again, why leap to "impenetrable mystery" when we can actually understand these things better? There are some terrific books out there now that help us closely examine talent and success. Why is Teachout trying to convince us not to examine the evidence and not to think about these things more deeply?

In his 1878 book Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (Human, All-Too-Human), Friedrich Nietzsche described greatness as being steeped in a process, and of great artists being tireless participants in that process:

"Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration . . . [shining] down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre, and bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects . . . All great artists and thinkers [are] great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering."

As a vivid illustration, Nietzsche cited Beethoven's sketchbooks, which reveal the composer's slow, painstaking process of testing and tinkering with melody fragments like a chemist constantly pouring different concoctions into an assortment of beakers. Beethoven would sometimes run through as many as sixty or seventy different drafts of a phrase before settling on the final one. "I make many changes, and reject and try again, until I am satisfied," the composer once remarked to a friend. "Only then do I begin the working-out in breadth, length, height and depth in my head."

Alas, neither Nietzsche's nuanced articulation nor Beethoven's candid admission caught on with the general public. Instead, the simpler and more alluring idea of "giftedness" and "genius" prevailed and has since been carelessly and breathlessly reinforced by ideologues. But we can do better. We have the tools and the evidence now to go beyond "genius," beyond "gifted," beyond "innate," and beyond "impenetrable." 

Who knows, maybe someday we can even catch up to Nietzsche.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/11/what-is-talent/66684/