Is Talent Born or Made?

Is Talent Born or Made?

At the New Yorker last week, Maria Konnikova considered the question in light of the latest research into the origins of exceptional human performance and found that the answer may not be that simple:

In a 2014 meta-analysis that looked specifically at the relationship between deliberate practice and performance in music, games like chess, sports, education, and other professions, [psychologist Zach] Hambrick and his team found a relationship that was even more complex than they had expected. For some things, like games, practice explained about a quarter of variance in expertise. For music and sports, the explanatory power accounted for about a fifth. But for education and professions like computer science, military-aircraft piloting, and sales, the effect ranged from small to tiny. For all of these professions, you obviously need to practice, but natural abilities matter more.

What’s more, the explanatory power of practice fell even further when Hambrick took exact level of expertise into account. In sports—one of the areas in which deliberate practice seems to make the most difference—it turned out that the more advanced the athlete, the less of a role practice plays. Training an average athlete for a set number of hours yields far more results than training an élite athlete, which, in turn, yields greater results than training a super-élite athlete. Put differently, someone like me is going to improve a great deal with even a few hundred hours of training. But within an Olympic team tiny differences in performance are unlikely to be the result of training: these athletes train together, with the same coach, day in and day out. Those milliseconds come from somewhere else.

She also spoke with David Lubinski, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University who has been studying top math students:

“Individual differences in the top one per cent matter,” Lubinski told me. “People think of the top one per cent, whether in I.Q. or reasoning or what have you, as categorical. But that top contains one-third of the ability range you see in other samples. There is a huge amount of psychological diversity among the gifted.” Some accomplish a lot, but some, even with all their promise, end up indistinguishable from their initially less gifted counterparts. Genes give everyone a possible peak, but whether you reach that peak depends on a constellation of other factors. Part of the difference in accomplishment, it turns out, really is due to practice[.]

Read Konnikova’s whole fascinating piece here.