Talent is a Process

With the semester over, I was able to dive into a couple of books that I had been waiting to read.  On the surface, they seem very different in subject matter, but reading them in succession allowed for some interesting insights.

The first book that I read was David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us, whose thesis is that the usual conception of talent is incorrect.  Rather than being innate, talents are developed over years of sustained practice. (The canonical 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.)

The book, which is shorter than it looks due to the notes that fill about half of the volume, covers a variety of interesting topics to help debunk the notion that talents and other personal qualities are inborn.  The author describes a new understanding of genetics by throwing out the classic “nature vs. nurture” distinction, and arguing that the two are inextricably linked through the interaction of genes with their environment.  He goes too far with this in the final chapter, discussing the impact of epigenetic material (stuff other than DNA) on gene expression.  While there seems to be some credible and recent research on the effects of lifestyle on heredity, his assertion that “we may well be able to improve the conditions for our grandchildren by putting our young children through intellectual calisthenics now” seems to me to be a gross overstatement of the research.  Although much of the rest of the book is couched in this genetic argument, it isn’t dependent on his perhaps flawed understanding of the biology.

To determine the true sources of talent, Shenk discusses everything from the history of intelligence testing and “gifted” designations to the reasons for the athletic dominance of certain ethnic groups in their chosen sport.  (It is interesting to note that people used to wonder what genetic gifts allowed Jewish players to dominate basketball in the 30s and 40s, in much the same way that people discuss black players today.)  However, it seems that the most important factor for the development of talent is still the same: deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice requires more than just hard work, and it is not achieved by simply “putting in your 10,000 hours,” although both hard work and large amounts of time are certainly required.  Instead, it involves pushing beyond one’s current skill level to the point of failure, then picking up the pieces and trying again.  This type of practice is not necessarily enjoyable, but pushing beyond current limits is the only way to improve.  The practice activities have to be focused on particular aspects of the performance, with appropriate refinement and feedback for improvement.

It’s easy to imagine this deliberate practice as applied by a musician: seeking out more challenging pieces of music to play, focusing on the most technical measures, playing them repeatedly in solo practice, and later for a demanding instructor.  Or we can imagine the chess student, poring over volumes of opening and closing strategies, learning the tricks of the masters through solo study of their games, before testing those skills against ever tougher competition.

And of course, we can see this playing out with athletes, as it did in the other book I read to start my summer: Chris Ballard’s The Art of a Beautiful Game, which has chapters that discuss several of the basic components of basketball.  Though the book is wonderfully written, and a great read for any basketball fan, I couldn’t help but notice a strange battle playing out between the belief in natural athletic talent with the evidence of his descriptions of the players’ relentless practice habits.

This is most evident in the chapter on shooting, where Ballard repeats the old adage that “great shooters are born, not made.” He begins to contradict this almost immediately, by describing the exploits of a young Reggie Miller, who spent his days mastering shots from every spot on the concrete court in his backyard, begging his father to extend it, and then shooting from behind his mother’s rose bushes.  Or take Ray Allen, who “follows an unvarying routine to hone his stroke,” and keeping his physical fitness meticulously calibrated, to keep his form entirely replicable.  Both of these regimens sound suspiciously familiar after reading about deliberate practice.

Another example is given in Kobe Bryant, who is described as a “neurological freak” who has “a different hormonal and neurological makeup than the rest of us.”  But then we read how Kobe refined his game.  As a child growing up in Italy, he repeatedly watched NBA game tapes to the point that he had memorized all the plays, learning the right decisions in each situation.  If a teammate beat him with a move in practice, he would force that player to stay after, showing him the move repeatedly until he not only learned how to guard it, but was able to add it to his own game.  Knowing this level of dedication to the perfecting of his game, the secret to Kobe’s success is much less of a mystery.

Of course, what I have left unsaid is that maybe there is something different about such high achievers, that they simply “want it more than everyone else,” to use the old sports cliche.  Maybe that is something innate, or at least something that must be learned at an early age.  Kobe Bryant’s teammates certainly had every opportunity to copy his practice methods, but none of them did.  Maybe they didn’t have the competitive fire, and maybe they were okay with that.  And perhaps the myth of talent is what protects us from the question of why we haven’t achieved more.

I’ve been thinking about how to apply these principles of deliberate practice to my physics education, and while I certainly don’t have all the answers, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on the subject in a later post.

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2 Responses to “Talent is a Process”


  1. 1 analytiks October 8, 2010 at 12:13 PM

    Awesome post. I definitely agree – mindset, attitude, determination, all those unobservable/less cognitive attributes matter just as much as brain size, IQ, or other “innate” characteristics.

    The epigenetics research – I don’t know what to make of that at all. I was reading recently that twins who have identical genetic makeup at early ages, have drastically different epigenetic expressions later on in life. That’s crazy stuff … is there something systematic there – or is that just random?

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