There Is No Such Thing As Talent

James emailed me an article he had stumbled upon. “Science seems to have proven your statement!” he said. He was referring to my colophon, which for the last 3 years has sported this statement:

There is no such thing as talent. Talent is greek for “divine gift”, and since I do not believe in anything divine, I do not believe in predisposed skills. Hard work, persistence and interest can get you anywhere, though.

The article, entitled “A Star Is Made“, details psychology professor Anders Ericsson’s efforts to prove the age-old statement: “Practice makes perfect”.

From the article:

the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers ? whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming ? are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.

The article elaborates:

This success, coupled with later research showing that memory itself is not genetically determined, led Ericsson to conclude that the act of memorizing is more of a cognitive exercise than an intuitive one. In other words, whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorize, those differences are swamped by how well each person “encodes” the information. And the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task ? playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

While I have always felt this was true, as James also says: “scientific backup is always good to have”.

33 thoughts on “There Is No Such Thing As Talent”

  1. Bojan says:

    Thanks for that statement Joen, I have found it inspirational ever since I first stumbled upon it here. I’ve been reading some philosophy forums discussions on that issue, but haven’t come accross an article like this. thnx

  2. Joen says:

    Bojan said:

    Thanks for that statement Joen, I have found it inspirational ever since I first stumbled upon it here. I?ve been reading some philosophy forums discussions on that issue, but haven?t come accross an article like this. thnx

    I’m glad you like it. Interestingly, most people react by being offended… I personally think of it the other way; i.e. saying that “your skill is just talent, a divine gift”, that that sentence is offensive.

  3. Anders Rask says:

    most people react by being offended…

    Without knowing the exact conversations that you’ve had about this, my guess is that it is not so much the statement that a skill is something that has been earned that is offensive, rather it is the opposite side of the medal that is offensive: The reason you suck is wholly your own fault!

  4. Anders Rask says:

    Eh … I don’t think anyone would misread my comment, but better safe than sorry: The “you” in the last sentence in my comment was a “fictional character”, and the statement was certainly not directed towards you Joen.

  5. Bojan says:

    Joen said:

    I?m glad you like it. Interestingly, most people react by being offended… I personally think of it the other way; i.e. saying that ?your skill is just talent, a divine gift?, that that sentence is offensive.

    I can understand that it bothers you. A lot of hard, dedicated work can be put into something, and to have someone say “ah, that’s just talent” isn’t right.

    I’ve come accross different opinions on this. When I said that talent is not really a divine gift, some people just dismissed it as nonsense. I think this is one of those things where it’s hard for people to go against a general belief. Perhaps they don’t even give it much thought. Plus it’s easier for someone to say “I don’t have the talent for that” and never waste any energy on it.

  6. Joen says:

    Anders Rask said:

    Without knowing the exact conversations that you?ve had about this, my guess is that it is not so much the statement that a skill is something that has been earned that is offensive, rather it is the opposite side of the medal that is offensive: The reason you suck is wholly your own fault!

    Eh … I don?t think anyone would misread my comment, but better safe than sorry: The ?you? in the last sentence in my comment was a ?fictional character?, and the statement was certainly not directed towards you Joen.

    Don’t worry, I got it upon first reading. Well, you’re probably right about some cases, i.e. that some people use “he/she is just successful because he/she is talented” as an excuse to not pursue a specific skill.

    On the other hand I think a whole lot of people take offense at my particular colophon statement, or at least the part that says “since I do not believe in anything divine”. I’m referring to religious people here, who have been so very kind as to email me telling me that they like this or that particular image I have drawn, yet at the same time stating that the skill to create that particular image was given to me by a deity. I always kindly write back thank-you’s and explanations that I have in fact spent the last 5 years making monthly images, and as such I really don’t think any particular skill as such comes from this deity, but rather from years of practice.

    I have always felt this would be the uplifting thing to say, because essentially this is saying “if you liked that particular image and would like to learn how to do it yourself, practice: you’ll learn it eventually”.

    Strip out the “me” and “my” from those paragraphs and you can probably apply it to most other skills.

    Bojan said:

    Plus it?s easier for someone to say ?I don?t have the talent for that? and never waste any energy on it.

    Exactly right.

  7. Joen said:

    Bojan said:

    Plus it?s easier for someone to say ?I don?t have the talent for that? and never waste any energy on it.

    Exactly right.

    I sit on this side of the fence too.

    The funny thing is, that no one really gets offended by Nike’s “Just do it” – eventhough it follows logically from the belief that if you do it, you can.

    Even funnier is that people would take the time to write you about that little blurb in your colophon, but that’s a whole ‘nother story…

  8. Joen says:

    James AkaXakA said:

    Even funnier is that people would take the time to write you about that little blurb in your colophon, but that?s a whole ?nother story…

    I’m convinced they all mean really well, and it’s always appreciated. That said, we’re talking the area of 10 people that fit into the exact description I gave here, so it’s not like I’m overwhelmed with emails like these.

  9. Levi says:

    Interesting read and I couldn’t agree more.

  10. George says:

    I think it’s simplistic to say that there’s no such thing as talent. I see talent as a capacity or aptitude to learn in a particular speciality. Hard work is required to get good at something, but hard work doesn’t guarantee that you will get good at something.

    I could play football 24/7 for my entire life and I’m confident I still wouldn’t be a good football player, for example. In fact, I did spend most of my time at school busting a gut at getting good at rowing. Though I ended up pretty good at it, for all the hours I put into that, there were always people who would do fewer and still be ahead of me.

    But on the flip side, I spent my time in school around people who would work for hours and hours at their mathematics and still be none the wiser, whereas I could spend a fraction of the time and get it perfectly.

    That kind of thing is what I consider talent to be. You can’t be good at something without putting in hard work, but different people will see different quantities of progress from their hard work. One’s talents lie where one can get the maximum returns for the investment they make.

  11. Joen says:

    George, to me that’s the common interpretation of “talent”, where the religious one that’s taken the most attention in this discussion is the rarest.

    I believe both interpretations are fairly wrong, for the simple reason that “practicing 24/7 for my entire life” is not part of the test here.

    And the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice.

    Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task ? playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

    That means “just playing football” is not enough. You have to set deliberate goals and get immediate feedback.

    In order to do this, I think, you need to be genuinely interested in what you do. If you just aren’t interested, you won’t focus on improving your technique, and you won’t improve as fast as those who genuinely love what they do.

  12. So instead of talent, love is all you need!

  13. While you may not believe in talent as “divine gift”, many consider talent to be innate ability. Some people do not study a day, get drunk every night, and still get straight A’s throughout their educational experience. Some people have a photographic memory. How could can someone learn this? While they can improve it, I think it’s not something you can pickup or learn. Some people can just pick up any instrument and start playing really well. My cousin is a pianist that spent years and years practicing to become a great performer, but he can pick up any instrument and play it. While he does know alot about music theory, some would consider this innate ability. Talent.

    Perhaps most talents can be learned and gained as you consider, but some people are born with it.

    I think a good example of this in the computer game world is Fallout. The character system is fairly accurate, while highly simplified, and could be used as an example. They break down the character in Skills, Perks and Traits.

  14. Joen says:

    Daniel Nicolas said:

    I think a good example of this in the computer game world is Fallout. The character system is fairly accurate, while highly simplified, and could be used as an example. They break down the character in Skills, Perks and Traits.

    It’s funny because until you mentioned the Fallout S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system, I was inclined to disagree with you, but now that you do mention that, I know exactly what you mean.

    Now I partly agree with you.

    Partly because while you may be born with particular skills (i.e. your genes will make you tall so you’ll be good at Basketball), I do believe you can spend your time perfecting those remaining skills. To use the Fallout metaphor, let’s say you’re born with a strength of 7 and a constitution of 3 and you want to improve your constitution… gain some levels and improve your constitution. Practice -> Result.

  15. Clericus says:

    The excerpt from Professor Ericsson (of what I assume is a case study) was an interesting point. In fact, I agree that volition plays an important part in developing any skill. However, the excerpt does not deny that talent does not exist as you so believe. It states that it is “highly overrated”. This is not a negation at all, but you use it to support what you claim does not exist. It is clear by a careful reading of the beginning statement that the excerpt does not support what you desire it to.

    Here is an alternative: better performance is cultivated by your volition.

    After reading the article written on study on soccer players and other various interests, Dr. Ericsson does not seem to be negating talent at all. In fact, his is placing more weight on the use of the will in cultivating those interests to a higher degree in comparison to others, which would be articulated as ‘excellence’. I think what people call talent is really just a term of aptitude not so much divine gift. At least this is how I have heard it used in conversation. Although I am a Christian and do believe in the divine, I am not at ease with divine gifts sanctioning laziness.

    I like Dr. Ericsson believe that many limit their potential on the basis of being interested in a certain subject where the volition becomes invested:

    “I think the most general claim here,” Ericsson says of his work, “is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.”

    This is a very strong point made. I cannot disagree on this at all. I would be fool to. But notices what article goes on to say:

    “This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn’t spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.”

    So, our ability to perform is indeed limited by potential. But what limits our potential since not all have the same potential in certain areas? It could be genetic, or probably some social, psychological, or existential factors that can cause that inhibition to be present. In the end the aptitude of performance at a certain subject can be qualified as talent. You ‘sir’ are an excellent illustrator than I am even though I went to school to study the subject (bummer). Kudos on those graphics! Anyway, you got me thinking, I like that. Peace.

  16. Roger Easson says:

    This is an interesting discussion. I am inclined to agree that there is no such thing as talent. Yet there are several things which might be taken to argue for talent.

    1) consider idiot savants. These are people who have severe retardation, significant deficits of all sorts, but clearly amazing abilities–call them talents?

    2) consider the idea of physical genius. Malcolm Gladwell in an article by the same name published in the New Yorker (August 2, 1999) compares the lives of three men, Wayne Gretsky, Yo-Yo Ma and a brain surgeon named Charlie Wilson. Now clearly these men spent their 10,000 hours of directed, focused practice. But Physical Genius appears to be an additional ability that sure sounds like a gift. Gladwell quoting one of Wilson’s colleagues, Craig York who observed: “‘It’s a conceptual, a spatial thing. His use of the No. 11 blade depended on his ability to construct a gestalt of the surgical field first. If just anybody had held p the eleven blad in that way it might have been a catastrophe. He could do it because he had the picture of the whole anatomy in his head when he picked up the instrument.”

    3) consider the problem of learning disabilities. Now many of us don’t consider those abilities which people with learning disabilities struggle with as talents. But if you have a severe learning disability then you might well marvel at others who can do easily what you struggle so hard to accomplish as a talent. Now i know that we usually name as a talent is supposed to be something very special. Our discussion of talent might suffer from the problem of granularity: we are looking at too fine a grain to see the pattern we are discussing.

    One of the learning disabilities that many have is mathematics disorder. To those who suffer with this disorder people who have the ability to grasp quickly mathematical concepts would surely seem like an amazing talent.

    One I just learned of recently is dysnomia which is the inability to recall words on demand, especially the names of people whom you know quite well. Imagine a person afflicted with dysnomia who observes someone like Bill Clinton who can instantly connect name with face even after a distance of time. I am aware the salespeople have a discipline which enhances this ability and that with practice they can become astonishing in their ability to remember names and faces. Evenso, to a dysnomic even the ordinary and untrained ability to recall names easily must seem like an amazing talent.

    1. Joen says:

      Hi Roger,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Before I delve into an answer, please keep in mind that this is simply a completely unscientific theory, which I simply think is more likely than given talent.

      Roger Easson: 1) consider idiot savants. These are people who have severe retardation, significant deficits of all sorts, but clearly amazing abilities – call them talents?

      I wouldn’t. I honestly haven’t met or heard of such savants, but extrapolating wildly, I would suggest that closing down one avenue of your brain, lets you focus on the remaining. The distribution of interest and the under dog factor, is not to be forgotton.

      Roger Easson: consider the idea of physical genius

      A good point, but not one I am willing to acknowledge.

      Like you wouldn’t be able to explain quantum theory to a dog, there are certain inherent things we as people cannot understand. Perhaps 4 dimensional space or the shape of the universe is one such thing that we can’t yet understand. I would wager that, given time and evolution, the human brain may be able to grasp those concepts.

      And so, due to the nature of evolution, some people are better at some things than other. Some are great at maths, some are great at talking to people. This is not talent, this is just an evolutionary bag that’s been shaken up before birth.

      Roger Easson: One of the learning disabilities that many have is mathematics disorder. To those who suffer with this disorder people who have the ability to grasp quickly mathematical concepts would surely seem like an amazing talent.

      Two things:

      Arthur C. Clarke said, “any technology that is sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic”. But that does not make it magic. Nor does it, in this example, make it talent.

      The other thing is semantics. Talent, as read from the dictionary, is an inherent and almost divine skill. This is what I would argue doesn’t exist. Where it gets tricky is that we use the word talent today, to mean so many other things than that. One person could say to the pianist who spent his entire life practicing, “you are so talented”, and acknowledge that the “talent” is the sum of his practice. The other person might completely disregard this whole life of practice, and use the word “talent” as it stands in the book, “that must be divine, because I can’t play the piano like that”.

  17. Roger Easson says:

    Gees:

    Silly me. I thought we might have a serious discussion.

    Apparently not.

    b b bye then

    roger

    1. Joen says:

      I was being very serious. Feel free to point out any parts of my arguments you felt weren’t serious, and I will elaborate.

  18. Roger Easson says:

    Roger Easson: 1) consider idiot savants. These are people who have severe retardation, significant deficits of all sorts, but clearly amazing abilities – call them talents?

    I wouldn’t. I honestly haven’t met or heard of such savants, but extrapolating wildly, I would suggest that closing down one avenue of your brain, lets you focus on the remaining. The distribution of interest and the under dog factor, is not to be forgotton.

    Roger: The Idiot savant is an individual who is severely retarded but who has one unbelievable ability. in 1980 Leslie Lemke of Pewaukee, Wisconsin came to national attention. He is severely retarded, blind, and has cerebral palsy. He is barely able to walk and must be led slowly to the piano where he is seemingly transformed into another person. He has given numerous concerts and can play or sing perfectly any song he hears only one time. He can play classical music, ballads, rock or jazz and leads his audiences from tears to wild cheers. He even sings in four different languages: English, German, Italian, and Chinese.

    Now we cannot say that Lemke’s ability is the result of practice, education or coaching. What else could this be but a demonstration of a talent?

    The existence of idiot savants is well known, even if you have never met one. But you most surely have heard of them. They are sufficiently rare so few of us have ever had one-to-one contact with one. [see “The Uncanny Abilities of Idiot Savants,” by Donald K. Snyder ]

    Why would you have to extrapolate wildly? Apparently, it would seem you are either unprepared to think about Idiot savants in this context, or unwilling do do your homework to consider what might be a real example of a talent in your definition “a divine gift.” I would point out to you that the ancient Greeks apparently thought that retarded children were gifts from god because they seldom knew unhappiness, or so the story goes.

    Let’s start here and see the seriousness of your reply.

    Roger

    1. Joen says:

      I feel I should tread extremely carefully here.

      So let me start by being clear that I do like a serious discussion, and I genuinely want to have one, and that I truly do respect you for wanting such a discussion. Please believe that. Now.

      Roger Easson: Now we cannot say that Lemke’s ability is the result of practice, education or coaching. What else could this be but a demonstration of a talent?

      What I tried to formulate before, but what I fear was taken for a joke, was that I may have no answer to this; therefore I simply speculated that because this incredible individual has had to deal with a number of very difficult tasks in his life, music may have been his only escape. Like when a blind person is able to focus on the remaining senses to impressive effect, perhaps Lemke was able to give himself more completely to the music. For his whole life.

      I do not mean to be offensive saying this, and I would be as impressed and moved to tears as anyone else in the audience. There’s no doubt about that.

      But my most important point is this: just because I have no answer, it doesn’t mean that Lemke has a divine gift.

      I believe (again: speculation), that at birth, everyone is given a number of — for lack of a better word — skill tokens. Let’s say some are given 15, some are given 20. These skill tokens are then distributed at random between our various abilities. One could be maths, one could be music, one could be speech, one could be social skills, and so on. Perhaps most people have their skill tokens distributed evenly, and are equally good at all those abilities. Should this idea be just a tiny bit correct, it would also mean that other people have their skill tokens biased towards one or two abilities. I have met more than one person whose math skills were through the roof, but who lacked many a social skill.

      Roger Easson: The existence of idiot savants is well known, even if you have never met one. But you most surely have heard of them.

      I did not mean to deny the existance of idiot savants, nor do I deny it now. I acknowledge it, and find it both fantastic and curious.

      Roger Easson: Why would you have to extrapolate wildly? Apparently, it would seem you are either unprepared to think about Idiot savants in this context, or unwilling do do your homework to consider what might be a real example of a talent in your definition “a divine gift.” I would point out to you that the ancient Greeks apparently thought that retarded children were gifts from god because they seldom knew unhappiness, or so the story goes.

      I extrapolate wildly because a) that’s all the answer I have, and b) just because I don’t have a final, definitive answer, it doesn’t mean that idiot savants must have god-given talent. By that logic, I could argue that the easter bunny exists, and it would be true unless you could prove me wrong.

      The real gist of this article, the very essence of it, is not to disprove miracles. It is to make us all appreciate the people who display these godlike talents. I have always found it near arrogant to attribute their skills to a divine miracle, appreciating the miracle instead of the person in question.

      In the case of Lemke (whom I’ve read up on on Wikipedia), I deeply respect and admire both May Lemke his adoptive mother, and Leslie himself. It truly is a wonderous story, and in my picture of the world, the boy and his mother are at the center of the story. Not the miracle.

  19. Dave Child says:

    I have always found it near arrogant to attribute their skills to a divine miracle, appreciating the miracle instead of the person in question.

    Saying “woo, isn’t god great – look, it made this person barely functional and then gave them the ability to play the piano!” is typical god-botherer behaviour. If god did exist, and were judged by its actions, it wouldn’t be worthy of our respect, much less our admiration.

  20. Roger Easson says:

    Skill tokens? Really? Interesting that in order to avoid the word “talent” or some synonym we have to use a neologism like skill token. I can’t find any other use of the term so I assume it is unique with you. Call them capacities, or essential attributes, whatever. This seems a linguistic dodge. Is it the theological “god’s gift” origin of the word talent that bothers you? So that Skill token seems suitably mechanistic devoid of God Stuff somehow? Dave seems to be exposing the athiest bias behind the rejection of the notion of Talent. Now, I hasten to say that I have no religious bias to grind here–in fact I didn’t even know that the word talent meant God’s gift until I read it here. Call it an innate human capacity or call it blockisque blandispeal for all I care.

    The issue as I understand it has to do with the question as to whether there exist innate human capacities that some of us have in rather stronger expressions than others. Those who argue for the ability of focused determined practice to overwhelm the merely talented–the so called 10,000 hour rule–seem to disregard the starting point from which the race begins. If we remember the “What Stanley H. Kaplin taught us about the SAT” essay “Examined Life” Gladwell published in the New Yorker in December 17, 2001, then we can see how tutoring and focused practice can take someone with less innate capacity into a real competitive advantage over someone who merely is innately capacious (that sounds odd huh) and who has not been tutored or benefited by focused practice. Does that mean that if the person who had the innate capacity was as tutored and practiced as Kaplan’s students who may have had less innate capacity would not have demonstrated a higher score on the SAT? We have no evidence to prove that proposition.

    It merely demonstrates the leveling potential of Kaplan’s program of tutoring and practice.

    What the idiot savant’s example seems to demonstrate is that there are innate capacities–let’s not call them talents lest some atheist begins to throw stones at us–we cannot guess at until we meet these unique individuals who somehow by some scrambling of the neural tissues show us how amazing the human being’s innate capacities can be. I do not know of any kind of focused determined practice–10,000 hours or more–that can produce the kind of ability these idiot savants might exhibit. What the idiot savant teaches us is how extraordinary humanity can be, how fantastic our innate capacities may be.

    The importance of recognizing the existence of these innate capacities seems to me to be the same importance we place on picking out a good quality wood to begin building furniture. If you are going to invest the coaching and determined focused practice hours with some individual it helps if you begin with someone with the innate capacity to benefit from the coaching and 10,000 hours. So, for example, it would help if the opera student had perfect pitch as well as that lucky concatenation of muscle, lung and larynx that produces a pleasing voice. Surely, we do not have to revisit Pygmalion to wonder about trying to overcome important deficits with coaching and practice.

    or so I think

    Roger

    1. Joen says:

      Yes. Skill tokens. Really. Let’s be clear that all this discussion has ever been about, is semantics.

      Back in May 2006 when I originally wrote this article, a lookup of the definition of talent, led me to believe that it was greek for “divine gift”. As it turns out, that’s only part of it:

      From the Greek talanton = scales; Greek and Roman weight unit for a certain sum of money. We have shifted the word’s association of material, monetary value to one expressing admirable human characteristics: talents are a person’s inherent abilities, as given by God.

      In any case, the whole point of this discussion has always been how we use the word “talent” today. As I wrote in my very first reply to you:

      Talent, as read from the dictionary, is an inherent and almost divine skill. This is what I would argue doesn’t exist. Where it gets tricky is that we use the word talent today, to mean so many other things than that. One person could say to the pianist who spent his entire life practicing, “you are so talented”, and acknowledge that the “talent” is the sum of his practice. The other person might completely disregard this whole life of practice, and use the word “talent” as it stands in the book, “that must be divine, because I can’t play the piano like that”.

      So, let’s recap. Talent implies skill. Now the sole reason I am opposed to the use of the word talent, is when it is used to imply innate or inherent skill, towards someone who has clearly earned their skills through hard work and practice.

      That’s really all there has ever been to this discussion, and while I have learned that being opposed to the word talent is somehow offensive, I just don’t see why it so fires up peoples hearts and minds. All I’m really saying is that we should acknowledge hard work and practice when such is present. At worst, people use “talent” as an excuse to either not practice themselves, or simply give up and throw in the towel; “I’ll never be as good as her, so I might as well not play the piano at all”. This is such a pity, and really at the core of my dislike of the word.

      Roger Easson: Call them capacities, or essential attributes, whatever. This seems a linguistic dodge.

      You’re being unfair. I haven’t dodged a single question or discussion you’ve thrown at me and I’m not going to start now, and I have done my bit to be civil here.

      Roger Easson: Is it the theological “god’s gift” origin of the word talent that bothers you? So that Skill token seems suitably mechanistic devoid of God Stuff somehow?

      I have on more than one occasion explicitly stated that I do not have an explanation for Leslie Lemke’s seemingly innate abilities. In fact I’ve stated that I find it as fantastic and wonderous as I assume you do. The only thing I’ve been pounding is that just because I don’t have an explanation, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one. For all I care we can leave god right out of it. Just don’t invoke “magic” when the most logical response would be “I don’t know”.

      Roger Easson: Dave seems to be exposing the athiest bias behind the rejection of the notion of Talent.

      “Atheist bias”, what does that even mean?

      Atheist means “without belief in god”. If you chop that up, it means that unless you’ve decided to believe in god, you’re an atheist. To me, that means “atheist” is the default human condition. When born, a baby surely doesn’t know about god, therefore the baby “lacks a belief in god”, meaning it’s atheist.

      As such, athism is not a club. It’s not a religion. It’s not an organisation. So how can atheists have bias? It would be as if you’d said “human bias”.

      That said, even if there was such a thing as “atheist bias”, I have never tried to hide such a thing. You can clearly read about it in my “about” section, and you may even want to delve into my longer article on why religion is inherently dangerous to society.

      Roger Easson: What the idiot savant’s example seems to demonstrate is that there are innate capacities

      Possibly! But it doesn’t prove it.

      I completely agree that focused and determined practice does increase skills in a specific area, how could it not.

      But just because one person has to practice 10.000 hours to be good at something, it doesn’t mean that if someone else doesn’t have to practice 10.000 hours, it means they have innate abilities. I just don’t see it. And that’s why I shot my “skill tokens” theory at you.

      What I am saying is that evolution is a lottery, by definition. That’s how we evolve. Mom and dad provide base elements to a huge mixed bag of genes. This bag is then shaken to create something completely new. Either this new baby is better at a number of things, or worse. Darwin says that if the new baby is better in areas, he or she is more likely to procreate and carry on the “good” genes. It’s really very simple.

      And so the idiot savant, seen through the — admittedly harsh — glasses of Darwin, is simply just the result of the evolutionary lottery. He was given a set of genes which made him a divine pianist. That is an evolutionary miracle, granted.

      Additionally, Leslie Lemke was an autist. According to Wikipedia, there are very few theories as to why autistic savants have such a combination of talent and deficit, but research indicates that it is, while not common, not unheard of, especially among autists.

      So to sum things up: the word “talent”. My problem with the word is simply that I find it arrogant to simply assume that ones abilities are inherent or innate. I acknowledge that the word is, for lack of a better one, appropriate in the case of Lemke. But it is not necessarily accurate.

  21. Roger Easson says:

    Thanks Joen:

    We seem to be getting somewhere at last.

    So the argument is really about usage, not whether some innate capacity for unusual ability exists. I agree that it seems wrong for someone to dismiss the lengthy focused determined practice of the artist as somehow a divine gift, as if they simply woke up one morning and could produce an astonishing depiction of, say, the Last Supper. Does that however automatically deny that there is something unusual an accomplished and practiced artist had before he spent the time in focused determined practice?

    What would we call that?

    Returning to my earlier suggestion that we consider the learning disabled as being able to teach us about the existence of these unusual innate abilities, it seems to me that we might be able to usefully catalog these unusual innate abilities.

    Personally, I have always been amazed at people who have an innate ability to grasp mathematical concepts and quickly work problems based on them. That would be because I know I have no such thing. My brother on the other hand is a mathematical whiz. He worked patiently with me for many years trying to get me to catch the trick of it to no avail. It is not that I suffer from innumeracy, I can handle a calculator fairly well, but handed a slide rule, I am lost utterly. If there had been calculators such as we have today as i was going through college my life might have been different, but the mystery of the slide rule escaped me entirely.

    I had a friend in college who was especially good at “seeing into equations,” as he put it. Notoriously, he took all three semesters of calculus in a single semester and was in Differential Equations as a second semester freshman. An upperclassman friend of mine who was in the class told the story that the DFE instructor posed a problematic equation on the board which stumped the class. Edward walked up to the board and solved it in three different long and involved ways, and then walked over to another board and solved it in four steps. The room was silent for a while, my friend said, and then they all burst out in sustained applause. Edward went on to be a research mathematician for NASA. He’s dead now. Killed when he stepped out into traffic while reading a book as he walked.

    I am sure we can tell stories about people like Edward until the cows come home, as my Grandfather used to say. And there is no denying that Edward labored long and hard at his books. He had focused determined practice in spades, as they say. But should we deny that there was something special about this innate ability to see into equations?

    There is some speculation for instance that Albert Einstein’s brain had an unusual number of Glial cells. Other examinations have posed other explanations for Einstein’s unusual ability to see into complex physics problems.

    Do we need explanations of physical differences that enable one person to excel while another person fails? Are these more evolutionary miracles? Have we usefully replaced the notion of God with the notion of DNA?

    I am sure we could find more of these “evolutionary miracles” as you put it. We’d have to look no further than Michael Phelps perhaps. His body is very peculiar and he may suffer from Marfans syndrome as well. [See http://gawker.com/5038018/michael-phelps-freakish-physique-explained%5D. In this case, his ability seems to come from the peculiar use of what might elsewhere be a disability.

    Now there is no denying that Phelps works very hard swimming 96 km a day and has access to exceptional coaches, the amazing support of his family, and unusual swimsuit technology, as most Olympians have. Even so, at base there is this “freakish physique.”

    Similarly, there is some speculation that the nearsightedness of Monet gave him an usual perspective which helped him generate impressionism. American artist Keven Macpherson is on record as having observed that “I also believe my nearsightedness heightens my sensation to color fields.” [see http://www.myamericanartist.com/2008/09/kevin-macpherso.html%5D.

    Now Monet and Macpherson both were/are tireless in their dedication and focused determined work. But would they have been so great had they not had some kind of unusual eye pathology? Please note, I am not suggesting we should require myopia of art students.

    So perhaps by the study of learning or physical disabilities we may be able to learn about the nature of these base-line evolutionary miracles which can be developed by access to supportive parents, inspired coaches and focused dedicated practice.

    Thank you for the opportunity to work through these ideas with you.

    Roger

    1. Joen says:

      My hat is off to you, you’re a wonderful conversationalist.

      It’s been a pleasure discussing this with you.

  22. Roger Easson says:

    Joen:

    I was wanting to review our good discussion and note that the structure of your software here seems not to allow access to earlier exchanges. Is it possible to retrieve them? If so I would like very much to do so. I too have enjoyed this exchange.

    Roger

    1. Joen says:

      It’s comment pagination, and I did notice once it kicked in (past the 25+ comments, I think), the archiving is really bad. I promise to improve the design of the pagination so that it’s visible to others than myself.

      In the mean time, you can access page one here:

      http://noscope.com/journal/2006/05/there-is-no-such-thing-as-talent/comment-page-1

  23. Roger Easson says:

    Thanks Joen:

    Since our last exchange I have been doing a bit of research and have found an interesting article By K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer titled

    “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Check it out here DeliberatePractice.

    The interesting thing about this longish article is that he begins the conversation with a discussion of talent and has a really thorough discussion about the relationship between what he calls innate capacities (talent) and Expert Performance.

    I hope you find it useful.

    1. Joen says:

      That is extremely interesting, thanks for the link.

      My mother has told me of discussions her father had with her uncle, on whether genetics were more important in specific traits, or whether it was environmental factors and upbrining. The uncle argued environment, the father argued genetics.

      I think the truth was right between them.

      But actual research is, always, much more useful, which is why your article is most interesting. Will read more thoroughly.

  24. Now I actually agree with the notion of ‘deliberate practice’, i.e. that effort reaps reward. However, I just want to throw this video into the discussion. It’s a video showing a young boy who plays by ear, (really) well. It’s unlikely he’s had his 10000 hours, as that’d require an average of more than 5 hours a day, every day (6 if you discount the first year of his life).

    In my mind, that indicates that genetics (can) play a large part in someone’s ability. What do you think?

    Ethan Bortnick, 6, who’s very good on piano:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty-p3Ew9mnc

    PS. Isn’t Jay Leno just great with kids?

    1. Joen says:

      It sounds mechanistic, as Roger Easson has already alluded to, but I’ll have to agree. It must be an evolutionary miracle.

      Recently a baby was born with six working fingers on each hand. Freak? Possibly, but he was quite healthy and could move each of them individually. I hear they want to teach him to play the piano.

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