Sunday, February 22, 2009

Is Talent Born or Made?

This age-old question has arisen again in a slightly different format. Research has shown that what often separates superstars from everyday performers is just practice. Obviously, that makes a pretty good story. Most of the stories on this subject reference the work of Anders Ericsson, who has advanced some of this thought.

But can it be that any of us has the potential to be great, if only we had put in the time? This is basically the question Malcom Gladwell tackles in his latest book called Outliers, which ponders the question of how a person who's an outlier comes to be so. As you can see on the right, it's a book I recently read, and I would definitely recommend. In my opinion, while he does somewhat shortchange the role of genetics in the production of talent, nonetheless, it's a great summary of research in the area. And if it's a topic that you find interesting, there are several recent books that discuss it as well.


Chairman said...

Haven't read the latest Gladwell book, but will get it at some point.

Interestingly, my dissertation tackles one of the subtle issues with regard to expertise. I don't delve into the nature/nurture discussion. That discussion has been examined pretty well in the existing literature. My conclusion is that there's enough evidence on both sides that both are true. Basically, there are savants. They were born with it, pretty much right off the bat. Think Mozart or that Indian mathematician dude they always refer to. And then there are people who are born with a lot (but not quite all), and who are willing to work at it to get to that point. So there are at least two paths to expertise.

The underlying question that we really need to have in mind is what we mean by expertise. For example, are we curious about how one becomes an NBA basketball player? Or an All-Star? Or a Hall of Famer? Or one of the best of all-time? I'd venture that each of those levels will have some different characteristics in the midst of the many commonalities that people often point out. If we don't have a common conceptualization of expertise (which research is sort of lacking, really), then you can't really discuss the issue cleanly.

Also, Google "emergenisis." Sheer genius happens with the perfect storm hits. Think Secretariat. Or maybe LeBron. Or Hitler, for that matter.

Where I enter the fray with my work is with the question about how the individual and the problem intersect. I think that there's a fit between person and problem that needs to be considered to a greater extent. Most research looks at difficult problems. I look at everyday problems. So, there's a start difference at play.

The commonly quoted 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (or something like that) is built off of the findings of performance on very ill-structured (basically, complex) tasks. However, for structured tasks, there's a lot of evidence that suggests that you need much less time to develop expertise. Compounding the problems is that we often confuse the nature of the tasks that we solve. For example, how would you describe medical diagnosis? I'd argue that it's a relatively simple, structured problem. You could do pretty well by going down a well-designed checklist. However doctors hold an aura about them, because many of us believe that what they do is very abstract, advanced, etc.

But to answer your rhetorical question, I'd argue that the answer is "no," if you're interested in being an NBA all-time great (or in any domain where the tasks are genuinely ill-structured). It isn't just that we didn't put in the time. It's that we were never built (or developed) to be willing/able to put in that time. However, if the domain that you're interested in has a lot of well-structured problems, then you could end up being pretty darned good.

Westy said...

I think I agree. The advancement of this argument to a large extent does undersell the importance of talent, but I think it's also true that there are a lot of people out there with the talent to be good at certain things that aren't because they didn't put in the time.

Gladwell gets into some of what you talk about in his book. His chapter on the savant is very good. I also think you'll really enjoy the chapter on all the feuds in eastern KY. Additionally, I would note that you really should read the book prior to finalizing your dissertation. Also, I think quoting Gladwell in a dissertation would be pretty cool, so maybe you can find a way to work it in.