Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Talent: A difference that makes a difference - by Greg Downey

Thank you Miguel for finding this!

Malcolm Gladwell’s thoughts on this topic in his book Outliers are interesting as well. Here’s a quote from Gladwell on talent that may be a useful one to review before reading this article:

“Talent is the desire to practice. Right? It is that you love something so much that you are willing to make an enormous sacrifice and an enormous commitment to that, whatever it is -- task, game, sport, what have you.”

Gladwell also mentions the “Matthew Effect” in his work, which gets at the main point in Downey’s article. The Matthew Effect was a label used by the sociologist Robert Merton that’s based after the New Testament verse that goes, “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” The main point being, in regards to expert performance, that a small initial advantage can snowball into a much larger advantage.

One of the core observation of Ericsson’s research is that expert performance seems to take a minimum of 10 years or 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate practice,’ progressively more challenging, and expert coaching, even with people labelled by others as ‘prodigies’ (see Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer 1993). As Ericsson, Prietula and Cokely (2007) describe, repetition is not enough:

When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.

The problem for many people is that they’re not practicing deliberately; if they did, they would see a bigger improvement in their performance.

To put it simply, talent identification can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, pernicious because it widens the gap between those who are ‘promising’ from those who do not show early signs of ‘talent,’ even if those alleged markers of talent do not actually feed directly into the final expert result. That is, talent identification may focus on variables that are irrelevant for future accomplishment and yet still produce both enormous disparity and achievement in those labelled ‘talented,’ although the labelling is empirically incorrect (outside of the socio-cultural coaching system itself).

What may be a small initial difference, even a neurological advantage, can be compounded and exacerbated in many cases by the culturally-based perception that the small initial difference represents ‘talent,’ some innate superiority waiting to reach fruition. Once a person is identified as ‘talented,’ the socio-cultural mechanisms around sport that embrace and seek to develop that talent, to varying degrees fix that early diagnosis by transforming it into a distinctive developmental niche.

Clearly, there are initial differences in ability, some of which may be due to innate advantages in some individuals. But I suspect that a cultural system designed to identify ‘talent’ early and concentrate coaching resources on those with early promise can actually make the expert skill more rare as it demotivates those who might develop expert skill without the early advantage or mature more slowly. Rigorous talent identification may produce a handful of highly skilled individuals, but it may concentrate training resources so much that it makes the overall skill more rare than in a more open developmental program.


In summary, although I agree with Ericsson that expert performance clearly requires extraordinary efforts at development, strong coaching, and intense motivation, I don’t want to underestimate the importance in this process of very early differences in ability. Far from being irrelevant, early differences may contribute to future expertise, as they are compounded, exaggerated, or even leveraged into entirely unrelated abilities. If resources are allocated depending upon early diagnosis of ‘talent,’ then talent matters. The more a society believes in ‘talent,’ the more likely it is to become a reality, and the greater disparity we are likely to find between those designated as promising from those who don’t show early promise.


Related previous post: What it takes to be great

Related books:

Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.

Outliers: The Story of Success

The Road To Excellence: the Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games