The Creativity Debate

Talent or Practice – What Matters More?

A variety of perspectives on the origins of greatness.

Is Talent Taught Rather Than Innate? No.

Ellen Winner

Ellen Winner is Professor and Chair of Psychology at Boston College, and Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. She directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children. She is the author of over 100 articles and four books: Invented Worlds: The Psychology of the Arts (Harvard University Press, 1982); The Point of Words: Children’s Understanding of Metaphor and Irony (Harvard University Press, 1988); Gifted Children: Myths and Realities (BasicBooks, 1997, translated into six languages and winner of the Alpha Sigma Nu National Jesuit Book Award in Science); and co-author of Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (Teachers College Press, 2007). She served as President of APA’s Division 10, Psychology and the Arts, in 1995-1996, and in 2000 received the Rudolf Arnheim Award for Outstanding Research by a Senior Scholar in Psychology and the Arts from Division 10.  She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (Division 10) and of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics.

The great Slavic linguist, Roman Jakobson, taught one of his seminars in Russian. When a student told him that he could not enrol because he did not speak Russian, Jakobson, who spoke many languages with ease, allegedly replied, “Try.” The view that hard work is all that is required for genius or even expert level performance has made its way into the popular press with books by Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Coyle and David Shenk. In his 1990 book, The Origins of Exceptional Abilities, Michael Howe wrote that “with sufficient energy and dedication on the parents’ part, it is possible that it may not be all that difficult to produce a child prodigy”. This anti-inborn talent view has also been put forward by psychologist Anders Ericsson, who reports correlations between hours of practice and levels of attainment in music, chess and sports.

But there are two logical flaws in the denial of inborn talent or intellectual potential. First, the fact that no one achieves at elite levels without significant effort shows that hard work is necessary, not that it is sufficient. In addition, the reverse is also likely: innate talent may be a necessary condition for hard work. For instance, it is highly plausible that only when playing the piano comes easily (read talent) are children willing to keep at it. Those lacking talent will find it harder to learn and are thus more likely to give up. In my book, Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, I argue that gifted children have a “rage to master” in their domain. Without this intense drive, no child will clock huge amounts of deliberate practice.

It is difficult to prove the existence of innate talent because doing so requires disentangling nature from nurture. But when we see very young children showing signs of extraordinary ability prior to any training, we have evidence of nature before nurture. Some children learn to read at 2 or 3. Mozart picked out tunes on the piano at 3 and was composing at 5. True these reports are anecdotal. But there are so many of them that we cannot dismiss these as fabrications by boastful parents. The best systematic evidence disentangling nature from nurture comes from studies of chess masters by Fernand Gobet, Guillermo Campitelli and Robert Howard. These researchers found wide individual variation in the number of hours needed to reach grandmaster level. They also found players who put in huge amounts of chess time (from childhood) yet never attained master level. Thus, sheer hard work is simply not sufficient to become a master. What is true of chess is bound to be true of all kinds of great achievers, whether in the arts, the sciences or athletics, though comparable studies have not yet been conducted.

It would be great if hard work was sufficient to become a Picasso or Einstein. But effort does not open all doors. If parents beleived Howe, they would push their children. Those few whose children have innate talent would be rewarded. The rest would fail, blaming themselves, or worse, their children.

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