The Creativity Debate

Talent or Practice – What Matters More?

A variety of perspectives on the origins of greatness.

Response to David Shenk

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.

I continue to believe that the evidence for the existence of innate talent is overwhelming.  And I continue to read Anders Ericsson as arguing for the sufficiency of massive amounts of deliberate practice for the creation of expertise.  The child prodigies who come to my lab are not children whose parents are subjecting them to rigorous practice schedules. Typically the parents are shocked and confused by the skills that they see erupting in their children. 

David Shenk rejects the term innate because he says that this term “suggests that genes directly dictate the final contours of complex traits.”  But no one today uses the term “innate” to mean a genetic influence that is unaffected by the environment. I use the term innate talent to mean a genetic predisposition to learn quickly and easily in a particular domain.

Shenk seems to be saying that we do not need to invoke innate talent to explain Mozart. But he mentions only Mozart’s instrumental performance, ignoring his composing.  He writes: “Today many young children exposed to Suzuki and other rigorous musical programs play as well as the young Mozart did—and some play even better.”  But it is the composing that is the mystery that cannot be explained by some kind of strict training regimen.  Shenk implies that Mozart’s early achievements are what we would expect given the kind of upbringing Mozart had. But if we picked 100 children at random, exposed them to the kind of rigorous training Mozart received, does Shenk really believe that they would all be able to compose like Mozart? Just to ask the question is to answer it.

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