Talent or Practice – What Matters More?
A variety of perspectives on the origins of greatness.
Response to Ellen Winner
David Shenk (davidshenk.com) is the author of six books, including The Genius in All of Us (“deeply interesting and important” - NYTimes), The Forgetting (“remarkable” - LATimes), Data Smog (“indispensable” - NYTimes), and The Immortal Game (“superb” - WSJournal). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Gourmet, Harper’s, Spy, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS. Shenk lives in Brooklyn.
Ellen Winner is an important voice in this field, and has made many contributions. Respectfully, I have to point out that it's a strong mischaracterization to say my book expresses the "view that hard work is all that is required for genius or even expert level performance." Rather, my book argues that talent and intelligence must be understood in a developmental context. The developmental paradigm recognizes the importance of genetic influence, cultural influence, psychological factors, economic resources, and various other inputs (including, yes, the intensity and quantity of practice).
Winner is correct to assert that I argue against the notion of innate talent, which is distinct from the notion of genetic influence. "Innate" suggests that genes directly dictate the final contours of complex traits. We know now that that's not how genes work. Even something as simple as eye color actually involves gene expression, which is influenced by the dynamic interaction between genes and the environment. Put simply: the exact same gene can have different effects in two different people. If we cloned Albert Einstein, we actually know very little about what he'd specifically turn to look like or be like.
As time and science march on, we'll eventually replace the concept of innate and "inborn" with actual explanations of how traits and skills develop in the womb, after birth, in early life, and beyond. This explanation will include a more and more detailed understanding of complex gene-environment interactions. For now, even with that paradigm emerging, many insist on continuing to cling to "innate," resting on the assumption that some extraordinary abilities appear in humans earlier than they could possibly be developed. As Winner writes: "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."
Respectfully, that logic does not hold. Picking up a skill earlier than most is evidence of something extraordinary taking place, but it is certainly not evidence of nature before nurture. One need look no further than Hart and Risley’s exhaustive spoken-word study to understand how early life experience dramatically affects the trajectory of a very young child.* We also know for sure that early musical exposure can work the same way. Neurologists have extensively documented how the brain wires and rewires itself in direct response to the environment. The process is very slow and impossible to see from the outside, but it still happens. Studies have now shown conclusively that mind-set, nutrition, parenting, peers, media culture, time, focus, and motivation all profoundly affect the development of abilities. Needless to say, all of these factors are in play from the first day of a child’s life -- or even earlier.
Mozart, cited by Winner, is an interesting case. We're all astounded by his genius and by stories of his early musicality. But what, precisely, is evidence of his innate talent? His early achievements -- while very impressive, to be sure -- actually make good sense considering his profoundly extraordinary upbringing. His father, Leopold Mozart, was an intensely ambitious musician and composer, who, on becoming a father, began to shift his ambitions away from his own unsatisfying career and onto his children. As a music teacher, he was centuries ahead of his time. Eventually, his focus on technique and his impulse to teach very young children would be widely adopted by Shinichi Suzuki and other twentieth-century instructors. But this was quite rare in the eighteenth century. With first-rate home instruction and exceptional amounts of practice, Mozart's older sister Nannerl Mozart became, over the course of a few years, a dazzling pianist and violinist—for her age. Then came Wolfgang. Four and a half years younger than his sister, the tiny boy got everything Nannerl got, only much earlier and even more intensively. Not only did Leopold openly give preferred attention to Wolfgang over his daughter; he also made a career-altering decision to more or less shrug off his official duties in order to build an even more promising career for his son. (Leopold’s calculated decision made reasonable financial sense in two ways: First, Wolfgang’s youth made him a potentially lucrative attraction. Second, as a male, Wolfgang had a promising, open-ended future musical career. As a woman in eighteenth-century Europe, Nannerl was severely limited in this regard.)
From the age of three, then, Wolfgang had an entire family driving him to excel with a powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice. He was expected to be the pride and financial engine of the family, and he did not disappoint. In his performances from London to Mannheim between the ages of six and eight, he drew good receipts and high praise from noble patrons. He could play rehearsed minuets or sight-read études he had never seen before, could play the clavier with a thick cloth covering his hands and the keys, could improvise a coherent piece from a suggested theme. Still, like his sister, the young Mozart was never a truly great adult-level instrumentalist. He was highly advanced for his age, but not compared with skillful adult performers. 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. Inside the world of these intensive, child-centered programs, such achievements are now straightforwardly regarded by parents and teachers for what they are: the combined consequence of early exposure, exceptional instruction, constant practice, family nurturance, and a child’s intense will to learn. Like a brilliant soufflé, all of these ingredients must be present in just the right quantity and mixed with just the right timing and flair. Almost anything can go wrong. With Mozart, everything went right. It's easy to obscure the nuance and call that "innate talent," but the more straightforward story of his achievements as a developmental process is richer, more interesting, and happens to fit with contemporary psychology and neurobiology.
Winner points out that massive amounts of time spent in practice does not automatically make a person great. Is this news? No one would disagree with her -- including the 10,000-hour guru Anders Ericsson. She also compellingly argues that intense motivation -- what she calls the "rage to master" -- is a critical component to achievement. Agreed: but does it automatically follow that the rage-to-master is necessarily "innate"? In her previous work, she has insisted so, but without good evidence. It seems to me fairly straightforward that motivation falls into the same basic psychological framework as "mindset." Carol Dweck has researched and written compellingly about the power of mindset. Can't every single one of us root around our own personal lives to find plenty of examples of personal experience affecting personal drive? Narcissism can be manufactured by a certain type of parenting and early experience. Why not the rage to master?
It is a blessing for any person, at any age, to be able to bring grace and beauty into other people’s lives. Frequently, though, amazing feats among children tend to cloud the judgment of adult observers, leading to what neuroscientist and musicologist Daniel J. Levitin calls “the circular logic of talent.” “When we say that someone is talented,” he says, “we think we mean that they have some innate predisposition to excel, but in the end, we only apply the term retrospectively, after they have made significant achievements.” Levitin is exactly right: A profound ambiguity swirls around the word talent, which perpetually confuses the issue for anyone using it. Aside from love, talent may be the most important intangible in all of human society. But what if the intangible could be made tangible? We have the science now to do just that, if only we will have the courage to look beyond "innate."
*Hart, Betty, and Todd R. Risley. “The early catastrophe: the 30 million word gap by age 3.” American Educator 27, no. 1 (2003).