The Creativity Debate

Talent or Practice – What Matters More?

A variety of perspectives on the origins of greatness.

Sorry, Talented: Striving Matters

Dr. Jonathan Wai

Jonathan Wai is a research scientist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program and an expert on multiple issues surrounding the development of intellectual and creative talent.  He earned his doctorate in psychology from Vanderbilt University where he taught at Peabody College.  His research and writing have been highlighted by venues such as the New York Times, Science, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Wired, Forbes, Financial Times, Scientific American, Education Week, and newspapers around the world.  His research—focused on the intersection of talent development, intelligence, creativity, and education—has won multiple Mensa Awards for Research Excellence.  His popular writing has appeared in many publications—including Psychology Today, Business Insider, Quartz, NPR, Forbes, Inc., TechCrunch, Education Week, and Yahoo!—reaching millions of people.  He currently serves on the board of directors of the MATHCOUNTS Foundation, writes the blog “Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative” for Psychology Today, and contributes to Business Insider and other publications.  He lives with his wife, son, dog, and two cats.  Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanLWai.  A full list of his research publications and writings can be found here:

A recent opinion piece by David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz in the New York Times has stirred up some discussion.  In their article, they point out that talent or ability matters, not just up to a point, but throughout the entire range.  This means that being smarter has a payoff in education, work, and life.

They are correct.  In fact, the landmark study they discuss as a central piece of evidence is based on my master's thesis work along with work by my colleagues Gregory Park, David Lubinski, and Camilla Benbow from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth at Vanderbilt University.

Hambrick and Meinz also note that many popular writers have been telling us a somewhat different story, that striving is much more important than talent.  Hence the title of their piece: Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters.

However, I think that lost in all this is an opportunity to discuss the importance of striving in addition to talent.  The message from Hambrick and Meinz is that if you don't have much talent then no matter how much you strive you are unlikely to become the very best.  The message I want to share here is that no matter how talented you are, you still have to work like mad to become the very best.  If you never do much with your talents, then being smart won't really mean much at all.

And here's another quality that I think the talented or gifted need to learn: humility.  Charles Murray, in his book Real Education, stresses how important it is for the most talented students to learn what it is like to fail.  (I have written a review of this book, which can be found here).

Murray writes that "many among the gifted who manage to avoid serious science and math never take a course from kindergarten through graduate school that is so tough that they have to say to themselves, 'I can't do this.'  Lacking that experience, too many gifted graduates are not conscious of their own limits.  They may acknowledge them theoretically, but they don't feel them in their gut.  They don't know, as an established fact, that there are some things they just aren't smart enough to figure out."

"Everybody else knows that for a fact."

Murray suggests that gifted students need to hit their own personal intellectual walls so that they can have empathy with the rest of the world.  He goes on to say that "No one among the gifted should be allowed to rise to a position of influence without knowing what it feels like to fail.  The experience of internalized humiliation is a prerequisite for humility."

I agree with Murray that genuine humility among the gifted is often lacking because many have neither felt intellectual walls that they simply could not move past nor have fully internalized what that means.  Thus it may be crucial to 1. have every gifted student take enough higher level mathematics until they honestly acknowledge their intellectual limits (as this is likely the most efficient way), and 2. tailor an educational program to challenge them so that they reach those walls as soon and in as many areas (not just limited to math) as possible.

Being super smart can be likened to having a giant engine for a brain.  The thing is, if you never take the car out of the garage for a spin, you'll never know what you can really do.  And if you really want to achieve, you have to put yourself out there among the very best and learn what it feels like to fail.

Then, and only then, will you fully value the moment when you have a success.

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