The Creativity Debate

Talent or Practice – What Matters More?

A variety of perspectives on the origins of greatness.

The Point of Life

Scott Barry Kaufman

Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania; Co-Founder, The Creativity Post

"When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down 'happy'. They told me I didn't understand the assignment, and I told them they didn't understand life." -- John Lennon

According to Robert Sternberg’s theory of Successful Intelligence, achieving success in life involves the ability to capitalize on your strengths and correct or compensate for your weaknesses. It seems like somewhere in the talent/practice debate, this important message got lost.

As a species, we evolved numerous abilities, interests, and personality traits. And all of these traits vary among modern day humans. The reason for this enormous diversity is that different genes were adaptive in different environments. While heritability statistics demonstrate that genetic variation is related to the outward manifestation of traits, there is still plenty of room in each individual for improvement. Also, none of us ever know our true potential, because our genes evolved to be adaptive in particular environments. It’s quite possible—even probable—that the environment you are currently in is not the one best suited to your unique traits. Therefore, it’s dangerously naïve to attempt to predict a person’s potential solely based on their current level of functioning. Context matters.

Regardless of the environment, no one is exemplary on all abilities. We like to use general words to classify people, such as “gifted”, or “learning disabled”, when the reality is that there are no labels that can classify the entire essence of a person. We all have strengths and areas of weakness. The point of life isn’t to deliberately practice down someone else’s path, but to truly figure out who you are and pave your own path.

When researchers say things like “IQ matters”, or “working memory matters”, they are right. (I’ve even been known to say such things!) By that, they mean that there is a correlation in the general population among cognitive abilities and achievement. But what they don’t always emphasize is equally important:

  1. IQ and working memory abilities matter much more in some domains than others (e.g., sciences vs. arts)                                                          
  2. Abilities don't come prepackaged at birth, but take time to develop. This doesn't discount the role of genes, however, in allowing for different rates of development.
  3. In today’s world, there are plenty of ways one can compensate for deficiencies in so-called "domain general" abilities, such as working memory. These include (a) offloading memory burdens to external sources, such as Microsoft Word, (b) using brain training programs to boost your executive functions, and/or (c) collaborating with others who have a higher working memory but have weaknesses where you excel. Find a win-win collaboration.

Our distant ancestors could never have imagined all the ways we’d eventually have of compensating for our weaknesses. And as time goes on, we’ll certainly come up with many more ways. Each of us is really only limited by our imagination and perseverance as to what we can achieve in this world. Sure—both talent and practice matter. But in this seemingly endless debate, let’s please not lose sight of the real point of life: compensating for your weaknesses and capitalizing on your strengths to achieve your own personal definition of success.

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