Monday, November 21, 2011

Time vs. Talent -- The Battle Rages On.

So, you all know that I'm fond of Anders Ericcson's work on Talent (the world's leading expert on expertise who doesn't really believe in talent). He believes that the key to achieving truly recognized expertise is 3-4 hours of guided practice for 10 years. (He's heavily quoted by Malcolm Gladwell.)

-- Here's my take on Ericsson's ideas about Talent as they apply to writing -- as well as what I call The Inspiration Myth (I'm sure someone has dedicated research to this as well) ...

On Sunday a friend of mine, Chris Harris (adored by me and always a wonderful instigator) sent me a NYTimes piece that aggressively counters Ericsson's work. Here it is: "Sorry Strivers; Talent Matters." (My own NYTimes was still blue plastic wrapped and sitting at the end of my driveway. The day had gotten away from me.)

I buzzed through the piece and I liked that someone was countering Ericsson. I love his work but I've always held a place for talent -- athleticism, artful eye, natural hard-wired sensitivity ... But when I got to the end, I was floored.

Here's the final paragraph: "None of this is to deny the power of practice. Nor is it to say that it’s impossible for a person with an average I.Q. to, say, earn a Ph.D. in physics. It’s just unlikely, relatively speaking. Sometimes the story that science tells us isn’t the story we want to hear."

What? Wait. Is the author suggesting that people LIKE to hear that the key to success is 3-4 hours a day of guided practice for TEN YEARS?

Let me explain this quite simply: No. People DO NOT like to hear this. Not at all. I know because I've told them -- again and again. Frankly, they really hate the idea that time is more important than talent.


1. Dearest sweet authors of this article -- Hambrick and Meinz -- have you never gone to a cocktail party and heard someone proclaim that they have a great novel ALL UP HERE, they say, tapping one of their temples with their index finger?

This is, of course, a professional hazard of mine. I can't go anywhere without someone telling me that if only they had some afternoons to spare, they'd write down their fantastic novel (presumably a bestseller in first draft form) and would begin their brilliant career.

Training? No. They don't need training. Years of practice? Nope. They're good. Why? Because they have natural talent. Their teachers always told them so.

Ericsson's work allows me to look at them -- and with data in hand -- say, "Hey, all it takes is 3-4 hours a day of guided practice for 10 years... Well, that's no guarantee. But it's a start."

Do people LIKE hearing this? Is this the story that science tells us that we want to hear? No. We want to believe -- especially in the arts -- that we all have a nascent talent that -- once expressed in its raw form -- will be seen as genius by the greater world at large. We want to believe in talent!

Hard work? 10,000 hours? Are you kidding me? That's someone's idea of a good time?

And 2. Talent is the Perfect Excuse.

Basically, if we believe in talent -- God-given talent -- that some have it and some just don't then, we can decide that we don't have to beat ourselves up about not achieving success. We don't have to put the work in. Talent has spoken. The ones deemed talented can stride on and we can sit on our butts and watch them stride. No harm, no foul. No reflection on our laziness or lack of commitment. They were born with it. Done.

The Talent Myth -- as well as The Inspriration Myth -- are damaging. They create a system of the anointed and the un-anointed. The haves and the have nots.

I'll take a student with gritty life experience and a brutal work ethic -- something to say and the will to perfect it -- over extreme IQ and perceived talent any day of the week. (Meritocracy? How about IQocracy?)

And please -- don't get me started on IQ. Don't get me started on the highest measured IQs giving birth to huge opportunities that create big gusting billowing puff balls of support that make it, not only possible, not only encouraged, but socially demanded -- within that culture -- to publish articles, win prizes for scholarship, publish books ...

Ericsson's work is important because people are naturally drawn to the concept of talent -- because THAT is the story we want told. Not its opposite.

I hope Hambrick and Meinz would agree: talent without time is talent wasted.