Monday, June 18, 2012

Talent vs Hard Work or Nature vs Nurture

Listening to back episodes of the Four Thought series I highlighted last week, I found a talk given by Matthew Syed on the 9th of May this year which I thought was well worth listening to. Syed is a former international table tennis player and now a sports journalist at The Times. His thesis was that "talent" and "natural ability" are overrated and provide no guide to future success in most endeavours. Instead it is repeated and focussed practice of complex skills that actually enables people to master them, so everything is really down to hard work rather than some innate ability. According to him, even child geniuses will, on inspection, actually turn out to have simply compressed their hundreds or thousands of hours of practice into a relatively short period of time.

The reason this point is important, he argues, is that we too often take the opposite view, which inevitably leads people to not practise enough and consequently underachieve. A relevant example he cites is of students (particularly at state schools in the UK) just accepting as a fait accompli that they "just don't have the brains to go to university" or that they "just don't have the ability to do maths" or "don't have a talent for languages". Equally dangerous is the fact that we glamourise "effortless" achievement. He cites some studies which appear to show that young students praised for their natural ability or talent in some field will tend to avoid stretching themselves in future assignments in order to maintain that impression, whereas those who are praised for their effort are more willing to take on tougher challenges. (During the few years that I tutored undergraduates beginning their physics degrees at Oxford, I encountered all of these examples!)

To some extent obviously nature must play a role, as Syed admits. Sprinting and basketball are two examples he gives of sports where a genetic advantage is very important. But the more complex the activity that is to be performed, the more time must be spent to train muscles and brain to achieve success, and the greater the relevance of hard work over innate "talent". So activities such as playing the piano, hitting a cricket ball, or doing physics are all sufficiently complex to reward more dedicated practice.

While I found the talk itself interesting, I'm not sure I am completely convinced. Perhaps this is simply years of received wisdom speaking, but I find it hard to believe that enough training of muscles and neural networks can render all genetic pre-dispositions irrelevant. Especially at the elite level in any activity, where surely all participants have put in similar levels of training. I am sure that a person's natural mental state — encompassing such things as boldness in unfamiliar situations — must also be very important.

Having said that, however, almost none of us ever operate at an elite level in any sphere. Below this rarefied level, efficient training is almost certainly more important than anything else. Mental states can also — to an extent — be learned. I certainly agree that there is no justification for school pupils to ever consider themselves incapable of learning any particular skill, or for teachers to ever encourage that belief. That just sells young people short, and is a disservice to those regarded as talented as well.

I should add that I am also convinced this is one of the main reasons for the disproportionate under-representation of women in science, and in physics in particular.

The further this message is disseminated, the better.

No comments:

Post a Comment