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Sunday, May 07, 2006

There is no such thing as talent

This New York Times article (registration required) says that people who are good at something spend a lot of time practicing and becoming good at it. The conclusion being that when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. There are many interpretations of this, of course, but it accounts for a lot of the difference in performance in Math between Asians and Americans (as seen in how badly American kids do badly when on average). When an Asian kid complains about how hard Math is and how she doesn't like it, her parents are very likely to push her, find a different tutor, anything to make her better. It's not unusual to hear Americans saying "I have no talent for it" instead.

The same thing was described in unlocking the clubhouse, a description of CMU's effort to increase its proportion of female students in Computer Science. In it, there was a section describing how women students from Asia tended to stay in Computer Science rather than the non-Asians. The reason wasn't because the women were mysteriously more talented, it was that they didn't feel that they had a choice --- dropping out would have meant a loss in face or a return to a society they had worked so hard to leave.

So while the general conclusion the New York Times might draw is that you should choose to do what you love, because that way you'll be willing and happy to work hard at it, an Asian parent might, upon seeing these results, conclude that there isn't an excuse for poor results at school --- that simply means you aren't working hard enough. While the former approach might result in happier lives (though I do recall Malcolm Gladwell talking at Google about stellar performers not necessarily leading very happy lives because they're so driven), the latter is what causes Americans to lag behind in Math and Science education. The rest of the world sees in Math and Science an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty, what I'm seeing is that more and more Americans seem to deem Math and Science as a necessary evil, not very highly prized and easily jettisoned whenever it conflicts with religion.

[Thanks to Greg Mankiw for the pointer.]


Dennis Rowe said...

Just another activist judge!!

Ok, I am only joking, but a lot of people do not understand the need for math and science. In a small city in Mississippi where I grew up, a parent wrote in to the city newspaper asking why their child needed to take algebra. Sad.

md said...

To quote from the article:
Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.

Is this assertion true? I like a bit of a challenge. If something is "easy," I don't want to spend a lot of time doing it. If something is a challenge, I'll probably enjoy tackling it much more, even if I never become very good at it.

Piaw Na said...

People who want a challenge wouldn't spend 4 hours a day watching TV. In other words, you're an outlier.

md said...

Hm, you really think most people don't like to be challenged, even a bit? I wonder if that's true, and if so, is it more cultural or biological in some way. I do think there's something off about American culture.

This is not to say that I disagree with your assertion; I am definitely a weirdo. I mean, outlier.

Piaw Na said...

One of my professors at school, Robert Wilensky was fond of saying that if people could make 3 levels of inferences in logic, religion would be out of business. I think that it is extremely human to be lazy.

The same professor also said, "Thinking is so hard we almost never do it!"

Roger Easson said...

Well now. First of all, I would have to admit that determined focused practice is really required for mastery of a skill or craft. But I do not agree that there is no underlying inherent ability that makes the determined focused practice possible. Like so many things in psychology we often have to look at pathology to see the truth of a process. Consider for example the Idiot Savant. These people demonstrate exceptional abilities while otherwise in the thrall of enormous physical and mental deficits.

Consider Leslie Lemke, a young man suffering with glaucoma, cerebral palsy and brain damage. His adoptive parents had to shove food down his throat in order to get him to eat. One day at age 16 his parents found him sitting at the paino playing Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no 1 after hearing it just once. [see]

Now what is this? Certainly, Lemke has not had the benefit of coaching or determined focused practice. Is this talent? an evolutionary miracle? what is it do you think?

Piaw Na said...

There are certainly pre-requisites to mastering ability. If you lost an arm, for instance, you wouldn't make a great golfer, no matter how much practice you had.

I fully suspect that Lemke did spend time in front of the piano before playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto, if only to know what the keys did. In fact, on reading the biography you referred to, it seems that he was constantly humming music to himself even as a child. I'd consider that practice. In fact, as a Savant, he probably had way more time to practice than a normal kid who might be forced to learn Math.