The truth about talent: Can genius be learned or is it preordained?

As children sit their GCSE exams, Matthew Syed argues that we are foolish to believe excellence is only for the few

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:09

The ideas of Darwin have made an almost total conquest of modern consciousness. The theory of natural selection; the idea that individuals fail or flourish by virtue of inherited characteristics, has been a triumph, commanding the assent of both scientists and laymen alike.

But Darwinism, in a process almost too imperceptible to notice, has shaded into a rather different, but no less dramatic, proposition.

It is the idea that heredity not only explains the variation in such simple traits as height, eye colour and the like, but also the vast differences we see in mathematical, scientific, sporting and musical prowess. It is the view that excellence hinges, in large part, on the right genetic inheritance.

Talent is the word we use to rationalise this idea; the notion that brilliant mathematicians, scientists, sportsmen and musicians are born with excellence encoded in their DNA.

It is an idea that seems to follow naturally from the tenets of Darwin, but is also bolstered by the evidence of our own senses.

When we see a great golfer hitting a 200-yard fade or a maths whizz mentally processing a multi-digit calculation, we infer that they must have been blessed with skills way beyond our own. It boils down to the assertion that excellence is reserved for a select group of individuals; winners in a genetic lottery that passed the rest of us by.

But what if this seductive idea is all wrong? What if our deepest assumptions about success in education and sport – indeed, in life itself – are misconceived? What if talent is not just a meaningless concept, but a corrosive one; robbing ourselves and our children of the incentive to work hard and excel?

This is a particularly pertinent question right now with GCSE exams just weeks away. Could it be that the very idea of talent is holding back our children and damaging performance not just in exams, but in school generally?

Could it be that we need to debunk the talent myth, in order to fulfil our potential and that of our children?

After all, what is talent? We certainly think we know it when we see it. As the director of a violin school put it: "Talent is something a top coach can spot in young musicians that marks them out as destined for greatness."

But how does the director know that this performer, who looks so gifted, hasn't had many hours of special training behind the scenes?

How does he know that the initial differences in ability between this youngster and the rest will persist over years of practice? In fact, he doesn't, as many studies have demonstrated.

A ground-breaking investigation of British musicians, for example, found that the top performers had learnt no faster than those who reached lower levels of attainment. Hour after hour, the various groups improved at almost identical rates. The difference was simply that top performers had practiced for more hours. Further research has shown that when top performers seem to possess an early gift for music, it is often because they have been given extra tuition at home by their parents.

Precisely the same insight is revealed by looking at child prodigies; boys and girls who reach world class levels of performance in their teens. At first sight, they seem to have been blessed with amazing skills; abilities that have enabled them to take a shortcut to eminence. But a closer inspection reveals a very different story.

Tiger Woods, for example, was considered a miracle golfer when he became the youngest-ever winner of the US Masters in 1997.

"The most talented player of all time," was one assessment. But now consider that Woods was given a golf club five days before his first birthday; that by the age of two he had played his first round; that by five he had accumulated more hours of practice than most of us achieve in a lifetime.

Far from being a golfer zapped with special powers that enabled him to circumvent practise, Woods is someone who embodies the rigours of practice.

The same insights apply to mathematical "prodigies".

Rudiger Gamm, a German able to find the quotient of two primes to 60 decimal places, was once described as a "walking miracle" by one science magazine. But now consider that Gamm devotes his life to maths; that he practises for at least four hours every day; that he relentlessly and obsessively learns number facts and procedures.

His excellence is not hardwired – it emerged through practice.

The illusion of talent arises because we only see a tiny proportion of the work that goes into the construction of virtuosity. If we were to examine the incalculable hours of practice; the thousands of baby steps taken by world-class performers to get to the top, the skills would not seem quite so mystical or so inborn. Indeed, extensive research has shown that there is not a top performer in any complex task who has bypassed the 10 years of hard work necessary to reach the top.

So, does this imply that "ordinary" people could perform amazing feats with sufficient practice?

Could those who flunked maths O-Level really compute multi-digit calculations like Gamm?

As long ago as 1896, Alfred Binet – a French psychologist – performed an experiment to find out. He compared two calculating prodigies with two cashiers from a department store in Paris. The cashiers had an average of 14 years' experience in the store, but had showed no early gift for maths.

Binet gave the prodigies and the cashiers identical three- and four-digit multiplication problems and compared the time taken to solve them.

What happened? You guessed it: the best cashier was faster than either prodigy for both problems. In other words, practice, on its own, was sufficient to bring "perfectly normal" people up to and beyond the remarkable speed of prodigies. The conclusion is inescapable. As Professor Brian Butterworth of UCL, the world's foremost expert on mathematical expertise, has put it: "There is no evidence for differences in innate specific capacities for mathematics."

None of this is to deny the notion of heredity or the principles of Darwinism. The evidence shows that some kids start out better than others, whether at maths, English, golf, whatever. But, the key point is that, as the number of hours devoted to practise escalates, so the relevance of these initial differences melts away. Why? Because, over time, and with the right kind of practice, we change so much.

It is not just the body that changes, but the anatomy of the brain. A study of London taxi drivers, for example, discovered that the area of the brain governing spatial navigation is substantially larger than for non-taxi drivers, but it did not start out like this; it developed with time on the job. Similarly, maths prodigies do not just use conventional neural networks when making calculations. They also use a system of the brain implicated in episodic memory (this is the immensely powerful memory used to store autobiographical experiences).

In the ancient world, when our ancestors had little time for anything beyond the minute-to-minute demands of survival, heredity mattered a lot.

Today, where it is not only possible, but often obligatory to devote half a lifetime to a specific but complex area of expertise, heredity matters less and less. Specialisation has been the game changer, but our ideas about success remain in the ancient past.

It is how hard we work and the opportunities we are gifted which determine excellence.

None of this would matter terribly much if the question of talent was merely theoretical. But it is so much more than that. It influences the way we think, feel and engage with our world.

It determines almost everything, from the way we respond to challenges to the way we react to failure.

To see how, consider someone who believes excellence is all about talent (labelled the "fixed mindset"). Why would she bother to work hard?

If she has the right genes, won't she just cruise to the top? And if she lacks talent, well, why bother at all? And who can blame a youngster for this attitude, given the premise?

If, on the other hand, she really believes that effort trumps talent (labelled the "growth mindset"), she will damn well persevere. She will not see failure as an indictment, but as an opportunity to adapt and grow. And, if she is right, she will eventually excel.

What a young person decides about the nature of talent, then, could scarcely be more important.

Think how often you hear people (particularly youngsters) saying: "I lack the brain for numbers," or "I don't have the coordination for sports." These are direct manifestations of the fixed mindset and they destroy motivation. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, do not regard their abilities as set in genetic stone. These are the people who approach tasks with gusto. "I may not be good at maths now, but if I work hard, I will be really good in the future!"

So, how do we orient ourselves and our children to the growth mindset?

How do we unlock the power of motivation, particularly with exams around the corner? A few years ago, Carol Dweck, a leading psychologist, took 400 students and gave them a simple puzzle. Afterwards, each of the students were given six words of praise.

Half were praised for intelligence: "Wow, you must be really smart." The other half were praised for effort: "Wow, you must be hard-working." Dweck was seeking to test if these words could make a difference to the student's mindsets. The results were remarkable. After the first test, the students were given a choice of whether to take a hard or an easy test. A full two-thirds praised for intelligence chose the easy task: they did not want to risk losing their "smart" label. But 90 per cent of the effort-praised group chose the tough test: they wanted to prove just how hard working they were. Then, the experiment gave the students a chance to take a test of equal difficulty to the first test. What happened?

The group praised for intelligence showed a 20 per cent decline in performance, compared with the first test, even though it was no harder. But the effort-praised group increased their score by 30 per cent: failure had actually spurred them on.

And all these differences turned on the difference in six simple words spoken after the very first test.

"These were some of the clearest findings I've seen," Dweck said. "Praising children's intelligence harms motivation and it harms performance."

It is not difficult to figure out why. It is because intelligence-based praise orients the receiver towards the fixed mindset; it suggests to them that intelligence is of primary importance rather than the effort through which intelligence can be transformed. This reveals a radical new approach to the way we engage with children and each other: that we should praise effort, not talent; that we should teach kids to see challenges as learning opportunities rather than threats; that we should emphasise how abilities can be transformed. Experiments have shown that when parents and teachers adopt this approach – and stick to it – the results are remarkable.

This is particularly important with exams looming. With the motivation that emerges from a belief in the power of practise, youngsters can really boost exam performance. In an experiment at Stanford University, for example, students were encouraged towards the growth mindset in a workshop.

At the end of term, these students earned significantly higher grades than the control group.

The key thing is to keep striving. As Thomas Edison put it: "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward".

It is a message that should be stapled to the wall of every school in the country.

'Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice' by Matthew Syed is published by 4th Estate

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