Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Made, not Born?

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born.
--Philip E. Ross, Scientific American

I've just read a fascinating article in Scientific American explaining that experts in numerous fields, including chess, music, and various sports, seem to depend less on innate talent for rising to their level of expertise than they do on the right kinds of "effortful practice" that constantly challenges them to push the envelope of their usable knowledge and skill.

For instance, psychologists have conducted studies showing that there's no significant difference in general memory and visual-spatial abilities between chess grandmasters and chess amateurs. What the experts in many fields have over non-experts is greater and more efficiently structured knowledge of their field, acquired through proper training. This implies that almost anyone with sufficient motivation and proper training can become an expert in almost any field. Indeed, we see more and more people becoming expert grandmasters in chess at earlier and earlier ages due to their access to computerized chess playing games and repositories of grandmaster games. A further implication is that children who underperform academically might be motivated by various kinds of rewards and trained by expert teachers to excel in subjects in which they previously showed no promise. This reminds me of the inspiring film Stand and Deliver allegedly based on real events.

I once had a little argument with my college math teacher about his attitude toward people, like myself, who struggled in his class. He seemed quite intolerant of people who didn't grasp the concepts quickly and performed poorly on exams. I argued that some of us are just not "as good" or talented in math as others are, and he said that everyone has virtually the same mathematical talent and that I could do as he did and earn a Ph.D in math if I really wanted to badly enough and worked as hard as I needed to to do it.

I didn't believe him then, and, even after reading an article that seems to reinforce his position, I still don't believe it. I suspect that people of average ability can indeed become much better at a lot of things than they ever realized if they're motivated enough and train for it the right way. But I still think that truly great chess players, athletes, scientists, artists, and other world-class experts are born with exceptional ability, even if science is currently better at isolating the acquired factors than it is at isolating the innate ones behind the expertise. I also suspect that people with damaged brains and subnormal capacities are never going to rise to the level of expertise or of even modest skill in related fields no matter how much they might want to and no matter how hard or well they train.

But, still, the Scientific American article gives me pause in attributing too much of someone's skill to innate talent and too little to acquisition through "effortful practice," and makes me wonder if I could accomplish more in more areas than I ever thought possible if only I wanted to badly enough and worked at it the right way, with, perhaps, the help of an expert (and miraculously patient) teacher.


Finding Fair Hope said...

There is a question why you should perform at any given level on any given task in the first place. Certainly application and attack are important to learning any skill, but if the skill is not what your particular soul needs, why the agony at not acquiring it? It seems to me that you are allowing others to be your yardstick, and you feel you fall short -- as others like your insensitive teacher are all too quick to point out.

The challenge in life, from earliest childhood, is to sort out what you as an individual want to do best and to find ways to do it. You can't be an overachiever in all things, and if you could, do you think that would bring any measure of satisfaction or peace and joy to your life? We all strive, but we must set our own goals and accept our own successes on our own terms.

You're doing better at this than you think you are.

Anonymous said...

We all have limitations, we all have strengths and weaknesses. I think the trick for each of us is to be the best we can at being who we are...

BTW in regard to your Math teacher:
Sometimes the most gifted among us are the worst teachers because they don't understand the value of hardwork and they , having grasped concepts in large chunks, don't know how to break concepts into smaller components that can be built on. If the guy really wanted to prove his point he should have taken the time to help you become the best mathmaticians you could have been at the time. Anyone can teach a genius( the truth is they are usually self-taught), but it takes skill to teach someone from the ground up... So in other words, the greater failure belonged to the teacher who lacked the patience to teach the students who really needed him!

dr.alistair said...

we are all teachers and we are all learning all the time. i take the stance that if one human can do something then it`s possible for another to do the same thing given the right instructions. imagine that you could actually do what you most wanted to do...............what would that be?

Anonymous said...

So since Carl Lewis could long jump 28 feet all I need is the right instruction to do the same?

It sounds nice and hopeful, but I don't think so...

Nagarjuna said...

FFH: Thanks for your encouraging words. I'm trying to make the most of my strengths and the least of my weaknesses, to be all I can be that I want to be and not worry about the rest. Sometimes I can do this pretty well, and other times it's a real strugggle. There are things that I think my soul really wants to do or be that I just don't seem to be capable of. But I guess I just need to accept this.

Anon: I agree that my teacher lacked empathy for those unlike him and the patience if not the skill to teach some of us effectively.

Dr. Allistair: If I could be anything I wanted, I'd like to be an independent integral philosopher like Ken Wilber who could make a good living from his labor of love. Secondarily, I think I'd like to be a world class theoretical physicist or cosmologist. That is, I'd like to make a good living and contribution to the human race mostly by just thinking.

Anon: I agree that Carl Lewis was born a lot more than he was made. This isn't to underplay the hard work that he put into developing his awesome talent. But without the talent, all that hard work would not have created the extraordinary levels of athletic performance he accomplished. I suspect that the same is also true of someone like Kasparov in chess. It wasn't just that he worked harder or more efficiently than the rest to be the best.


Jess said...

Here is my Pollyanna contribution to this post. You are who you are and you have to make the best of everything you have been given. I have often told you, I WISH I could write like you and so many others do. Something you have an absolute talent for I am entirely useless at. Doesn't make me denser or you smarter. It is one area you excel at, in my opinion, and I struggle with daily. I have talents you don't and the same for you. For me, this is what makes life so very intresting. Imagine if all of us were little automatons coming out of the factory the same. That would be tragic. Life is what you make of it, was a favorite saying of my mothers. I take that and live it daily. Don't measure yourself against anyone. It just will make you crazy, because there will always be people better at something than you are, no matter how hard you try.

Nagarjuna said...

Jess, in his famous prose poem "Desiderata," Max Ehrmann wrote: "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself."

I guess that pretty much sums up what you're saying, and what I tell myself almost every day. It helps.


dr.alistair said...

vain and bitter.....yes, precisely. carl lewis can jump to the very outer boundaries of his abilities. i can teach you to do the same thing. you can learn to jump to the outer boundary of your physical limits by doing a lot of what carl lewis did. the only limit is in how your body will respond. what carl lewis did is well within the public record. in fact i know people who have used his training strategies to attain great results for themselves. thier bodies wouldn`t allow them his results though.
ken wilber makes his money as a published thinker, but more as a guru with a marketing plan.
to attain the monitary rewards of a wilber one needs to look at his commercial strategies. the majority of the people in publishing couldn`t think thier way out of a wet paper bag, but they can write and publish and sell.
so learn to write, publish and sell and you could be as visible as wilber one day. or deepak chopra or sylvia browne or tom harper or carlos castenada and so on.
or just make a comfortable living to allow you to spend time doing meaningless blog with us.