Class Warfare Blog

July 9, 2017

The Puzzlement of the Talents

Filed under: Culture,Science,Sports — Steve Ruis @ 6:33 pm
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I have been going back and forth with one of my students, who is in many ways my intellectual superior, over the nature of “talent.” I have argued and continue to argue that their ain’t no such thing. He argues that surely there must be.

I argue that scientists have looked and looked for a biological source of a talent and come up dry. There does not seem to be such a thing. What I am talking about is a specific talent, such as for baseball or poker or the violin, not a general propensity to be good at something. People with “talent” seem to progress rapidly and effortlessly in their chosen endeavor. I argue that in most cases what people are observing is a developed skill. When somebody sees a basketball star execute a slick play, gosh they just have to be talented. Of course, the commenter hasn’t seen the dozens and dozens of hours that move got practiced.

People in my camp argue that a physical skill, e.g. hitting a baseball or playing the flute comes from a considerable amount of practice. We acknowledge that people have built in attributes that make them stand out amongst beginners and allow them to learn faster than the crowd. Tall people have an advantage in basketball, for example. (Coach John Wooden used to say “You can’t teach quickness or height, so I recruit for those.”) Baseball requires good hand-eye coordination, strong wrists, and, etc. But is there a talent for baseball? I do not think so. (As an example, think of the multi-sport star athlete in high school. were they born with talents for all of those sports or are they just a good all-around athlete who practices hard?)

My argument is that high levels of skill are developed through training. Training is only pursued when there is interest, so the people who seem to “have a lot of talent,” tried something and were good enough at it that they liked it and so pursued serious training for a time. For example, Mozart was considered a musical child prodigy. But Mozart’s father was a music teacher and Mozart spent many, many hours in practice because, either he had to or he enjoyed it. Expert analysis of Mozart’s early compositions, those of his youth, indicated that they were rather derivative and ordinary. But how many youths are composing serious classical music at a young age? We tend to compare these “prodigies” with ordinary adults in the same endeavor, not with the greats of that endeavor.

One of the counter arguments offered against my position is so many people used the word talent in describing their situation, surely it can’t be just made up. Actually I think it was just made up. I offer, but cannot prove, the following scenario as justification. A youth shows behavior beyond his years. His parents fear demon possession, but a passing clergyman, eager to claim all good happenings for his god, counters that the child has “a gift from god.” These “gifts” became “God-given talents” over time, again to claim their god as the source of all good things (but not the bad things—interestingly, the bad things come from the Devil, or Satan … nobody asks where they came from).

So the idea of a talent was spin. It was an explanation of something that was borderline uncanny that was acceptable to most all people. The existence of talents/gifts was not questioned because they were so common (most people tend to be good at something) but when finally some scientists set out to find the basis for talents, they came and continue to come up with nothing.

If you are familiar with the Bell curve, aka a Gaussian distribution, it is obvious that our attributes and abilities are spread over quite a range. My height, for example, puts me in the top 2.5% of Americans. My IQ puts me in the top 0.5% of Americans. People that are way out on the tails (both high and low) are considered “different.” So, somebody who shows abilities far exceeding the expectations set up for his/her age can be singled out. But I do not see humans who are “off the charts” in their abilities. I see many kids who have opportunities and a few who embrace them seriously and a very few who excel at that activity. We do not sit around and discuss the child who quits right away. (This is a stupid sport; I am going home!) We sit around and ooh and ahh about those whose performances exceed our expectations. We say “They have talent.” What that means, in my thinking, is “They have developed a great deal of skill.” They stand out because they developed that skill faster than others, so at a younger age. Studies of “whiz kids” and “Wunderkinder” do not show a common continuation of their rate of progress into adulthood, many plateau off or “burn out” (not literally). How many stellar performers are you aware of who were child prodigies when young? Not many is my guess.

So, talent? Meh, not so much.

What do you think?

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20 Comments »

  1. Starting with good balance helps, when talking about sport. But yes, the greatest cricketer ever, Sir Don, spent hours a day as a kid hitting a ball against a corrogated iron water tank with a stick, getting his eye in.

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    Comment by john zande — July 9, 2017 @ 7:32 pm | Reply

    • Balance, as well as quickness and strength, and all of the other physical attributes, I do not consider as talent. The talent people refer to is a level of expertise. There was a good book written called “The Sports Gene” that explores the genetic gifts that are inherited from one’s parents that lead to success in sports. But if an athlete does like a sport, or is brought up in a country that doesn’t play a sport, somehow I suspect that the person born to play cricket would wind up as a very good golfer or baseball player or … or … People are born with physical and mental abilities that can be further developed and molded into excellence in some endeavor, but I insist they were not “born” with the ability to play a violin or play chess or whatever.

      On Sun, Jul 9, 2017 at 7:32 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — July 9, 2017 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

      • Agreed. Passion and training. Training and passion.

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        Comment by john zande — July 9, 2017 @ 7:41 pm | Reply

        • That’s how you got to the top, no?

          ;o)

          On Sun, Jul 9, 2017 at 7:41 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — July 9, 2017 @ 8:25 pm | Reply

          • Top? I think I’m in an unending valley 😉

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            Comment by john zande — July 10, 2017 @ 5:18 am | Reply

            • What? Been in a rut so long the edge appears to be the horizon?

              On Mon, Jul 10, 2017 at 5:18 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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              Comment by Steve Ruis — July 10, 2017 @ 7:03 am | Reply

  2. I think that if we have a Gaussian distribution of physical attributes in humans, we most likely have a Gaussian distribution of mental abilities as well. For example, some people are born with absolute pitch. That’s a musical ability that’s nearly impossible to develop by practice – so it’s largely genetic. Ergo, a talent. It doesn’t mean that a person with the perfect pitch will know how to play musical instruments or will ever be good at it, but with the same amount of practice they may be able to get farther ahead that someone born without it.

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    Comment by List of X — July 10, 2017 @ 7:44 am | Reply

    • We are in the same camp. It is not the cards you are dealt, but how you play your hand. Other people have better cards and poorer, but you can still win pots.

      On Mon, Jul 10, 2017 at 7:44 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — July 10, 2017 @ 7:47 am | Reply

    • Just to clarify – practice is absolutely necessary, but when a difference between a top 1% and the actual top isn’t that dramatic, a genetic predisposition can give that extra nudge.

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      Comment by List of X — July 10, 2017 @ 8:21 am | Reply

      • Yep, one’s physical makeup is not something we have a great deal of control over. We can train to get stronger, but not taller. Many of our limitations are hard wired in.

        On Mon, Jul 10, 2017 at 8:21 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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        Comment by Steve Ruis — July 10, 2017 @ 8:26 am | Reply

  3. If you do not consider natural abilities one is born with as ‘talents’ or ‘gifts’ then I agree with you. I tend to view the abilities we are born with as part of the ‘talented’ or ‘gifted’ definition. Both and. But, certainly, the levels to which natural talents and gifts are realized has everything to do with drive, motivation, repetition, work ethic etc (perhaps these traits are also inborn to a more significant degree than we often assume?)

    I heard, second hand, that the high school coach of Hall of Fame baseball player, Brooks Robinson, said something to the effect of “Brooks was the most unnatural, uncoordinated athlete I ever coached.” But, according to this story, he had raw desire and a relentless work ethic. Again, I ask if this ‘raw desire’ and ‘willingness to work’ is a part of the ability and gift one is born with?

    What I do know is that whatever collection of necessary ingredients were needed to make me the starting left fielder for the Boston Red Sox eluded me.🙃

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    Comment by Zach — July 10, 2017 @ 10:07 am | Reply

  4. I love this topic- as someone competent at very much and talent-less in nearly every field.

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    Comment by The Pink Agendist, née Mr. Merveilleux — July 10, 2017 @ 5:35 pm | Reply

    • Actually humans are a vast source of abilities. They do not necessarily translate into activities one enjoys or excels at, but abilities we have up the yin-yang. Humans are weak, slow, have poor talons and canines, but we were freocious hunters. Why? Because of dogged persistence. We could run almost any prey to ground as our stamina was almost boundless.

      What a piece of work is man … culminating in Donald Trump. Now, that’s a piece of work!

      On Mon, Jul 10, 2017 at 5:35 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — July 10, 2017 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

  5. I’m a decent guitar player. I achieved decent through thousands of hours of playing.

    That said I have seen guys who surpass my decent and raise it to a level of incredible. How they got there I really can’t say, I wasn’t there to see how much effort was required to elevate their play. Talent or no, there are some people with an uncanny ability to make the rest of us look mediocre.

    That’s ok, I need a dose of humble every once in a while.

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    Comment by shelldigger — July 11, 2017 @ 7:26 am | Reply

    • I think people are confusing a specific talent for a general one. It has been demonstrated that some people have genetic “gifts” (from their parents) that make certain activities easier to learn or master. My point is that there is not a guitar playing talent, or a baseball talent, or a chess talent, per se. My aptitude for playing music is sadly weak. To overcome it would take prodigious amounts of time and energy that I was never willing to provide. My partner can pick up any musical instrument and withing a few minutes can be picking out tunes on it (not playing it like an expert, but making music). People say she has a talent for making music but I think that is just lazy thinking. If anyone performs something unusual, people say that have a talent. And what is their evidence? A simple observation. They don’t even inquire into the past history of the person to see if they have been tutored, etc.

      I am arguing against the idea that people have specific gifts for complex activities. For simple ones (weightlifting (strength), running (speed), running (endurance), etc.) then sure. The people setting all of the records have bodies that are adapted (through genetics) to make what they do easier and better. But to play a guitar, nope.

      And humility, humility, wer’re talking about humility, well, I have a talent for that!

      On Tue, Jul 11, 2017 at 7:26 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — July 11, 2017 @ 8:51 am | Reply

      • Yes physical activities can surely be genetic driven.

        Something like music requires practice, and lots of it. But there are some, for whatever reason, who find that music abilities come as easy to them as a genetic freaks long jump. Do I call that talent? I’m not sure. But it is a lingering question… 🙂

        Could not the music virtuoso have a brain hardwired for an easier understanding for music? If so, would/could that be talent?

        I’m not suggesting as much, but the question has to be asked 🙂

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        Comment by shelldigger — July 12, 2017 @ 6:19 am | Reply

  6. Mr. Ruis,
    I agree with your view on this. In 6th grade I wanted to play trumpet. Dad broke down, bought me a good new one. I practiced my hind end off. Probably drove the rest of the family nuts, but I got quite good at it. I was good enough the music teacher in junior high made me first chair trumpet player and I was picked to be part of the district honor band. Later, near the end of 8th grade, I realized I was never going to be one of my hero trumpet players, Al Hirt, Herb Alpert, Louie Armstrong, nor Dizzy Gillespie and there was more need to be good at math, so I quit band totally and took algebra class to prepare for high school and my eventual job as a machinist. Dad was totally with me on that decision. He was very big on me getting the best education possible. He knew my horn playing was ending, but he also knew good math skills would get me steady employment. I still love music and if I had the opportunity could get a horn and learn to play again, but at 70, I have more fun listening to the music I like and my arthritis would make being a half way decent horn player near impossible.
    Did I have any “talent” for music? Maybe, Dad always played big band records when I was a kid and I still like that music, but prefer rock up to the late 1970’s mostly.
    I just practiced for hours every day until math became more important for the long term. I do think my music did make math easier and have read various studies, not sure how accurate they are, that math skills are better for those who also are good eat music and/or vice-versa. Not sure I wrote that last sentence properly, but maybe you get the idea I am trying to convey……if not, sorry.

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    Comment by davidambrose66 — July 11, 2017 @ 10:13 pm | Reply

  7. Whatever our natural gifts, it does take practice to develop specific skills. Some have advantages, others disadvantages that create a playing field that is not at all level (which is why we should never judge performance to be a result of effort, unless we are totally aware of how much effort was devoted to the task). We tend to be a little cruel in judgments of peoples skills, but as you and I are of a “certain age” I think we can both look back and feel good about those efforts.

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    Comment by Steve Ruis — July 12, 2017 @ 9:15 am | Reply

  8. Big smile on my face right now.. Loved your blog..😘😊

    https://mahimajalan.wordpress.com/2017/09/16/let-creativity-rule/

    Pls check my blog. Would be honored 🙂

    Like

    Comment by mahimajalan — September 16, 2017 @ 1:20 pm | Reply


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