Where does talent come from?

Here is Dubner and Levitt, from the Sunday New York Times:

[Anders] Ericsson and his colleagues have thus taken to studying expert
performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf,
surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, software design,
stock picking and darts. They gather all the data they can, not just
performance statistics and biographical details but also the results of
their own laboratory experiments with high achievers.

work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert
Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next
month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call
talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers –
whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming – are
nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.
These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to
their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

Here is the link.  Here is The Economist on Ericsson.  Here is Ericsson’s home page.  Here is more from Dubner and Levitt, including further links to papers.

Addendum: Here is an archive link to the Sunday article.


I usually like the Freaknomics column, but i can't say I get their point today. It seems obvious that talent at a young age (and, therefore, misleading oldness) would matter in soccer, where training for an elite team often starts at an absurdly young age, (Freddy Adu springs to mind, although I suspect there are even more extreme examples out there that I'd know about if I followed soccer) before anyone could actually determine how good of a player someone might be as an adult, and where adult body size really has little effect on ability. That doesn't mean that that principle follows in life in general, or even in other sports. Basketball and football come to mind as examples of sports where lazy people with the right body type will be far better than the most motivated smaller person.

I don't get their point either. Talent without dedication and focus is nothing. Hard work and persistence pay off even for those lacking exceptional talents. What's the news? No insight on why Salieri could never be Mozart.

I thought talent was imparted to us as a gift from the NEA? ;-)


“Chairman Mao, there is no mystery as to why "some people emerge out of poverty to become so successful and some rich folks’ children never make it". Francis Galton identified this phenomenon in the late 1800s. It is called "regression toward the mean".†

How does that explain the fact that the ‘establishment’ (despite the few exceptions) remains economically and socially well off and poverty tends to breed more poverty?

Chairman you should not confuse two different factors:

Good parents pass on food genes, but also good upbringing, good norms, good behavior. And sadly vice versa.

There is plenty of social mobility in the US, despite all the myths in the NYT and other “news†papers. The poor with high test scores are almost exactly as likely to go to college than rich guys with the same test scores. This is predicted by Galton and others, the correlation of parent-child genetic abilities (such as IQ, but also others) is not exceptionally high, in the range of 0.4-0.5, of which some is not even genetic. IQ explains three times more about future income than Socioeconomic background.

I focus on IQ because of good data, there are plenty of other partially genetic traits that also work in the same way. Like athletic ability, personallity, self command.

"Talent is useless without training, thank God." - Mark Train

- Josh

Quoth Ericsson: "But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it."

In other words, people who have exceptional performace have worked hard at it. "People who are A are also B."

However, logically, this is not equivalent to "poeple who are B are also A." The previous claim does not logically lead to "People who work hard at something attain expert performance at it".

Now, did the Dubner & Levitt give the impression of the 2nd claim? Hard to say, since their claims were not stated clearly. But other commenters in this thread seems to think the authors did.

"the correlation of parent-child genetic abilities (such as IQ, but also others) is not exceptionally high, in the range of 0.4-0.5"

The reason it's not higher is partially due to "epistasis." Which means the correlation of IQ to genes is higher than the correlation of IQ to parents' IQ.

At the end of the day, success has nothing to do with the sheer amount of talent one has; but rather what one does with the talent that they have. Nothing is more deplorable than seeing talented people fail from not applying the talent that they have and nothing is more satisfying and admired than someone with a limited amount of talent, succeeding from using whatever talent they have to the fullest.


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