It Turns Out….Talent Matters

In cognitive science there’s a popular law called the 10,000 hour rule.

It states that just about anyone can become an expert at anything if they devote 10,000 hours of active practice to the field. Basketball, acting, speed reading, anything.

It’s been frequently analyzed in pop sociology books like Freakonomics, and guys like Cal Newport devote large amounts of their popular and academic work towards studying its effects.

The notion has a nice meritocratic feel to it, since it implies anyone can be a winner if they’re willing to try hard enough.

With that as a background, here’s an excerpt from a new article that appeared in the New York Times:

The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.

I haven’t read the study yet, but after looking at the article, here are a few thoughts:

1). The “remarkable effects” found in one study often disappear over time once sample sizes get larger, even if the results are statistically significant at small sizes.

2). When you’re studying extreme outliers, it’s hard to ever get very large sample sizes.

3). It’s important to distinguish between events that are “one-off” like an invention, book, etc, and events that happen continuously with no discrete end points. Carpentry, nursing, sports, etc. It wouldn’t shock me if the ultra-talented were very over-represented for the one-off events, but did not have such an advantage for on-going events that require consciencousness as much as talent in order to succeed.

Overall, I think this article, and its implied meaning, are overstated.

3 thoughts on “It Turns Out….Talent Matters”

  1. Really, I think personality has as much to do with it as anything else. Most skills can be learned over time w/ enough effort, but the key is having the tenacity to be able to go through the learning process, engage in lots of applied practice, learn from your mistakes, and keep doing it. Lots of people have the talent to do something like that, but not the self-control.


  2. As a youth sports coach of 15 years, my perception is that talent matters up to a certain threshold, and after that point hardwork/dedication takes care of the rest, until the next threshold, upon which you typically need a natural endowment of talent to go over, and so on, and so on. So Jonathan I agree with your points about “one off” events. They require a concentrated application of brilliance (or luck in some cases), and typically don’t have any imbetweens, which will give a large advantage to extremely gifted people.Other trades that are more continuous reward hard work more than natural ability.


  3. @G.J. – My own experience in sports would lead me to agree with your observations. I know as a basketball player I could improve step-wise with certain skills, but playing against other people it was clear to me some had a natural ability I could never compensate for w/ hard work.@Zan,I think personality inequality is a subversive topic that probably merits more discussion than it’s given. To me one of the striking characteristics about highly successful people is that most of them have a level of self-control that other people don’t.


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