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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

on talent

Beside the bed I have a small stack of magazines, which I work through in my brief bedtime reading period each night. Right now it consists mainly of magazines I received as stocking-stuffers at Christmas, but the one on top is the December 2006 issue of Scientific American, which I'd bought sometime before Christmas, but haven't had a chance to get to until the past couple of days.

The letters section refers back to the August issue, which I also read, and its cover story about the psychology of the "expert's mind"--what makes geniuses such as chess grandmasters or math prodigies so much better than the rest of us at their specialty? The author of the article, Philip E. Ross, found that chess grandmasters, for instance, do not have any more inherent ability at the relevant skills, such as that for remembering positions on the chessboard, than nonplayers. What they do have is a long history of working at it, and thus habituating their minds so that they are able to remember chess positions at a glance. Ross's finding was essentially that when it comes to greatness at some skill, Thomas Edison was right in saying that genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. What the greats have that the rest of us don't, according to Ross, is motivation. They are never satisfied with their performance, but are forever trying to improve, no matter how good they get.

I think about an interview I saw with Tiger Woods. When he sets his mind on achieving something, he can't let it go. An example is his ability to bounce a golfball up and down from the head of a club, kind of playing paddleball with it without letting it fall to the ground. This ability has no known use in terms of helping one's golf game, but Woods got it into his head that he wanted to be able to do it, and kept practicing it until he could. Now he can dribble a golfball that way as long as he likes. I remember similar stories about Steve Nash, who, as a soccer-playing teen, would not let himself go in to dinner until he had achieved a higher number of bounces of a soccer ball from his foot without letting it touch the ground. These guys are driven, and the results speak for themselves.

The editors at Scientific American found themselves deluged with dissenting letters. Critics pointed out that sustained effort over a long period could hardly account for prodigies like Mozart, who was composing concertos by age three. And I think of those famous "savants"--people with severe mental disabilities who nonetheless show tremendous talent in some skill, often music. Profoundly retarded children who can hardly walk nonetheless crawl to the piano for the first time and start playing a song that's on the radio (not easy, if you've ever tried it).

On the other side, you have phenomena such as the Polgar sisters, three Hungarian girls who were raised by their father to be chess experts. Their whole lives were centered around chess, and in due course all three grew up to be very strong players (all grandmasters, I believe); indeed Judit is one of the ten highest-ranked players in the world. How much chess "talent" were they born with, and how much of their ability is due to their father's pushing them singlemindedly into mastering the game?

Where do I stand. I believe in innate talent. Young children clearly have different gifts; it's very obvious. And whatever you're good at, you tend to want to do more of, which tends to make you better at it. So a positive-feedback loop ensues, in which an inborn inclination is reinforced through effort. The inclination also provides the motivation, perhaps. Although it seems likely that the truly great are those who have both talent and great motivation. For there are also talented people who are relatively unmotivated.

I tend to believe in James Hillman's "acorn" theory, which holds that each of us has a kind of mission in our lives--what we were born to do. And I believe that each of us has the toolkit that will allow us to fulfill that mission. As far as I know, I have no talent for golf--but I also have no interest in it. So I do not represent any kind of a threat to Tiger Woods, in any way.

I was born with a number of talents. Among other things, I draw quite well and I'm also musical. But I've come to realize that these things are definitely subordinate for me. The reason is that I don't pursue them continually. I do very little drawing these days, even doodling; and I pick up the guitar maybe a couple of times a week on average, but only to fool around--not to push my skills further and master more.

Writing (and reading) is different. I do these things every day, and indeed structure my day around them. I've always been pretty good at them, but I'm not satisfied. I can be pleased with my own work, but I am never satisfied with my ability: I always want to improve. I'm semi-obsessed about finding ways to make my work better. I study, I compare, I think, I practice. I develop theories that I hope will let me make my work better.

I don't have the feverish intensity of some famous geniuses, but I have a certain laid-back intensity: "without haste, but without rest," as Goethe said. I'm certainly without haste; but I manage also to sneak in a fair amount of rest, I think. Sigh.

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