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Talent, hard work, genes and luck

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 2, 2009 10:56 PM


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David Brooks has a column out where he mulls over the role of time invested in amplifying talent:

If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you'd take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It wouldn't have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits. Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic background, or, shared the same birthday -- anything to create a sense of affinity. ... The primary trait she possesses is not some mysterious genius. It's the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.

Brooks' attempt is to slap back at genetic determinism, but it sounds like he could be describing a gene-environment correlation. To a great extent that's what "amplifying talent" is, a positive feedback loop between propensity and hard work. But I think that sometimes the emphasis on hard work can be fetishized destructively. You read a book like Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, and you understand the opportunity cost of focusing on a task where those with innate talent can easily beat those who have spent years honing their skills at the upper levels. Not that greatness in sports doesn't require hard work, obviously it does, but among the best the small hardwired differences mean that those who aren't as fast, strong or quick by their nature will lose. Nassim Taleb's criticism of The Millionaire Next Door was that the book highlighted the winners and not the losers who had the traits x, y and z which the authors suggested result in their wealth. Taleb points out that x, y and z may be necessary but they may not be sufficient conditions for a particular outcome (career and asset acquisition paths exhibit a lot of path dependence due to random events, good or bad). No one is born a world class athlete or chess master, obviously. They are made through hard work. But, of the people who make themselves into exemplars of virtuosity through effort, all may also have some innate abilities which give them the margin of excellence or victory. And this does not even explore the role that luck may play. Consider Olympic caliber American athletes who were at their peak right before the 1980 games.

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