The Swinging Pendulum: Talent vs Hard Work

Last week we had as guest speakers IS 318 chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel and other interesting people from the documentary Brooklyn Castle. This was a highly relevant talk as we had a great number of amateur chess players in the audience, incidentally in time for the finishing days of our summer chess tournament. (In addition, Elizabeth and IS 318 students had visited JS before.) In the Q&A, there was an interesting section about the roles of talent and hard work. At dinner we discussed it more in depth, with respect to both chess and skills in general.

Elizabeth had some interesting things to say. A particular student played chess in a very creative and original fashion, a telltale sign of talent. For most players, however, hard work is far more important.

By far the most interesting point was about the amount of time dedicated to chess by some of the students: up to 20-30 hours a week. In turn, the fact that IS 318 was a relatively economically disadvantaged school was in some ways an advantage, as many of the students had nothing else to do. Thus they had an incredible amount of time to study chess. Their competitors from wealthier areas often had other extracurricular activities, and thus did not spend as much time on chess.

At one point the documentary went to the 2009 National Scholastic Grades tournament (I was there!), where IS 318 had a stellar performance:

The first place in the 8th grade section was Canyon Vista Middle School. Funny how life works, isn’t it?

It was also interesting to think about the distinction between areas where talent seems to play more of an effect. For example, child prodigies thrive in chess, math, and music, but not so much in literature, art, and finance. Perhaps the extra layers of complexity make it more difficult to do without specialized knowledge coming from long hours of study or experience.

My view was that hard work is far more significant, though I used to have a more mixed view. Last December I wrote a post on Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, a book which is in the same camp as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. These have probably influenced my views greatly.

Finally, an undisclosed party member gets credit for the name of this post. He compared the general consensus on hard work vs talent to a pendulum: It used to be too far in the talent side, but now it has swung a bit too much in the hard work side. So the question now is, is talent underrated?