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?

Talent Is Overrated

“Talent” is a word that is tossed around all too often, whether for top musicians or businessmen, or even just a person who creates popular Youtube videos. The idea of talent is in nearly every case taken for granted. As a young member of a very supportive family and community, I had heard the saying myself many times. But is talent a correct or even useful explanation for high-level performance?

Talent Is Overrated

I recently read a very intriguing book by Geoff Colvin. It was really a lucky buy—I was actually reading through reviews of Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, when the ever-so-omniscient Amazon Recommendations pointed me to a bizarre and blatantly absurd statement: Talent is Overrated.

With a plethora of examples, data, accumulation of research, and forcible writing, Colvin argues convincingly that the source of great performance in just about every field is best explained not by reference to the mysterious force known as talent, but by sheer amount and direction of deliberate practice.

My Personal Experience

First, a line from Colvin (193):

Their parents made them practice, as parents have always done, though it’s interesting to note that in these cases, when push came to shove and parents had to make a direct threat, it frequently played off the student’s intrinsic motivators. So it wasn’t “If you don’t do your piano practice we’ll cancel your allowance,” but rather “we’ll sell the piano.”  Not “If you don’t go to swimming practice you’ll be grounded Saturday night,” but rather “we’ll take you off the team.” If the child truly didn’t care about the piano or swimming, the threats wouldn’t have worked.

I was one of those kids who was, regarding the piano, totally immune to such a threat. As I wrote earlier, I absolutely dreaded playing the piano, and would have loved to see the piano disappear and find a bunch of cash in its place. But what I lacked in interest for the piano I made up for in my interest in chess. From 2003 to 2010, I competed in more than 70 rated chess tournaments. But looking back at the distribution of tournaments, I found that the majority of them occurred between 2003 and 2006, with one resurgence in 2008 [data]. It would be accurate to say that my tournament frequency was very closely correlated to how much time I spent on the game outside of tournaments in practice. As if to confirm Colvin’s thesis, here are my regular and quick rating graphs:

chess-rating-graphs

When the frequency of tournaments, and thus training, increased, my rating climbed. And when the frequency of tournaments and training decreased, my rating stagnated or declined. This seems to support the dedicated practice model argued in Colvin’s book. The performance in a given time period seemed to be determined by the amount of training in the same time period.

But what about compared to others? I am hardly an expert player, but my very first rating  after my first tournament, 1372, was in the 96-97th percentile of scholastic players at the time. By contrast, the current US chess champion Hikaru Nakamura, whose current USCF rating is a whopping 2834, started at a provisional rating of 684, an unimpressive statistic. However, he has played in 439 rated events over a period of 17 years, which is a hell of a lot more effort than I had ever thought about spending on the game. Thus even when you have an “advantage,” such as having a starting rating of 1372 versus 684, thinking of it in terms of talent is useless. If you do not follow it up with the necessary amount of work, the advantage will assuredly disappear.

There is a third point, to truly put the nail in the coffin of the talent model. In a two year span from 2006 to 2008, my rating stopped improving in the 1700s. Excuses aside, I simply didn’t practice the game much. But one thing I think could have happened is what Josh Waitzkin described, from Colvin (197):

The most gifted kids in chess fall apart. They are told that they are winners, and when they inevitably run into a wall, they get stuck and think they must be losers.

I don’t think it takes a gifted kid to run into the wall and get stuck (the 1372 initial rating was actually in part due to luck, as my first few tournaments were counted out of order, and a tournament that I had done really well in was incidentally the first one counted). For those two plateau years, I did feel the way that Waitzkin forewarned. I thought the high initial rating meant something special, i.e. talent, and that the 1700 plateau meant I was doomed. This thought process in terms of talent condemned me mentally to not advance. Even though I was still fairly high rated in my age group, I stopped practicing and reading as much, and as a result did not prepare myself adequately for tournament events. This caused my rating to drop.

How to Be a World-Class Performer

Colvin’s thesis works for far more than just chess. He applies it to the violin, piano, football, players, business, investment, management, art, teamwork, and just about anything, all while citing tremendous amounts of evidence for his claims. For music, the obvious counterexample is Mozart, yet early in the book Colvin disposes of this myth, as well as that of Tiger Woods. Mozart, for instance, had my years of intense, expert training starting at an early age, and Tiger Woods swung his first club at age seven… months, also trained by his father.

Another result of years of deliberate practice is the ability for an expert to see complex patterns that would completely elude an average person. A professional tennis player can return a serve of a ball traveling at a speed so high that a normal human should not even have time to react. Yet they are normal in this sense. But they don’t watch the ball, they watch their opponent’s body movements instead, and know approximately where the serve is going to land (or whether it will fault) before the racket even hits the ball. Similarly, a top stock trader can see signs that the average trader does not even consider to be relevant. A top manager sees the critical signs more so than an average one. And a master chess player can memorize an entire chess position in seconds and reproduce it perfectly, while the average person can recall only five or seven pieces. Most notably, this is not from better general memory, but by extensive training to be familiar with certain positions and patterns, so that they read a position by words instead of letters.

I would most certainly recommend this book to anyone. It breaks the shackle of “talent,” which although is a warm, comforting hope, it is no more than that, a beloved superstition with little evidence, and which discourages so many from even attempting something because they believe they “don’t have talent” or “divine spark” for it. But as it has repeatedly occurred, looking back at the backgrounds of top performers give little or no indication of any talent early on, but rather, what is common to all of them is an immense amount of training and dedicated practice. Perhaps this is the even more fascinating hope, that the world is within reach to everyone.