Studying sports training and skill acquisition, I often run headlong into the concept of ‘talent.’ When I suggest that athletic achievement demonstrates the extraordinary malleability of the human nervous system, the ability of our muscles to remodel, the refinement of athletes’ perceptual acuity, and even how our skeletons can be reconfigured by training, audience members often respond, ‘Yeah, but what about innate talent?’
Or, confronted by the yawning gap between elite athletes’ performances and the ability of the average person, sceptics still want to focus on the slight differences among elites athletes (for example, Jon Entine’s book Taboo), suggesting that this tiny fraction of difference is the ‘innate’ part, the ‘talent.’ I can describe the years of arduous labour that go into producing elite-level achievement, the countless hours of training and sophisticated coaching, and someone will inevitably say, ‘Okay, but some people are just inherently good at sports, aren’t they?’
But as psychologist K. Anders Ericsson said in an interview in Fast Company (cited here by Dan Peterson), ‘The traditional assumption is that people come into a professional domain, have similar experiences, and the only thing that’s different is their innate abilities. There’s little evidence to support this. With the exception of some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level.’
Obviously, certain dimensions of the body can affect one’s ability to participate in a sport like basketball or sumo at an elite level, or a genetic abnormality may create an unusual wrinkle in a metabolic or even a neural process, but research like Ericsson’s suggests that these sorts of traits are likely the exception rather than the rule. That is, even if there is a genetic trait that helps some Kenyan runners to excel, or gives an individual with photographic memory, or helps a free diver to endure oxygen deprivation, these cases do not confirm the folk idea that talent is innate (and thus likely genetic).
In this post, I want consider the difference that makes a difference. That is, how the concept of talent itself actually affects the unfolding and compounding of developmental variation, helping extreme ability to emerge (and de-motivating those who don’t demonstrate early ‘promise’). Whether or not ‘talent’ exists—and I’m profoundly skeptical—believing that it does is a good foundation for exaggerating variation in skilled ability.