Friday, May 12, 2006

A Question of Talent

I gave a presentation about myself in one of my Masters seminars last week. Our task this semester (our first in the course) was to talk about ourselves, our background, and our convictions related to music. I talked about my history as a musician, and the turning points, and moments of realisation that I have had. Here is one paragraph:
For most of my uni years I was farily heavily involved in student politics. I was a member of one of the socialist groups on campus, and was waving the red flag with abandon. I was fascinated to talk to people about the world, and why it is the way it is. I had never really questioned that before. The fact that humans created the society that we live in – and that therefore we have the potential to change it – was such an eye opener for me. I was also interested in ideas of equality and elitism. The idea that everyone is equal, no matter who they are or what their background, was quite different from what my experience in music, where, it seemed to me, there was a great division between those who were ‘good’ and those who weren’t. I started to become very wary of words like ‘genius’ or ‘talent’, as they suggested some sort of inborn ability that others lacked. Is musical ability a product of nature or nurture? In my own socialist utopia, everyone had the chance to play music and make art.
I still don't really know how I feel about the idea of talent, genius, inborn ability, or whatever you care to call it. But how else do you explain the way some people seem to be really good at stuff while others aren't? Is it subtle differences in background and education? Do some people have more determination than others? How do we explain Mozart's achievements at age 5? Do we all have the capacity to be Mozarts? Or are some of us doomed to perpetual mediocrity?

Some new research by Anders Ericsson and others suggests that
the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.
They argue that whether someone enjoys an activity or not is a huge factor in whether that person will become good at it or not:
Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.
All this seems very logical, and supports the theory that I wrote about here. Maybe there is hope after all!

(Thanks to kottke.org for the link)