The Myth of Talent, Redux
Interesting comments on my post on Talent, including this post over at The Landscapist. Since I am snowbound, I thought I'd take a bit of time and try to respond to some of this directly.
Since Ed Richards comments seem to summarize the drift of the argument, I'll cite him here:
I disagree - you do not get to be Mozart or Rubens or Stravinsky or Feynman, or fill in the blank other great artists just by working hard. They did work hard - it is necessary but not sufficient. The theme of your last several posts has been to do the best you can do and be happy with what you can do. That is exactly right, because it is all you can do. Denying that talent matters is not necessary for this thesis, and I think it defeats your point - if talent does not matter, it must mean that someone is just not working hard enough when then cannot do great art.
It's not a secret that some people are more capable than others. That's evidently true; we see the evidence around us all the time. Have a bunch of people perform a task, and measure their performance, and their performance will fall roughly along a bell curve, and all that.
But if you want to persuade me that talent is important, it's not enough to list the people who fall in the 99.99999th percentile in their field, and say "These people are talented - without talent they would not be this good". That's working the causal connection backward - you've identified the top performers and then said "See? These people were talented, and they ended up at the top. If you don't have talent, well, you're just screwed." But if the talent myth was correct, you'd be able to take this year's kindergarten class in Seattle, WA, and identify the 'talented' kids, and then fifty years later, you'd observe a near 100% correlation between identifying a kid as 'talented' and their eventual place at the top of the spectrum of performance in their field. And you can't do that. Hell, college admissions staff at universities can't even do that prediction for something as simple as looking at 18 year olds and predicting which ones will graduate from college with good grades four years in the future.
Even worse, it's nearly impossible to evaluate early predictions of the careers of 'talented' artists, because when you go back and ask people about the artist's childhood, people don't want to say "What was Vladimir Ashkenazy like as a child? Well, to tell you the truth, I thought he was a no talent worthless kid who would never achieve anything."
And that's the problem. People make some initial effort at something, and they're not very good, and they conclude "I have no talent", and they quit. That's a failure, because as you've defined it, talent can only be identified it after a person's career is nearly complete. It's not a statistical predictor, it's a statistical observation. As a predictor, it's completely valueless.
And when people use it incorrectly as a predictor, they get discouraged, and they quit, and the world in general is less nice a place than it might have been had they persevered.