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Is talent a destructive myth?

(121 Posts)
Cortina Mon 23-May-11 11:04:51

Is talent a destructive myth?

Worth a listen, it's very short. See thread on Secondary education for more details. It's great Matthew Syed has agreed to answer our questions on Mumsnet. Also ties in to Gabby Logan sport Q&A session.

So many of us decide we have no aptitude for certain subjects/areas very early on...

roisin Mon 23-May-11 16:22:45

I agree completely.

As a young child I was encouraged in certain areas - eg music and maths; but told "never mind you don't have any talent for" other subjects - eg creative writing and art.

I took that on board 100% and accepted that as part of my self-image.

I'm thrilled that my boys do not seem to have faced the same kind of discouragements. As a result they have had a lot more pleasure and achieved a lot more success than I did in subjects like art.

emy72 Mon 23-May-11 16:34:09

I agree that in life you can be successful at anything you put your mind/effort to.

However, I also believe that talent is very real and it is something you are born or not born with.

cory Mon 23-May-11 20:12:12

It can be destructive or not depending on circumstances and the individual. In my own case, finding that I did have a talent for something that other people found difficult was something that spurred me on and made me work harder.

Though having said that, my brother who had virtually no talent for sports - and knew it!- still put a lot of dogged effort into learning to skate and ended up coaching children's ice hockey teams (on a voluntary basis). So perhaps we were just the kind of people who would have seized on any excuse to do what we wanted to do.

Then again, all my brother's efforts over many years could not get him to the stage where he could use his interest professionally or even get into an adult amateur team. If it is true that you can be successful at anything then I think he should have got there, because he certainly had the right attitude.

Still, he found something satisfactory to do with his interest, so it wasn't wasted. And I am sure the mere experience of working hard at something was worthwhile in itself.

generalhaig Mon 23-May-11 22:45:05

Cory - I see this with my two boys - ds2 tries really, really hard and practises a lot but has much less tangible success than ds1 who is a completely different build and temperament and who doesn't try anything like as hard

If talent really were a myth and you could succeed simply by trying and practising hard, then ds2 would be more successful than his brother, but he's not ... He gets a lot of enjoyment out of trying though so it's far from wasted effort and I really admire that character trait which keeps him plugging away

Ds1 can't understnad why anyone would want to keep doing something unless they were "the best" ...

cory Tue 24-May-11 10:46:03

I suppose it's a combination of things really:

Talent won't do it on its own, but without real talent there is a certain limit to how far you can go.

note: noone can get through the work without actually...errr...doing the work; but then again, hundreds of composers worked as hard as Mozart but they didn't all write The Magic Flute; I see students who get through their A-levels and BAs convinced that they are geniuses and then hit a blank wall because they simply cannot do the thinking on a more advanced level- neither self belief or hard work can do it for them on this kind of level

Hard work will only get you so far on its own- but you won't get anywhere without it except at the very lowest levels.

note: Mozart did work hard, for all he was Mozart

Self belief on its own, even when coupled with hard work will only get you so far- but you need self belief to put up with all that hard lonely work.

note: the worst essays I have read have usually been from students with an inflated sense of their own talent; but then again, that has to be weighed against the students who give up, or never try, because they don't believe in themselves

All very complicated, and many people have the ability to compensate to some extent for failings in one department if they really want to.

But ime there is one kind of student who invariably fails and that is the student who sits down and blames circumstances. Yes, you may see that they are right, it is unfair that the other students on the course have attended private schools/had supportive teachers/not suffered disabilities/have had the chance to study languages abroad. But as long as they are focusing on the past they are not making the most of the present. Beethoven was deaf. But he wrote some pretty good music.

I know I keep going on about this, but it is because I have a dd who might well grow up feeling she has a lot of reasons to feel disadvantaged (disability, chronic illness, ghastly experience of junior school, constantly having it rubbed into her -with statistics- that people with her attendance record cannot do well educationally)- and I don't want her to ruin her life's chances. Or if she does make a mess of them, I want her to have the courage to try again. And again.

WowOoo Tue 24-May-11 10:56:07

Thanks Cortina, very interesting.

Reminds me how important teachers and parents are to encourage and inspire. (and why we worry so much about not so super teachers)

And yes Cory to say try again and again and again until we get there. You sound like a fab parent.

Cortina Tue 24-May-11 11:37:15

Cory agree with most of what you've said. I always bang on about Mindset (Dweck) but I believe a growth mindset would have taken me far further in life. I CAN get better at things I find difficult. I will be instilling this in my family! You say:

Talent won't do it on its own, but without real talent there is a certain limit to how far you can go.

Define 'real talent' though, often what we think of as giftedness is hidden practice and expertise in disguise. One study found top performers had learnt no faster than those who reached lower levels of attainment, hour after hour each group had improved at an almost identical rate. The difference was in the number of hours the top performers put in, they had practised for more hours. Matthew Syed puts these sorts of arguments forward (see Syed thread on secondary education - including link to brief radio 4 debate with someone with an opposing point of view). Rudiger Gamm was hailed as a mathematical prodigy and named 'a human miracle' because he could find the quotient of two primes to 60 decimal places. Thing was he had devoted his life to maths from a very early age, practising for many hours a day.

Tiger Woods was handed a golf club at 3 or something like that and had but in thousands more hours of practice than others beginning golf 3 years later. He had a huge advantage. I was one of the under graduates you describe and my essays were embarrassing, full of over blown, flowery, rambling prose. Total rubbish in short. When this was pointed out I sought out the best mentor I could find and turned things around. I was prepared to work harder than my peers plus I loved the subject. I think that Johnny Wilkinson and David Beckham were far more dedicated than the average sportsman, they spent hours and hours when everyone had gone home doing more and more. Perhaps you could say they were obsessed and driven far beyond the majority. So what's talent to begin with and who's to say your students can't surprise you? Or do you think that their pre-determined IQ can only go so far?

I think true giftedness is extremely rare. I've had reception teachers tell me they can spot gifted pupils at 4, but how do they know this 'gifted' pupil hasn't had many hours of help at home? Yet our whole school system is set up so we expect those who have achieved highly early on to continue this trend, at least to a degree, or it's likely we're failing them. Certain pupils are seen as so much smarter and treated as such, this has an ongoing effect (good and bad).

Einstein said he had no 'special talent': 'I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent; curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance combined with self-criticism have brought me to my ideas'.

Our core beliefs are more important than any talent we may or may not possess. Edison is often quoted as a genius but he had huge teams around him to make his invention possible. He had a growth mindset alright though: 'If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward'.

Recent developments in cognitive science have shown that even though some may have more 'raw ability' than others with practice most can dramatically improve from our starting point. A study of London cabbies showed the the area of the brain that governed spatial navigation was much larger than it was for non taxi drivers. It didn't start out like that, but it developed over time whilst they worked. Even maths whizzes apparently eventually begin to use a part of the brain associated with episodic memory which makes them more efficient. Apparently our whole brains have neurons which can be effectively switched on to help us but we are going to have to work damned hard to make this happen. What interests me is that so many seem to think we are born with our potential for greatness in all areas encoded in our DNA and there isn't a lot we can do about it. It's simpler to think in these terms especially when decisions have to be made about how to allocate sparse educational resources & who is the most deserving of an academic education etc.

IMO a growth mindset is the most important thing, a growth mindset can dramatically change your life for the better. Cory your DD will have a growth mindset with you as a mother.

Cortina Tue 24-May-11 11:46:27

Growth mindset Christine Bleakley

A light hearted look at growth mindset in action. This clip shows Christine Bleakley's successful attempt to water ski across the Channel. She falls no less than ten times. What gets her across is steely determination even though she's in pain. She's had a great coach, one of the best but think I am right in saying hasn't water skied before that. We can do more than we think if we only believe! (Especially if we have a great mentor).

frogs Tue 24-May-11 11:49:03

I'd add that as well as talent you need self-belief and determination. You have to believe in your own ability/potential, but also have the determination to develop your talent though hard work.

Also worth bearing in mind that talent is relative - a child who is outstanding in a mainstream school might be very average in a specialist context. And that can work both ways - some children might find that moving from being a big fish in a small pond to being just another face in the crowd spurs them on to new efforts and heights of achievement. But another child might find that pressure overwhelming and achieve better in a less-competitive context where they can plough their own furrow without having to constantly compare themselves to others.

Tbh I don't think it's true that you can be successful at anything you put your mind and effort to. Some people are never going to be outstanding athletes/musical performers/academic high achievers, however hard they work. That doesn't mean their efforts are not worthwhile, but that it will take them a disproportionate amount of work to achieve even a very modest standard, and might ultimately be better off employing their energies in a field more suited to their abilities.

Cortina Tue 24-May-11 11:52:30

Just to add she had 4 months of training but no experience apart from that.

Cortina Tue 24-May-11 12:01:46

Frogs - I think people get bogged down in negative thoughts that might spring from believing they're no athlete and will never be any good at maths etc though. See my points on secondary thread (Matthew Syed) if interested smile.

We can improve and yes I can get an A* in GCSE maths if I want to (I have no maths qualification). Will I ever be a maths professor? No, but I can be better than I ever thought possible.

What's also interesting is the low status we generally ascribe to effort and hard work. We value effortless 'genius' far more, who would choose to be a plodding tortoise? Teachers often make (usually subconscious) decisions about our children very young, 'Sara is a trier' whereas 'Tim is bright' once made these decisions are very powerful and rarely rescinded. It's human nature to make these decisions. If Sara spurts and over takes Tim chances are she'll still be seen as plodder who has done so well due to her own hard work whereas if Tim's star fades and excuse will be made, he's fallen in with a bad crowd etc. It's extremely rare a child will be recategorised.

GrimmaTheNome Tue 24-May-11 12:05:38

I think saying that 'talent is a destructive myth' is too negative a way of putting it.

Talent may be a constructive myth, if someone thinks, oh, I'm quite good at this, and then that encourages them to practise. The old adage 'Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration' has a lot of truth in it.

However, I have met one or two people who just seem to have some real talent - for instance a mathematical ability which wasn't just about years of practice.

I think the piece in the OP was somewhat mislabelled. The problem isn't when a child is told they are talented (although a tactless teacher could demoralise the rest of the class by singling out one 'oh, he's mathematically gifted' ... that should certainly be avoided.) The destruction is when a child is told they're no good at something. I've seen this in my DH - for some reason his mother had a tendency to say 'oh, you're no good at X' if he wasn't good at it immediatelyhmm. Fortunately she could only do this in areas she knew something about, and she'd had a limited education, which left DH free to excel at science.

Cortina Tue 24-May-11 12:13:08

Also Frogs, define academic high achiever? I believe a child with 'average' ability or one who is seen as having an average IQ (whatever that really means) is capable of As and A*s at GCSE - they can get incrementally better, they can be taught well, etc. Certainly I know plenty of 'average' children who have retaken (a module) and changed a C into an A (in their weakest subject).

Matthew Syed believes that any of his friends from his bog standard comp could have got a degree from Cambridge, he only got a handful of O'levels and emerged with a prize winning first. He said he saw no real difference between his mates and the under graduates. I thought that was interesting and can't wait for the Q&A session we've been promised over on the secondary board.

emy72 Tue 24-May-11 13:56:06

Cortina, but you can't deny that some people have a gift. You must have come across people who have a gift for music or art, I saw it first hand in my family. My brother could play several instruments aged 4 and nobody had taught him. I remember it well as I was 10 and had slaved for years over the piano but he could play better than me and could play any tune you sang to him.

I have also read mindset and I agree with a lot of the arguments, but I still do believe that some people have a true gift, esp in the arts and you can't deny it. I remember seeing a 6 year old at the airport once doing all sorts of splits etc and her mum said her DD had never done dance. My DD had done dance for 3 years and couldn't do half of that.

That's the amazing thing about humans I think.

Cortina Tue 24-May-11 14:23:28

I think true 'gifts' and genuine child prodigies are incredibly scare. I think even in these cases it's possible for some 'ordinary' people to overtake those with even substantial 'God given' advantage with time/practice and opportunity.

There isn't an art or music genome (from what I've read) and many whom we herald as gifted in this area have grown up in an environment steeped in music and art and so been exposed since birth. I've read about, listened to and watched Emily Bear the child American piano 'prodigy' - she comes from a family of gifted pianists and was taught by one of the best teachers in the world from a very young age indeed. Not to say she doesn't have a talent but those looking at this case don't see the practice, motivation and the environment which have no doubt played a large part.

So many believe they can't write well or draw, but both are skills that can be taught. Dweck quotes from and uses compelling examples from the book 'Drawing on the right side of the brain'.

We had a boy heralded as a young genius in our school. Perhaps he was but his family had no TV, they read, discussed current affairs and enjoyed solving maths problems routinely. It's easy to see how a child like this might seem more intelligent then his peers, especially at a very young age.

What's interesting is how we love to believe in mythical genius and imagine that some are inherently absolutely brilliant. Not saying some aren't but I am saying I believe them to very scarce. Some brilliant writers strive for years and draft and redraft endlessly, I am thinking of the man who wrote Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas whose name escapes me. I enjoyed his novels and imagined that he must be incredibly gifted etc but then I read about how seriously he takes his work, spending hour upon hour searching for exactly the right word. I could easily just look at the finished product and think 'ok, for him he's obviously gifted'. That's the danger, we don't strive if we think we haven't got the ability.

verlainechasedrimbauds Tue 24-May-11 14:38:24

It's also to do with how talent is judged and by whom, isn't it? Certainly in the arts or in music, there are those for whom a "lucky break" will allow better training, money, time to practice, exposure to great teachers and professional "notice" - they are then more likely to be acknowledged as gifted than those who have not had this break but who still have great talents (and work hard to improve them). Equally, when it comes to performance and music, what and who you know - and what you look like - will influence how you get on.

frogs Tue 24-May-11 15:16:52

Re 'Academic high achiever' - for the sake of argument, and notwithstanding the fact that achievement consists of a person doing the very best that they are capable of, etc etc:

Having taught in higher education, I would say there is a level of natural ability below which people struggle to manipulate abstract ideas in the way that is required to succeed in a traditional degree. And I would say that we are doing a disservice to a not inconsiderable number of young people by encouraging them to pursue a route that requires the type of abstract thinking that doesn't come naturally to them. IME, and again notwithstanding the fact that there may be extenuating circumstances wrt the grades people achieve in terms of health, poor teaching, late access to education, etc etc, A-level grades below about 2 grade Cs suggest that a candidate might be better off exploring options other than a traditional degree course.

On a different point on the scale, a child of average ability, who has been well taught and has worked hard, should be able to achieve high grades at GCSE, good grades at A-level, and should be able to cope with a degree course if they are prepared to put the work in. But the ability to do genuinely innovative academic work at a high level requires something more than good teaching and hard work.

Cortina Tue 24-May-11 16:12:28

I can see not all would be cut out for genuinely innovate academic work at a very high level. I do believe that most can transform their intellect and are not the prisoners of their genetic inheritance.

Is it possible to 'become extraordinary' and to train your brain to facilitate 'abstract thought'? As I've mentioned there's good evidence our brains can develop and change with use (brain plasticity). If we spent three and a half thousand hours engaged in developing our minds in this manner by the age of six wouldn't we be ahead of our peers in this area by then? If we hit upon a way of doing this that stimulated and lit up the neural pathways in our brain that were directly responsible for abstract thought that is. Mozart spent this amount of time on the piano by the time he was six and was hailed a prodigy.

So if we spent this about of time practising our abstract thought skills wouldn't we then be hailed as gifted in abstract thought, revered by our peers & teachers and thus spurred on to continue this activity, at the same frantic pace, and so see our lead over our peers increase further?

Can a minor intellect 'become' a major genius? I rather think it can.

Matthew Syed believes innate talent (in sport) doesn't exist, or if it does it's not widespread and makes only the tiniest difference. For him, we may be limited in sport by our 'hardware' e.g: being too short for basketball, or not having enough muscle fibre in our legs for running but that's all. The rest is all about drive and practice. It's an interesting subject and an important one.

generalhaig Tue 24-May-11 20:37:58

"Matthew Syed believes innate talent (in sport) doesn't exist, or if it does it's not widespread and makes only the tiniest difference. For him, we may be limited in sport by our 'hardware' e.g: being too short for basketball, or not having enough muscle fibre in our legs for running but that's all. The rest is all about drive and practice. It's an interesting subject and an important one."

But that 'hardware' is absolutely crucial when it comes to most sports (I don't know much about table tennis, maybe that's one where hard work trumps everything else). It wouldn't matter how many hours ds2 put into practising cricket he still wouldn't make it to the England team (or frankly even into the A team in his club). He has hyper mobile joints which keep coming out of their sockets and low muscle tone - however much he perseveres it just ain't happening and I would be doing him a disservice If I encouraged him to believe he could do it if he simply tried hard enough. He does try hard however, and I can see that that trait will serve him well in future because he does keep going even when he's not getting the immediate positive feedback that ds1 for example gets

Yes of course you can get better at something if you keep practising but I simply don't believe that it's always just a matter of wanting it badly enough

I never found maths easy at school - I got a good grade in my O-level by working hard, would probably have been able to get by at A-level but there's no way on this earth that I would have been able to get a first in maths at degree level no matter how hard I tried and frankly it would have been silly to exoend all that effort when I could (and did) sail through English

janeyjampot Tue 24-May-11 21:08:13

I work in a field which involves the measurement of strategic thinking ability. It is clear to me that some people can do this and some people can't! It is not clear, however, at what age this ability becomes 'fixed'. The research talks about an 'age of maturity' which we tend to estimate at 18 - 20, by which the development phase is finished. I have only ever tested adults. This has always made me wonder if I could increase my DCs' ability to think strategically by stretching their thinking in this way to see if we can increase their 'thinking capacity' in later life. The problem is, of course, that there can be no 'control' - I don't have a spare pair of genetically identical children to ignore!

Something I have observed, though, is that adults who can't naturally think in a strategic way have often developed coping mechanisms which allow them to mimic this. Most of the time it works, but under pressure they do not perform as well as those to whom it comes naturally. This seems to me to suggest that hard work and diligence does pay, but eventually, perhaps talent will outperform it when the chips are down.

GrimmaTheNome Tue 24-May-11 21:22:26

The catch is, I reckon there has to be something a bit unusual about a young child who is willing and able - temperamentally - to submit to 'three and a half thousand hours ... by the age of six' of any sort of training, be it 'abstract thought', piano or tennis. And to thrive on it.

thebestisyettocome Tue 24-May-11 21:28:29

'Talented' children always often have parents who are pretty singleminded about their child suceeding in a particular field.

For me, this means that children who are the most successful are the ones who had parents who weren't afraid to bollock them when they failed to make the grade.

snorkie Tue 24-May-11 22:42:22

I think there's a great amount of truth that anyone can make a huge improvement to their ability by practice, but my own observations suggest that talent isn't a complete myth either. There are children who excel at everything they do with little effort and those who put in a great deal of effort and don't achieve as well. At my swimming club I've observed children who come regularly, train hard and yet are soundly beaten in races by a child who attends sporadically and mucks around when there, even though on the whole, children who attend regularly and train hard are the ones that improve most dramatically. There always seems to be the odd child who gains grade 8s in music with very little practice while simultaneously doing regional level sport and achieving top grades academically across all the subjects, which this mindset theory doesn't adequetly explain.

bruffin Wed 25-May-11 07:30:39

In the old eastern bloc they used to trawl the nurseries looking for children with talent for gymnastics, then take them away and train them for the olympics etc. If anyone could get to the same position why not chose random children?
DS regularly beats swim club children at the annual house swimming competition, who train 2 or 3 times a week. He does no training at all, he probably would have been quite good if he did train.

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