HBD: Human Biodiversity

The Talent Debate


Terry Teachout asks whether the now well-known 10,00-hour rule of practice can account for genius, and answers in the negative.

The problem with the 10,000-hour rule is that many of its most ardent proponents are political ideologues who see the existence of genius as an affront to their vision of human equality, and will do anything to explain it away. They have a lot of explaining to do, starting with the case of Mozart. As Mr. Robinson points out, Nannerl, Mozart's older sister, was a gifted pianist who received the same intensive training as her better-known brother, yet she failed to develop as a composer. What stopped her? The simplest explanation is also the most persuasive one: He had something to say and she didn't. Or, to put it even more bluntly, he was a genius and she wasn't.

David Shenk, the author of The Genius in All of Us, insists that Teachout has set up a straw man, and claims that the proponents of the 10,000-hour rule have never made such a ridiculous claim as that genius is made, not born. Yet the originator of the theory, Anders Ericsson, is quoted by Teachout as saying that “experts are always made, not born”.

It's worthy of note that the popularizers of the rule, among them Mr. Shenk and most notably, Malcolm Gladwell, all lean left politically. To them, the notion that all human beings are not capable of high achievement clashes with the basic liberal tenet of equality of ability. This tenet lies behind, if obscurely, current debates about the racial achievement gap in education, the immigration debate -- H1-B visas, uneducated illegals -- even whether the U.S. is becoming a banana republic.

Furthermore, the 10,000-hour rule plays to the vanity of the cognitive elite. If humans are all equal in ability, or nearly so, then what explains the composition of the cognitive elite as well as the ruling class? Practice! And what is it that makes someone practice, if not the realization that he may have some talent that will be realized through practice? Moral fiber! To undertake the grueling 10,000 hours that will make someone an expert and a perhaps a genius requires fortitude and perseverance -- these are what explain the composition of the elite: not innate intelligence or ability. The elite are simply better than the proles of flyover country, since they have undertaken the effort to make themselves what they are today, while the proletariat languishes in the stupidity of rural life.

Interestingly, Karl Marx well expressed the notion of the fundamental equality of talent when he wrote that, under the socialist dispensation, a man will “do one thing to-day and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.”

No one denies that practice and effort are necessary to high achievement, but whether they are sufficient is the question to which all this boils down. In the composition of classical music, for instance, great effort must be expended to master a complex system of art, while in other fields, genius may manifest itself well ahead of such effort.

Teachout writes:

To his credit, Mr. Robinson unequivocally rejects what he calls "the anti-elitist Zeitgeist." At the same time, he believes that while "genius is not a myth," it is merely an enabling condition that can be brought to fruition only through hard and focused work. This seems to me to strike the right balance—yet it still fails to account for the impenetrable mystery that enshrouds such birds of paradise as Bobby Fischer, who started playing chess at the age of 6. Nine years later, he became the U.S. chess champion. His explanation? "All of a sudden I got good."

Chess is a field, like mathematics, in which a genius may see far even before he puts in the practice. Once one knows the rules, all else follows, and learning the game doesn't depend on mastering a vast body of knowledge, but on seeing all the implications of those rules. In short, Bobby Fischer was a genius.