Sunday, April 4, 2010

Talent and Effort

Although the "Burgomeister" pirate stealing other people's novels does not seem to think so (see previous post), writing uses both talent and effort. A long-standing question has been: How much of each? Is talent inborn, do you have to possess innate ability to be a writer, can it be taught, how much of success comes from talent and how much from hard work? These questions have been applied not only to writing but to music, art, sports, chess, even business.

Geoff Colvin thinks he has some answers. He's the author of TALENT IS OVERRATED: WHAT REALLY SEPARATES WORLD CLASS PERFORMERS FROM EVERYBODY ELSE. He brings together an impressive amount of research in various fields to reach his conclusion: Talent is mostly a myth. What counts is practice, but practice of a very specific kind, and over a pretty specific period.

The period is ten years, at a minimum. Yes, people succeed at lower levels before that, but reaching the top requires steady, intense practice for ten years. If, like Mozart and Tiger Woods, you start before you're three, you get the ten years in earlier. What counts is number of hours. For instance, students at an elite music school were divided into three groups: (1)those seen by their instructors as potential concert soloists, (2) those seen as potential professionals but not soloists, and (3)those seen as potential music teachers but not performers. In all case, thousands of hours of previous practice distinctly separated the three groups.

But what of, say, the Beatles, who had a hit before ten years had passed? Colvin argues that their early music was not as original or important as what came after ten years; it was not world class. The same, in science fiction, could be said of someone like Robert Silverberg.

What I thought most interesting, however, was the kind of practice that produces excellence. It cannot just be hitting more golf balls the way you always hit them, or playing the same violin pieces over and over, or playing more chess, or writing more stories like your previous stories. It must be "thoughtful practice," in which you obtain feedback, analyze what is working and what is not, and deliberately work on extending yourself in your weak areas. It is, Colvin reports from his interviewee, "work, not fun, and exhausting." But over time -- enough time -- it produces results. He details how Tiger Woods and chess champion Judit Polgar did that, and "exhausting" does not begin to cover it.

I believe all this, or at least most of it. I know that at the three times my own modest career made significant advances, I was deliberately trying to do something differently than before, and as a direct result of feedback from people whose opinion I respected (once Gene Wolfe, once Bruce Sterling, and once Ralph Vicinanza).

Read this book and decide for yourself.


Joe Iriarte said...

This seems similar to Pournelle's (Clarke's?) million words of crap, or to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours of practice.

I find my second-hand understanding of Gladwell's thesis more compelling than my second-hand understanding of Colvin's, because Gladwell doesn't dismiss talent altogether. Gladwell seems to view talent as a necessary but not sufficient condition. Beyond a certain level of talent, it is not true that more talented people enjoy more success, but rather once you have enough talent what matters is your drive.

I bet 1,000,000 words, 10,ooo hours, and 10 (focused) years turn out to be pretty close to equivalent.

TheOFloinn said...

10,000 hours over 10 years is about 2.7 hours per day of practice. Even if you take weekends and holidays off, this does not seem too onerous.

OTOH, one must write 274 words per day, every day to achieve 1,000,000 words in ten years. This is about 100 words per hour if you spend the aforesaid 2.7 hr/day.

Unless I mislaid a decimal point somewhere. [G]
+ + +
I agree that there must be talent before there is skill; but for Aristotelian reasons. In order for a thing to be in act with respect to a quality, it must first be in potency to receive it. But potency cannot be moved to act by itself, since nothing that moves moves by itself. [This has implications, btw. [G]] The mover is said to be a Muse.

Talent is an innate ability to receive and benefit from the training. Only such a person would devote those million words or ten years or whichever in the first place. There must be something in the person's nature "inclining [him] toward" the act of writing. This is known as "final cause." A person so-inclined will set out to master the spelling, grammar, composition, plotting, characterization, and so on.

But just as we speak of one man being "naturally strong" while another builds his strength through the artifice of exercise, one may have a natural bent toward writing while another sets out deliberately to develop such a bent through diligent practice. The latter may turn out serviceable prose to order, perhaps writing books under "house" names; or churning out best sellers according to a "formula" and growing wealthy in the process. Oh, well. Mozart did not die rich; and Salieri died insane.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Gladwell used The Beatles as an example, how they honed their chops in Hamburg and every toilet in England that would have them.

Sure. They paid their dues.

But there were just as many bands doing the same thing. Who didn't get far.

The difference?

John Lennon and Paul McCartney were =great= songwriters. And they were born to sing together.
(Let's not forget George Harrison, who wrote a bunch of beauties himself.)

That was talent with a capital "t".

And they had =drive=, as Joe Iriarte notes.

"To make it in music, you have to be a fookin' bastard. And The Beatles were the biggest fookin' bastards on Earth."--John Lennon

Russell Letson said...

I wonder whether the practice/talent principle applies equally to all pursuits. It certainly doesn't apply equally to an individual's various pursuits. I'm a writer (well, a journalist) who also makes music, and when I compare what I wrote 40 years ago to what I wrote last month and then do the same to my playing and singing, I can only conclude that I have a pretty decent gift for language and a pretty average one for music. I was publishing professional-grade copy in my twenties, but have yet to achieve a comparable level of musical competence--though I've played semi-professionally since my mid-fifties. (I think "semi-professional" means if I worked my butt off, I'd still make half what my most poverty-stricken pro friends make.) I needed every one of the 45 years it took to become a pretty good mediocre guitarist, but writing competence developed quickly in grad school. I do think I write a tad faster now--but that might just be the boost from the computer.

李惠玲 said...