Saturday, November 14, 2009

Can Anybody Be A Genius? A Combined Book Review

This is a combined book review that I shopped around a while back:

Anders Ericcson is now one of the most famous cognitive psychologists in the nation. Currently teaching at Florida State, Ericcson has spent his career pioneering the study of how experts become experts. He is particularly known for his research supporting the finding (originally due to polymath Herbert Simon) that expertise in any subject -- whether it be music, science, golf, or darts, to quote his webpage -- comes only after 10,000 or so hours of deliberate practice.

Ericcson's scholarly work is considerable (in addition to publishing numerous articles in scholarly journals, Ericcson has edited and contributed to four books on expertise, including the magisterial "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance"). But his recent fame is due to his prominence in several popularizations: Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers: The Story of Success," Daniel Coyle's "The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born, It's Grown: Here's How," Geoff Colvin's "Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else," and I suspect David Shenk's optimistically-titled "The Genius in All of Us" (due to be released in 2010).

Following Ericcson's research, a running theme of all these books is that innate talent is heavily overrated, and that what we think of as a natural genius is actually the result of many hours of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice means not just mindlessly running through musical scales or hitting golf balls on the range while chatting with friends about the stock market, but deliberately and intensely focusing on every aspect of what you are doing, carefully monitoring for errors and analyzing how to improve, and doing so ad nauseam.

The importance of practice is not new, of course. That is why we have jokes about how to get to Carnegie Hall ("practice, practice, practice"), and why we so often quote Thomas Edison's famous saying that "genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Still, it is worth being reminded that great talents almost never spring out of the blue; instead, they turn out to have had many years of deliberate practice before they emerged into greatness. Tiger Woods, for example, didn't just spontaneously become the world's best golfer; his father was an obsessive golf addict, and started having Tiger practice by age 2. Neither was Mozart (who is discussed in all three books) as effortless a genius as is often believed; his father was an accomplished musician and teacher, and drilled Mozart in piano and music theory from an early age.

Indeed, at times, these authors seem to dismiss the very possibility of innate talents and abilities. Says Colvin, "when it comes to innate, unalterable limits on what healthy adults can achieve, anything beyond [] physical constraints is in dispute." Or in the words of Gladwell, "the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play." In this sentiment, they are indebted to Ericcson, who writes that expert performance is not "due to innate talent."

The actual evidence against innate talent turns out to be rather unclear. Both Gladwell and Colvin highlight ("Exhibit A," says Gladwell) one of Ericcson's studies, in which he and two colleagues studied 30 violinists at the Music Academy of West Berlin. After the students were divided into three ability-based groups (potential concert soloists, merely good violinists, and a group of students studying to be music teachers), it turned out that the groups had differing estimates of the total amount of time spent practicing before age 18: 7,410 hours for the best violinists, 5,301 hours for the good violinists, and 3,420 hours for the would-be music teachers.

But this sort of study doesn't prove that innate talent is irrelevant or non-existent. These students all already had enough ability to get into a music school in the first place, and the study therefore ignores all of the people who might have given up the violin because they had so little aptitude for it that practice never paid off. Then there are selection effects that may have affected who was in which program: perhaps the students with the least innate ability all applied to the music education program, which demanded less practice, while those with the most innate talent applied to study for a solo career.

On top of that, innate talent could itself cause students to spend more time practicing, because it's pleasurable to spend time mastering something at which you have the ability to excel. As Ericcson and his colleagues briefly concede, “heritable individual differences might influence processes related to motivation and the original enjoyment of the activities in the domain and, even more important, affect the inevitable differences in the capacity to engage in hard work.”

Now, if researchers were able to do a random assignment study -- say, assigning a random group of 7-year-olds to spend 20 hours a week practicing the violin for the next 10 years, and another random group of 7-year-olds to serve as a control group by not playing the violin -- then, and only then, would we be able to see whether anyone who practices 10,000 hours is virtually assured of turning into the next Itzhak Perlman. Needless to say, no one has ever carried out any such study, and no one ever will.

Moreover, it seems intuitively obvious that even if genius arises out of years of intense training, there was often some innate ability to start with. Take, for example, Bart Conner, the gold-medal Olympic gymnast, who startled his parents when he suddenly started walking on his hands at age 6 (as Ken Peterson notes in a recent book). Although Conner didn't rise to Olympic status until spending many hours in training, his sudden ability to walk on his hands in childhood was neither typical (as most parents could tell you), nor was it preceded by 10,000 hours of deliberate practice at handstands.

Indeed, while the fact that Michael Jordan excelled at basketball and Bill Gates excelled at computer programming is inexorably tied to the many hours each of them practiced their respective fields, it's still rather dubious to imply that it could just as easily have been Jordan who founded Microsoft and Gates who dunked from the free throw line, had they only switched what they chose to practice.

* * *

As for the merits of each book standing alone, Coyle's book is perhaps the most intellectually satisfying. Although it's very much a book for non-scientist readers, it delves into the neuroscience behind expertise. The key to expertise, from a physical perspective, is a substance known as myelin, a sort of fatty "insulation" that wraps around neuronal fibers in the brain in proportion to how often that brain circuit is fired. When you engage in deliberate practice -- or any repeated activity at all -- your brain responds by focusing more myelin on the brain circuits involved in that activity. The key role of myelin sheds light on why deliberate practice develops good habits, and conversely why bad habits are so hard to break: once myelinated, a brain circuit doesn't easily lose that myelination. Thus, "the only way to change [habits] is to build new habits by repeating new behaviors -- by myelinating new circuits."

Given that Colvin is a senior editor at Fortune Magazine, it is unsurprising that his book is aimed at delivering lessons for the time-pressed businessman looking to get an edge on the competition. Some of the lessons are no doubt useful (practice giving a presentation beforehand), but some don't seem to have much to do with the expertise research. One chapter ("Applying the Principles in Our Organizations") consists mostly of advice such as "deliberately putting managers" into new jobs that will force them to learn new areas, or avoiding "picking the wrong team members," or trying to build "trust" among fellow business associates, or trying to block "the inevitable personal agendas." All of this may be good business advice, but the citations to expertise research are rather thin.

Moreover, in many areas that businesses worry most about -- such as forecasting market developments, or making good strategic decisions -- there may not be any such thing as "expertise" in the first place. Philip Tetlock's superb book "Expert Political Judgment" collected some 80,000 predictions from people reputed to be political or economic "experts," and then waited to see if the predictions came true; the so-called "experts" turned out to be little more accurate than random chance.

Business is likely no different. Because the world is so complex, and because so many intervening events can arise, it is extraordinarily easy for managers, economists, and politicians to fool themselves into believing that their preferred course of action really was a good idea at the time. Moreover, it may be years or decades between a manager's or politician's decision, and the ultimate results of that decision. All of this, in turn, prevents them from receiving instantaneous and unambiguous feedback on their performance -- something that is absolutely necessary to deliberate practice. When you miss a golf shot, you instantly know that you've missed, by how much, and in what direction. None of that is true as to many business or political decisions.

Gladwell broadens his focus far beyond the expertise research, discussing the way in which extreme outcomes are due to communities (he opens by discussing a community of Italian immigrants that was abnormally healthy, apparently due to its small town atmosphere), culture (one chapter analyzes how Korean pilots are more likely to crash since co-pilots feel too timid to point out when the pilot is in error), and sheer luck in timing (one chapter notes that many current giants of the computer industry were born around 1955, just in time to be college-age when computers became more widely usable in the mid-1970s, but not so old that they were already safely esconced in corporate jobs). From these motley collection of these fascinating stories -- Gladwell has clearly spent 10,000 hours practicing the art of storytelling -- Gladwell draws the conclusion that we get too caught up "in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made," whereas success really depends heavily on circumstances or cultural backgrounds.

That conclusion is true enough, but Gladwell immediately veers in an odd direction with his policy prescription: "To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success -- the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history -- with a society that provides opportunities for all."

What? Gladwell has just spent pages and pages telling us that Asian children do well at math because they come from a cultural heritage "where, for hundreds of years, penniless peasants [were] slaving away in the rice paddies three thousand hours a year," and that to be a "great New York lawyer," the perfect combination is someone born in the 1930s to Jewish immigrant parents who worked in the garment district. All of that may be true, but these advantages, such as they are, are impossible to confer on anybody, let alone all of society.

Even the advantage that Bill Gates had -- Gladwell points out that "our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968" -- doesn't provide a useful guide. In 1968, no one had any clue that personal computers would one day become as common as telephones (IBM's Thomas Watson once said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers," an infamous example of the impossibility of predicting future business developments). No one could possibly have known that Gates's teenage hobby of programming was actually a huge headstart on an industry that would one day be worth billions. Similarly, it makes no sense to suggest that we need a national policy of giving "all" children a headstart on whatever will be a brand-new multi-billion dollar industry in the year 2040. No one knows how to do such a thing.


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