The question of the extent to which nature determines one’s situation in life has occupied humanity for a long time. With the world almost evenly split between proponents and critics of the notion of free will, this question has been the subject of many debates.
Inherent in this argument is the question of whether one’s intellectual capacity is of more or less significance, relative to practice, in determining one’s success; and if it is, to what extent. This essay seeks to critique ‘Sorry Strivers: Talent Matters’ an article written by David Z. Hambrick and Elizabeth J. Meinz, published in the New York Times Opinion section on November 19, 2011. The article adds another voice to the long drawn talent versus practice question.
The writers’ aim was to use their authority as associate professors of psychology to discredit the meritocratic and wishful notion that talent only matters up to a point after which practice becomes the single most important determinant in hindering or aiding the achievement of high skills. I do agree with their argument, although it is not so persuasively put across.
Foremost, the article was written for the benefit of a general audience, a factor that influences its lack of depth in handling the subject in question. It does not go into the fine aspects of the talent versus practice argument. It cites only three studies for instance; one that supports the argument for practice and two in support of the importance of talent. By using these studies, it only gives a very shallow overview, one that can hardly be used to reach a conclusive position on the matter.
The article cites the study carried out by Anders Ericsson and on whose basis those who refute the significance of talent argue. Ericsson compared the success levels of violin students with the practice hours they had accumulated by age 20. He found out that the more the practice hours clocked, the higher the success levels (Hambrick and Meinz). On the basis of these findings, Ericsson concluded that it really was practice, and not innate genius that determines how good we become in whatever field.
Hambrick and Meinz don’t find these findings credible and taunt this study as the single supporting evidence that is cited by the champions of the practice argument. However, they don’t give reasons why we should question Ericsson’s findings. By say faulting Ericsson’s research design or methodology, the authors would have been more successful in influencing their readers to rejecting his findings.
At the same time, it could be argued that the apparent lack of motivation to practice on the part of those categorized as least skilled in Ericsson’s study was a manifestation of their being naturally predisposed to fail due to limits imposed by their intellect. Because of this oversight, the article loses its persuasiveness against the arguments fielded by proponents of practice.
The authors cite the findings of their own study, which found out that “where the practice habits of pianists were similar, intellectual ability accounted for the difference in their success” to support their argument (Hambrick and Meinz). This adds no real value to the article’s persuasiveness.
In a subject as divisive as the one in question, and in an argument that one has emotionally invested in, it would not be improbable for them to engage in attempts at finding evidence to support their side of the argument. Such undertakings would be expected to be marred by impartiality.
The findings of the study carried out by the authors might lose credibility to this argument. It could be argued that it was possible that they were incapable of achieving a sufficient level of detachment with the subject for objectivity to be achieved. Their findings are therefore easily questionable.
At the same time, the concept of working memory, which the authors employed in carrying out the research, is a source of controversy too. Whether one’s working memory capacity is fixed or malleable is the subject of ongoing study.
If working memory capacity can be expanded by means of mental exercises as has been argued, would mean that it might no longer be considered a fixed constituent of one’s natural intelligence. Until this contention is conclusively addressed, the findings of the authors’ study are not valid. They therefore can’t be cited as conclusive evidence in support of the argument for the supremacy of talent.
The article does not offer any new or conclusive take on subject at hand. It does not handle its argument against the disregard of talent very well. What it achieves is probably the sparking of public debate on the matter.
In my mind, naturally endowed capabilities are of great importance in determining what one can and cannot achieve. To completely disregard or to undermine the significance of one’s intellect in determining one’s success is, to use the words of the two authors, “wishful”.
The idea that the critics of talent stand for borders on the ideal, is without doubt politically correct. It serves to endorse the notions of meritocracy and free will. This however, sadly, isn’t true. Nature does, to a very significant extent, determine what we do and how well we do it.
Hambrick, David. & Meinz, Elizabeth. “Sorry Striver: Talent Matters.” New York Times, 19 Nov. 2011. 29 Jan. 2011.