Sunday, November 29, 2009

Talent, Expertise, Excellence

Here is a bunch of links:

  1. Daniel Chambliss: Mundanity of Excellence. A classic paper on how experts differ from novices -- based on a long-term study of competitive swimmers at different levels. There's a fabulous section on why 'talent' does not lead to excellence. [You might want to get hold of the full original from the source; requires subscription, though.].

  2. Greg Downey at Talent: A Difference That Makes A Difference. Here's an excerpt from the section on "What is talent and how to identify it":

    ‘Talent’ or ‘potential’ are ways that some of us think about inequality in ability, or variation in the way that different people seem to benefit from training. ‘Talent’ is alleged a potential trait, a symptom of nascent ability, a foreshadowing of future greatness, or a way of explaining someone’s early achievements or performance advantage. On the other hand—paradoxically—the concept of talent is a way of understanding why some experts are more proficient than others; unlike a concept like jeito, a Brazilian term for something like a ‘knack,’ ‘talent’ is usually quite task specific or specialized, even though a ‘talented’ person is often quite versatile.

    ‘Talent’ is typically contrasted with ‘hard work’ or ‘determination,’ suggesting skill is some mix of natural ‘talent’ and ‘hard work,’ in various proportions. The cultural concept of ‘talent’ is a bit unstable; no one would expect a talented musician to simply pick up an instrument and play. Rather ‘talent’ is usually an idea that some people learn quicker, more effortlessly, and with greater effect. In some ways, ‘talent’ can be like a multiplier, allowing a person to get more out of formative experiences and instruction.

    At times, ‘talented’ seems to mean little different from skilful, but ‘talent’ also has a bit of an edge: it can be an evaluation tinged with disappointment, ’squandered talent,’ a suggestion that a person has potential which may not have been fully developed because of other failures, like an absence of hard work or discipline.

  3. Anders Ericsson: Updated Excerpts (2000) on Expert Performance And Deliberate Practice. [You may also be interested in popular science articles covering Ericsson's work at CNN and Scientific American; see also this post for further links.]

  4. Dr. Doyenne at Women In Wetlands: Is Talent Overrated? (and Part 2).

  5. Fabio Rojas at You Need More Than Talent to succeed in academia.

  6. Malcolm Gladwell in New Yorker: The Talent Myth:

  7. Gladwell's book Outliers has several chapters on successful people at the very high end. From what I know, his summaries of academic research are fairly accurate, though I'm not able to evaluate his spin on that research. For a flavor of what he covers in this book, take a look at these reviews.


  1. Anonymous said...

    You have a giant network running two learning algorithms in parallel (mostly), a long-term one (evolution) and a real-time one (within-lifetime learning). Now, some of the parameters of the network comes preset in some organisms, in a way that helps them learn some things faster. Other organisms need to learn more to find those parameters. It is totally unclear to me why this is such a big issue.

    What is really interesting is the interaction between the two networks -- the interaction between genetics and plasticity -- and we don't know much about this. Though epigenetics looks like a promising window.

    Closely following is bad learning algorithms, such as allergies and stereotyping.

    I think the real insights in both these areas will come from modeling, not from the thrashing about of people like Gladwell.