Yang: The Never-Ending Nature-Nurture Debate

The Never-Ending Nature-Nurture Debate

Mr. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues would like to convince us that so-called “innate talent” is highly overrated … if it exists at all. They are convinced by their own research (and others’) that ultimately, it is long-term and highly committed effort, at least 10,000 hours or 10 years, that propel certain people to the top echelon of experts and elite performers in all fields.  

After reading two articles by Ericsson and several colleagues, one published in Psychological Review (PR) (link below) and the other in Harvard Business Review (HBR)(link below), I still have doubts. I have no quarrel with their methodology, but I question how they gloss over some important premises.

I am convinced that consistent, thoughtful, and determined hard work pave the foundation for anyone who wants to excel in her chosen professional field. I am also convinced that an early start, say, as young as three-years old, does make some difference (in fields which allow such early starts, of course). I just find the notion that “innate talent” plays a miniscule if any part in the development of elite professionals, to be very troublesome. 

In the PR article, Ericsson et al provide evidence through two studies, one with violinists and the other with pianists. The authors demonstrate that the elite performers have the edge over their lesser-accomplished contemporaries primarily through the former group’s accumulated practice hours, starting in their childhood. If some of these elite performers were deemed “child prodigies” it is because their parents, or adult guardians, perceived them to be talented, at playing the piano, running, drawing, playing chess, etc.

The adults then provided resources to nurture children with these budding skills, or should I say, to nurture these budding skills in their children. Ericsson el al recognize the children’s enjoyment in doing these activities as an important motivational factor; after all, lengthy practice is inherently un-enjoyable per se, you have to like what you do in order to persevere. And because the children keep receiving praise for what they do well, this in turn gives them more incentives to willingly spend more hours practicing.

I think these researchers have discounted this “intrinsic motivation” too quickly.  For preschoolers to “endure” hours of practice, parents’ demands alone don’t cut it, and the children’s own “simple” determination, will power, or “grit” (the current buzzword) doesn’t quite add up either. Might the long hours of practice seem “un-enjoyable” only to outsiders? Might there be some level of joy in the practice that is in synch with their developing skills?  The question is how do we unpack the emotions from the activities, for the sake of measurement.

In the HBR article, Ericsson el al (a different group of colleagues) quote the well-known scientist Lord Kelvin, “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” Might this be the reason the authors discount intrinsic motivation? Yet just because we cannot easily measure intrinsic motivation, emotions, or soul, doesn’t mean they don’t exist or can’t be improved upon. For millennia, human beings have been trying to grasp what constitutes sentience, as in “sentient beings.” And for millennia sentience has defied measurement and the best we have ever done is assert it (“cogito ergo sum”); but does it follow that we cannot improve upon our “sentience” simply because we can’t measure it? Can we measure the very thought that Lord Kelvin must have had when he asserted the importance of measurement?

Since HBR articles are designed for business community and management, the authors try to argue that managers can practice to achieve better management.They choose the example of charisma, manifested in public speaking. Of course, one can improve on public speaking, but in different assessments of management skills, “charisma” or “public speaking” does not rank very high. (Jim Collins’ “Level-5 Leadership,” in his From Good To Great, perfectly illustrates the downside of charismatic leaders.) In fact, I wonder what are the practicable management skills – and which of such practicable skills truly make one a better manager? Listening, yes, making better relationships, of course. If only improving relationships were readily learnable and practicable!  In both HBR and PR articles, we learn that elite members, or experts, devote 2-4 hours every day on practicing their chosen skills. What can managers practice? Do eight hours a day being a manager also constitute practicing management? Discipline is an important feature of the elite performers. In what aspects should managers discipline their practice? (I vote for meditation.)

The HBR article ends with an example that almost made my head explode. The authors, while not disputing the extraordinary accomplishments of Mozart, assertively remind readers that Mozart started early – at age four – under his father who was a skilled composer and an author of a violin instruction manual. While the modern authors do not explicitly claim that there could have been other Mozarts given those two key elements, they do insist that with an early start and tutelage under an expert, any one of us may achieve Mozart-esque status. 

I guess “Tiger Moms” would agree with such an assertion. Yet, of all the children brought up by tiger moms with emphasis on playing music instruments, how many have achieved national and international status? More likely, many of these children slack off the practice as soon as they become independent. That pesky unmeasurable “intrinsic motivation” probably has something to do with it. Or, it might have something to do with innate talent, or rather, the lack thereof. 

We can also learn about the issue of innate talent from adults acquiring new skills. For instance, I wonder how many novices recruited to becoming pilots in the British RAF during WWII made it through the program? The instructors couldn’t have had the luxury then of nurturing anyone and everyone into competence. On what criteria was the selection made? Googling, nowadays a person who cannot pilot solo after about 10-12 hours of instructor flight time may be less able than average. Doesn’t this suggest some influence of innate ability?

A recent BBC story (link below) reports that artists’ brain images show grey matter in certain areas that are different (more) from non-artists. It is possible that the years of practice produce this additional grey matter.  Brains are malleable. However, we still do not know the cause and effect; more research is needed.   

No one doubts the importance of long-term, deliberate practice, but I think Ericsson and his colleagues have not presented a convincing case against the existence and importance of “innate talent.”

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.


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