Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Maybe she's born with it

Outliers, Malcom Gladwell's book from a couple years back, made me start seriously thinking of how much one can accomplish in life, genes, predispositions, and innate talent be damned. A recent conversation with a professor rekindled my interest. In his book, Gladwell discusses the characteristics of those who have achieved uncommon success in life and tries to tease out what these people have in common. The gist? They've worked hard and we're born into the right situation (see Warren Buffett and Bill Gates). Buffett, for example, has cited his winning of the 'Ovarian Lottery' as playing a big part in his development as a child. This, indeed, is indisputable and we're lucky to be born into society rich enough to enable blogging and other leisures. His and Gates' skill set has been cited by some to be (serendipitously!) relevant to this era (i.e., Gates wouldn't have done as well not growing up at the beginning of the computing age), but I think one learns what's available. I don't think he wouldn't have wanted to start Microsoft having been born in the dark ages and perhaps would have advanced in some other endeavor by dint of his hard work.

But, this gives even more hope to those who might not have won the shadowy skill-set-era lottery. Generally Gladwell finds that the top performers in various fields (physics, music, baseball) haven't been born with a natural ability to perform at a high level, but rather have practiced an inordinate amount at their respective interest. He cites various studies and talks of a 10000 hour rule, which is roughly the practice threshold above which someone truly becomes a master. But, what about all those gifted students in middle and elementary school? What appears to happen is that at a very young age certain kids are seen to have a (very slight, and probably from parental influence of some sort) proclivity for a certain subject, instrument or sport. These kids are then enrolled in special classes, receive better training, and invest more practice time cause of the related encouragement. By the time most kids have taken a casual interest in such things, these "prodigies" are already years ahead of the normal kids. It's a feedback loop, of course; the normal kids are never gonna catch those with access to the special classes and heightened encouragement and the gap tends to widen over time.

While there are some barriers that preclude some from the elite, the positions of influence are more accessible than they seem (provided you've a work ethic provided you put in the hours). Gladwell cites a book which show that there are only about three IQ levels that have a big influence on one's life*. The basic point is that if you're above ~115 IQ, fortunately, hard work can get you into grad school, and from there you have a shot at the elite.

Some thoughts from one of my favorite posts on the implications of all this:

Today's my birthday. It got me thinking.

Do you understand the power of compound interest? And I'm not talking about finance, actually.

I started this blog about 9 months ago as a little social media experiment. 6 months ago it started taking the shape of what it is today. Now all the sudden there are over 1100 posts, thousands of people paying attention every day, a store, comments, links...

Compound interest.

You know what happens when you do something every day for two hours? In 13 years you're a Malcolm Gladwell "Outliers" genius at it. 13 years might seem like a long time looking forward, but try looking back. 13 years ago? Maybe not as long. Feels like I started this blog yesterday.

Let me get to the big point here: You are what you do all day.

That probably scares the shit out of a lot of people. And it should.

The same blog references a classic 1993 paper, wherein researchers looked at the role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance and found "essentially no support for fixed innate characteristics that would correspond to general or specific natural ability." After acknowledging the degree of expert performance some people attain as compared to normal people, they "deny that these differences are... due to innate talent." They go on to argue "that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflects a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain." Do read the conclusion, at least.

Perfect from now on...

* Gladwell on page 79: "The "IQ fundamentalist" Arthur Jensen put it thusly in his 1980 book Bias in Mental Testing (p. 113): "The four socially and personally most important thresholds regions on the IQ scale are those that differentiate with high probability between persons who, because of their level of general mental ability, can or cannot attend a regular school (about IQ 50), can or cannot master the traditional subject matter of elementary school (about IQ 75), can or cannot succeed in the academic of college preparatory curriculum through high school (about IQ 105), can or cannot graduate from an accredited four-year college with grades that would qualify for admission to a professional or graduate school (about IQ 115). Beyond this, the IQ level becomes relatively unimportant in terms of ordinary occupational aspirations and criteria of success... IQ differences in this upper part of the scale have far less personal implications than the thresholds just describes and are generally of leser importance for success in the popular sense than are certain traits of personality and character.""

** Gladwell, on page 102, says the heritability of IQ is around 50%.


  1. Hey, your link to your site didn't work...

  2. "provided you've a work ethic"

    Isn't that a kind of implicit contradiction?

    Though I guess maybe I can work at having a work ethic for 10,000 hours....