|August 2nd, 2006|
As we speak, my daughter has decided to solve the 4 year old Dragonriders of Pern adventure game on the Dreamcast. It’s the first true adventure game she has ever played, and she’s rushing up to me every fifteen minutes to report her progress. And what it reminds me most powerfully of the expertise I once had: of being able to instantly pair any given dragon name with any given rider from any of the books, no matter how minor a character — the product of obsessive reading.
The main points here are that expertise comes about from serious application to learning: on average, ten years’ worth. That many people settle for a level of knowledge rather than pushing themselves to continue learning. That “talent” is likely an illusion: either just a predisposition to learn certain things, or precocity in learning the subject.
This latter one, the article claims, is bolstered by the fact that there is no significant experimental evidence to demonstrate the existence of talent. People who start out untalented in something seem to be perfectly able to achieve extreme mastery of a subject, should they just choose to invest the time.
And yet, the article also cites this example from the world of soccer:
A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average. In their early years, these children would have enjoyed a substantial advantage in size and strength when playing soccer with their teammates. Because the larger, more agile children would get more opportunities to handle the ball, they would score more often, and their success at the game would motivate them to become even better.
In other words, there was a natural advantage conferred on these kids that made things easier for them, thus creating a feedback cycle that encouraged them to continue. One might speculate that this natural advantage includes predispositions towards certain types of activities (such as Gardner’s types of intelligences). Feedback, as we know, is a huge driver for people to continue down a path of learning. So as the article says, “experts are made, not born,” but people with the tendency to become experts in one field versus another may well be born, not made.
An interesting illustration of all this can be seen in this unrelated story about a teen who is topping the American Idol Underground charts with his technically virtuosic guitar playing.
Baamonde’s first instrument was the cello, which he took up in third grade. But he never much liked classical music.
Even his parents thought he could use a change, so they supported his interest in the guitar and got him lessons.
“He was such a quiet kid that my wife and I thought we should do something to cool him up,” said his father, who manages a telecommuting center in Reston.
When Baamonde left cello for guitar, though, he took with him its brutally difficult fingerings and a fine vibrato — the quivering wrist and finger motions that make the tone of the instrument flutter like a human voice.
When he started Oakton High School, he wanted to be an architect. Then he took a music and technology course at Fairfax High School through the county’s “academy class” program in his junior year, and everything changed. Only music mattered.
After graduating in 2005, Baamonde attended George Mason University and started working at the Guitar Center. This fall, he plans to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Surely by the time he got to high school and took that music and technology class, he had become sufficiently attuned to “chunking” the aspects of music that he felt comfortable with to keep moving down that path.
In watching my own kids, who have yet to show any startlingly advanced aptitude for anything except perhaps Pokemon, I wonder what “talents” we are building up in them from an early age. One thing that research on chess has taught us is that ability in chess translates poorly to other areas of life. In playing all of these games, which ones are teaching something more broadly relevant, and which ones are teaching the equivalent of memorizing hundreds of dragon names?
If anything, it’s good that my daughter is tackling more varied types of games, because at some point, she may stumble across the sort where she excels so dramatically that it shapes her future learning path. Just as she should read varied books, watch varied movies, study varied subjects, and so on.
Either way, the path towards excelling is going to be finding the thing that excites you enough to tackle the long hard slog towards actual expertise.