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On Innate Talent

What do my grandfather and Kobe Bryant have in common?

Given intense commitment and practice, is anyone capable of anything, regardless of innate endowment?

On this matter, John B. Watson, a founder of Behaviorism, once said:

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors."

Even among modern day researchers, there are traces of this idea. The prominent expertise researcher K. Anders Ericsson believes that, with the exception of fixed genetic factors determining body size and height, there are no innate constraints to the attainment of elite achievement for healthy individuals. According to Ericsson, the key determinant is not innate talent, but what he refers to as "deliberate practice". Practice that is focused, productive, goal directed and where you can receive constant feedback.

This is actually quite a different view from the earliest ability researchers such as Francis Galton and Lewis Terman, who emphasized the hereditary basis of talent.

I was so interested in this idea, that in high school I tried a little experiment of my own.

I decided I was going to deliberately practice my way into the NBA and the Philadelphia Orchestra. As for the NBA, I already had an advantage. No, I wasn't seven feet tall, but I luckily I had a good model--a young chap by the name of Kobe Bryant. Yes, that's right; I roamed the halls of Middle School and High School with Kobe Bryant. With my friend Avi, we would hit the courts every day after school and play pick up with the extraordinarily precocious 16 year old Kobe. I once almost beat him in a game of PIG in gym class-- until he decided to break the rules and dunk the ball. Even though I gave it my all, when I went to try-outs I did not make the team. Yes, that hurt.

As for my Philadelphia Orchestra dreams, things fared better for me. I started to take cello lessons with my Grandfather, Harry Gorodetzer, who was associate principle cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra for 50 years (the record). After a month of daily lessons with gramps, I had joined my high school orchestra. I even beat the lowest cellist at the first seating auditions, an individual who had been playing for at least 5 years.

While I put in the same amount of intense practice in both basketball and cello, I struggled to stand out in basketball (don't get me wrong, I wasn't bad!), and learned cello with an ease that shocked everyone around me, including myself.

From these two experiences, I became convinced that people really do have certain proclivities, and while deliberate practice certainly matters, genes facilitate the rate of learning to a considerable degree.

In my last post, I described various conceptualizations of giftedness. These conceptualizations treated "gifts" as static, as though people are born with gifts. In reality, people are born with "proclivities". In fact, the field of gifted education is moving toward a developmental model of giftedness, in which the emphasis is on the constantly changing nature of gifts, and the external factors that might interact with the internal factors of the individual to produce gifted behavior.

Julian Stanley, founder of the Study of Mathematically Precious Youth (SMPY) at Johns Hopkins University chooses not to even use the word "gifted", and refers to children who display certain proclivities as "precocious". Stanley's legacy lives on--today, approximately 85,000 second through eight graders throughout the world participate in his talent-search program annually. Stanley believes in finding children who are precocious, and helping them to accelerate their education.

Additionally, Françoys Gagné has noted that it is unfortunate that the field has used the words "gifted" and "talented" interchangeably. Instead, in his Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent (DMGT) model, he aims to uncover the important environmental influences (home, school, parents, activities, encounters, etc.), nonintellective variables (motivation, temperament), and learning, training, and practicing, that transform basic, genetically influenced "gifts" (intellectual, creative, sensorimotor, etc.) into specific talents (language, science, mathematics, art, music, leadership, etc.) in everyday life.

Other heavyweights in the field such as Franz Mönks, Abraham Tannenbaum, David Henry Feldman, and John Feldhusen have similar models of giftedness that emphasize the developmental nature of talents and the interaction of genetic proclivities with factors external to the individual.

Therefore, the emerging goal of gifted education researchers is to help students convert potential to achievement. Every student has a range as to what they can achieve; the key is for educators to help students reach their upper limit, and make sure there aren't environmental factors that are hindering a student from doing so.

Kobe Bryant has a larger range than me in Basketball, and I can deal with that (although I would like a rematch in PIG-- no dunking this time, big guy). I would however like to see him write a Psychology Today blog entry as well as he can make a layup. Come on Kobe, I challenge you.


If you are interested in reading more on the debate about innate talent, I highly recommend you read Ericsson and his colleagues' recent target article in the journal High Ability Studies as well as commentary by me and my colleagues, and response to the commentaries.

© 2008 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved