The Talent Debate

Is talent made or born? Throughout the years, people have debated this question without finding a definitive answer.

In the first chapter, “The Sweet Spot,” of his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle tries to prove that talent is indeed made. His main argument is that “deep practice” and hard work are the keys to greatness, not some innate ability. Deep practice is the way in which one’s brain pays more attention to certain things without realizing it, thus learning those things better and more easily.

As Coyle put it, “[d]eep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways-operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes-makes you smarter.” (18)

He gives two detailed examples to support his thesis. The first one refers to Edwin Link’s invention, the ground training device for pilots. Before that, pilots trained exclusively in the air, learning to fly a plane by actually flying a plane. However, for obvious reasons, they could not train during storms, so they were not fully prepared to fly a plane during bad weather conditions. This led to the deaths of several pilots attempting to deliver mail during storms in 1934. The Air Corps leaders grew desperate and purchased Link’s invention. Coyle argues that this device helped the new recruits deep practice the flying skills under safer circumstances, thus leading to a decreasing number of flying accidents during storms.

The second example presents British soccer coach Simon Clifford’s experiences in 1997, as he tried to find the secret behind Brazilian soccer players’ extraordinary performances. He discovered that the “secret” was a game called “futebol de salão, Portuguese for ”soccer in the room.” Its modern incarnation was called futsal.” (26) This game, Coyle argues, would allow the players to deep practice the skills needed in a real soccer match by making them concentrate more on ball control and vision. Futsal would explain the Brazilian soccer players’ top performances, because they were playing it since childhood. To prove this theory, Clifford created his own futsal school for “elementary and high-school-age kids” (28). And, indeed, his students had great results, defeating the Scottish and Irish national teams of the same age.

A counter-argument can be made to Coyle’s thesis. If his argument was correct, every athlete who goes through the same training process should have more or less the same results. Every physician who went to a particular school, studying medicine with certain teachers, putting up a certain amount of working hours, should be just as good as the others who did the same thing. But this just doesn’t happen in the real world. Sure, you can work hard, hone your skills, and maybe, someday, you can be on top of your game. But what makes the difference between a good athlete/physician/writer/etc., and a great one is talent, not just work.

Consider Dr. Charles Brenton Huggins (1901-1997), a physician and physiologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his discoveries concerning hormonal treatment of prostatic cancer.” He was a Harvard Medical School alumnus. That school has an average of 700 medical students per year. It probably had less in 1924 when Huggins received his degree, but the number was still close to several hundred. They have all gone through the same training process, and yet only one of them received the Nobel Prize. They were all good, hard-working individuals, and I’m sure they helped a lot of people in their careers, but what made Huggins great, what made him a contributor to the advancement of medical science in general for many generations to come, was more than hard work. It was that ineffable thing we call talent.

“The Sweet Spot” is a pleasant enough reading. It presents facts and theoretical concepts using a clear, unsophisticated language. It can be read and understood by everyone (thus probably achieving its main goal). The only problem I have with it was the anthropic mechanistic thinking found at its core. The idea that almost everything about the human beings can be completely explained in mechanical terms, just as you would explain the workings of a clock — this does that, and that causes this. I can’t help but think that humans are a bit more complicated than that. And, why not, a bit more mysterious.

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Coyle, Daniel. “The Sweet Spot.” The Talent Code, Greatness Isn’t Born : It’s Grown, Here’s How . New York, New York: Bantam, 2011. Print.


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