February 10, 2009


In his new book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that opportunities and practice determine success. No doubt luck plays a part in success. And you'll get no argument from me regarding the need for lots of practice. But, Gladwell, greatly underestimates the role that innate talent plays in success. Mozart surely did practice a lot, but he was also very talented. The Beatles practiced quite a but during their Hamburg days, but John Lennon and Paul McCartney were also very talented songwriters. Talent is an important component. The talented make better use of their practice time and will be more successful, and hence more motivated, in their practice. Just ask this kid.


Anonymous said...

"Gladwell, greatly underestimates the role that innate talent plays in success."

Well, that depends on the estimate of "underestimates." Gladwell explicitly recognizes that physical and neurological characteristics are genetically determined and that most vary in a Gaussian distribution. But "environment" also plays a role from conception forward.

The thing about the fingerpainter is we don't know how much instruction and practice the kid has had. Certainly he gets a lot of reinforcement from Dad and his other fingerpaintings that are displayed indicate that this isn't the first time he's had his fingers in the paint.

Also note that the fingerpainting medium is ideally suited to his development. Give him a set of brushes and oil paints and I'll betcha you wouldn't confuse his work with Picasso or Miro.

We don't do a any better in teaching "art" than we do reading or math. In fact we (schools) don't do much teaching of art at all.

Master fingerpainter might be among those on the top fingerpainting rung. But aggregate 3-yr olds could do a creditable job with proper instruction. The SWRL Art Program (long gone) had Kindergarten kids cranking out productions that were in the same class as the Master here.

YouTube and Vimeo have numerous demonstrations of toddler prodigies. What they show is that from early infancy, aggregate humans have more capacity for pair-associate, sign/symbol learning than is commonly believed. My favorite example is "Baby Signs" by which pre-verbal infants can engage in conversation, giving them a "talent" that was there all the time, but went untapped.

But one has to be careful. There's a program that uses pair-associate learning techniques to teach infants to "read" Most mom's who buy the program likely have kids who will go on to intuit the Alphabetic Code and the other linguistic conventions involved in reading. But memorizing words leads straight to "dyslexia," so the program is misinstructing. The dyslexics-to-be will never trace their "specific learning difficulty" back to its source.

I think Gladwell performed a useful service in explaining how "outliers" come to be. He could have used the term "talented" or "gifted" instead of outliers. but that would have overestimated the role of innate capacity. "Outlier" doesn't carry the excess baggage of the terms "talented" and "gifted."

RMD said...

Mozart's dad was one of the most prominent musical instructors of the day.

I haven't read Gladwell's book, but "Talent is Overrated" covers these issues in a significant way. Certainly, innate "talent" matters, particularly (as you say) for the learner believing in their abilities and wanting to become better.

But early starts (Elton John was taught piano at 3) and dedicated home-based teachers matter a lot too.

In any case, it doesn't hurt to help your kids get as many advantages as they can by doing "home instruction" (vs. "home schooling).

KDeRosa said...

I'm not so sure that Gladwell is as sanguine about IQ/talent as you're letting on, Dick.

In the two chapters about "The Trouble with Genius," he argues that IQ/talent isn't important. Instead, what matters is hard work and being provided with lots of opportunities.

That's putting the cart in front of the horse.

KDeRosa said...

Just so there's no misunderstanding, I remain a firm believer is practice and teaching, but the students ability and desire to engage in that kind of sustained effortful study depends a lot on the student's innate talent in the first place as it affects the student's time to learn and success.

dweir said...

...in that kind of sustained effortful study depends a lot on the student's innate talent in the first place as it affects the student's time to learn and success.

Thorndike's Law of Effect anyone?

The amazingly sad part of education isn't a lack of new ideas. It's that the establishment has thrown out everything that preceded it.

Newton would not have "constructed" calculus by rewriting Euclidian geometry.

As for talent, the best definition I ever heard was that talent is observable outcome of acquired skills. This 3-year old appears "talented" because they have acquired more skills than the typical 3-year old.

Without further instruction though, there will be only so far this tot can go on talent alone.

When I was 3 years old, my sister taught me to do her math homework. She was in 7th grade. I ended up being a strong student, but nothing spectacular. Most of my K-8 was just repetition of the stuff I had learned when I was 3. Ouch.

Anonymous said...

Hear, Hear dweir. The thing about innate capacity and motivation is that instructionally "you take what comes" Parents give us the best kids they've got. Although minimum
prerequisites are required to get going, after that the knowledge base for building and maintaining motivation and for building expertise is known.

Parry Graham said...


I think I came away with a different impression from outliers. My take was that Gladwell believes that innate talent matters, but that past a certain "talent threshold", hard work (and the right kind of hard work), creativity, and right-place-right-time become the key differentiators. I thought that his description of the Terman study of high-IQ Californians made that point: the kids with the highest IQs weren't more successful than other bright kids whose IQs weren't quite as high.


Anonymous said...


The Terman study is now starting to show major weaknesses. It turns out, by much better studies, that the super intelligent, way past the "talent threshold," do succeed more than the merely very intelligent. See here to start:


Anonymous said...

For some reason the link didn't come up completely.

The last part after 'SMPY/' is 'ParkPsychScience2008.pdf'

Anonymous said...

That was my read also Parry. I think it's in accord with observations of students, university faculty and generally. If you want to be a NFL lineman you don't want to be blessed with the physique of a racing jockey and vice versa. But in between there's a lot of room for playing touch football, and for grooming a horse if not riding.

If schools would concentrate on getting all kids above the duffer capability and on the way to journeyperson, and then stay out of the way of kids who choose to acquire further expertise, they'd do well.

I thought that Gladwell's point is well-taken that being an outlier at the top comes at a price. The little kid geniuses on YouTube eat up the reinforcement they're getting. Full attention of parents and praise for everything you do is nice work for a little kid.

If the kid is happy and the parent is happy, I don't view it as "pushing" a kid, and within reason, I don't see any risk. Enhancing talent in any healthy matter is a good thing.

KDeRosa said...

Parry, I also agree that that was the point Gladwell was attempting to make, but I don't think the examples he provided made that particular point, in fact, many of them, proved the opposite.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I wouldn't say that the Vandy study is "better" than the Terman study. It's narrower. The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth selected kids at age 13, largely on the basis of SAT-m scores. The kids were given very special instructional attention.

A more comprehensive report of the study is found at


"Tracking Exceptional Human
Capital Over Two Decades"

The terms "exceptional human capital" and "Intellectually talented" are loaded terms. And SAT-M scores morph into "Quantitative Reasoning Ability." But those are sidebar matters.

Re the issue at hand, two excerpts appear relevant:

"A detailed analysis of their career descriptions revealed that, for these careers in the corporate track, income differences appeared to be, in part, a function of creativity and leadership."

"It is worthwhile to consider additional variables that might be relevant to career success (Lubinski, 2004; Webb, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2002). Simonton (1994), for example, has pointed outthat devoting a large amount of time to work is important in achieving professional eminence. Although we did not have sufficient sample sizes within distinct careers to examine theinfluence of this variable in the present study, there were huge individual differences among these participants in the number of hours they worked and were willing to work under ideal circumstances."

These SMPY findings seem to me consistent with Gladstone's conclusions.

Dick Schutz said...

Ken says "I don't think the examples he provided made that particular point, in fact, many of them, proved the opposite."

Which examples are you thinking of, Ken? I didn't note any discrepancies,

KDeRosa said...

Dick, I was not impressed/persuaded by Gladwell's Beatles example, his Bill Gates example, his Asian/math hard work example, his jews/asians and mexican/black comparison, and his airline crashes example.

Anonymous said...

Could you restate your point here Ken. I got lost in the metaphors and the examples.

KDeRosa said...

Take for example Gladwell's point that the Chinese are good at math because they have a culture of working hard in the rice paddies. this can't possibly be true since there are many other southest asian countries that have a culture of working hard in rice paddies and not producing math whizzes.

Or take the Bill gates example, Gates didn't become the richest man in the world because of his computer skills (MS bought the OS that became DOS) he got there because of his business skills.

Or take the Beatles who did quite a lot of live playing between 1960 and 1967. Also, many musicians put in lots of practice time and never become good songwriters. In contrast, Lennon and McCartney, neither of which could read music or had any formal training, became outliers due to their songwriting abilities, not their musicianaship honed by proactice.

Anonymous said...

Point taken on the rice paddies. Determined practice in math is a more direct explanation.

My understanding is that Gates has always been a top notch programmer, but he wasn't a particularly brilliant student. And his practice of business skills has been aggressively determined.

The beatles are the most complicated example. I think luck--defined as unanticipatable contingencies had a lot to do with their success.

Celebrity "artistic performers" seem to me to require a separate analysis. Just from casual observation it seems to me that most have engaged in determined practice, rather than relying on an innate "talent" or "gift."