Does Talent Really Trump Hard Work?

The authors of a recent New York Times opinion piece want to rain on the parade of anyone who thought they might be able to succeed by working really hard. Luckily, their arguments aren't very convincing.

Boatloads of authors and hundreds of studies have shown that people can achieve great things with dedication and practice. But David Z. Hambrick and Elizabeth J. Meinz are here to say sorry, guys. Hard work won't get you anywhere:

The authors write:

...compared with the participants who were 'only' in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile-the profoundly gifted-were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.

Seems to me it should say intellectual ability gives the profoundly gifted enormous real-world advantage.

They also write that another study found that the best piano players practiced the most. But the study also found that "working memory capacity" contributed about 7 percent to their abilities. "In other words, if you took two pianists with the same amount of practice, but different levels of working memory capacity, it's likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task."

O.K. But, isn't it also possible the most practiced piano players would develop advanced "working memory capacities" over time?

I emailed David Shenk, the author of one of my all-time favorite books The Genius in All of Us (nearly half of the book, by the way, is a scientific bibliography backing up his conclusions) to see if he was as irritated as I was. Seems he was:

It's a real shame to see obviously clever scientists grab attention by squeezing the nuance out of a subject. In the apparent view of this piece, a small army of careful researchers and writers — including Malcolm Gladwell, Geoff Colvin, Daniel Coyle, Anders Ericsson, Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, Jonah Lehrer, David Brooks, and me, all of us trying to give 'talent' and 'intelligence' a fuller, richer meaning grounded in the science of developmental systems—are actually ideological-wishers writing the 'story we want to want to hear.' Seriously? That's tossing a pretty big bucket of paint.

Shenk told me he's writing his own response piece—stay tuned!

No one ever said "talent" doesn't matter. But it's also important to define talent. Is talent really just what you were born with, i.e. your DNA plus your neuron-firing capabilities (and even those are known to improve with practice!)? I think most people would agree that talent is the sum of many things including your genes, practice time, and your environment.

Even Einstein knew he wasn't born a genius. As he put it: "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer."

Image: Shutterstock/Dmitri Shironosov