Monday, May 16, 2011

Peaking early

Apropos of recent discussions:
The fall from childhood greatness to a middling state of “simply okay” is, Gladwell suggested, a recurring theme when the cherished notion of precocity is subjected to real scrutiny.

“I think we take it as an article of faith in our society that great ability in any given field is invariably manifested early on, that to be precocious at something is important because it’s a predictor of future success,” Gladwell said. “But is that really true? And what is the evidence for it? And what exactly is the meaning and value of mastering a particular skill very early on in your life?”
We think of precociousness as an early form of adult achievement, and, according to Gladwell, that concept is much of the problem. “What a gifted child is, in many ways, is a gifted learner. And what a gifted adult is, is a gifted doer. And those are quite separate domains of achievement.”
When we call a child “precocious,” Gladwell said, “we have a very sloppy definition of what we mean. Generally what we mean is that a person has an unusual level of intellectual ability for their age.” But adult success has to do with a lot more than that. “In our obsession with precociousness we are overstating the importance of being smart.” In this regard, Gladwell noted research by Carol Dweck and Martin Seligman indicating that different dimensions such as explanatory styles and attitudes and approaches to learning may have as much to do with learning ability as does innate intelligence. And when it comes to musicians, the strongest predictor of ability is the same mundane thing that gets you to Carnegie Hall: “Really what we mean … when we say that someone is ‘naturally gifted’ is that they practice a lot, that they want to practice a lot, that they like to practice a lot.” (emphasis added)
Are we confusing correlation with causation when we interpret results like the association of practice hours with ability? Isn't the liking significant?

Too, the sorts of skills and subject for which we label precocity as significant are often not those for which mere repetition and practice suffices to make one a "gifted doer."
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