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Talent Is Overrated……Bullshit It Is

Over the past few years a popular bit of folk lore has taken hold in the minds of the non critical thinking members of the public. This odd quirk in thinking is essentially that talent is over rated as a commodity and that all that is required for success in a given field is practice. The magical figure that is quoted is that 10,000 is required. This line of thinking has largely been cheer led by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers which as self help books go is a nice collection of anecdotes and stories all of which seemed to back up the hypothesis that talent is an over rated commodity.

Like most half baked notions you can drive a bus through it with a few well chosen charts. In the US all students seeking university entrance sit what is known as the SAT’s.  The SAT was first introduced in 1926, hence, there is a vast array of data available for analysis. Interestingly you can look at SAT data and make judgements about the value of practice over raw horsepower. That is does practice trump talent? If it does you should be able to see it somewhere within the vast reams of data generated by  millions of students doing a standardised test for almost 100 year.

As you expect some clever clogs has found an answer to the question of practice versus talent. The answer in part comes from the phenomena of prepping for the SAT. That is students undertake some form of external coaching be it online, in a group or with a personal tutor.

The two graphs below show the test scores of couched students versus non coached for both mathematical and verbal scores. You can consider these the practiced group versus the horsepower or talent group.

From The Effect of Admissions Test Preparation: Evidence from NELS:88, by D.C. Briggs 2001

The simple bold interpretation of these two plots is that the at no stage do the practice group match the talent group. The true outliers are those with intellectual horsepower. This runs contrary to the assertion of Gladwell et al. In his model the coached group should be able to match and outperform the talent group. But they dont and this matches real world experience as opposed to a bunch of feel good homilies.

Practice will make you better at a given task but there will still be people who you look at wonder where the magic comes from.









  1. … “Geniuses are made, not born,” was László’s thesis.

    At age 4, Polgar won her first chess tournament, the Budapest Girls’ Under-11 Championship, with a 10–0 score. In 1982, at the age of 12, she won the World Under 16 (Girls) Championship.
    Despite restrictions on her freedom to play in international tournaments, by 1984 at age 15 Polgar had become the top-rated female chess player in the world.

  2. My dad used to say:
    “there is only so much you can polish a turd”.

    Your research seems to support my dad.

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