May 2015

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I agree that talents needs to be exercised, but surely most of us could study all day long and we'd never be a Hayek. Or train all day long and never be a Gretzky or a Jordan. In other words, there must be some kind of innate (genetic?) endowments that explain the truly great.

In the military, there is an assertion that almost everyone can be a leader (the classic statement: some are born, some become, and the rest have leadership skills THRUST upon them).

I other words while we can't all be Hayeks or Gretskys, it's also true that Hayek mightn't have made a good Gretsky nor Gretsky a good Hayek. Just taking from the discussion above and from what ye Goode Doctor said Monday last, I suspect that the the author doesn't say that talent (or genius) isn't a factor.


Take some time and read the book and better yet the scientific research.

The key issue is that way the exceptional individuals pursue their craft --- the details with which they approach the efforts at perfection. The case study in the book on the Hungarian chess sisters who achieved grand master status is very worth contemplating.

The idea of training all day is the other myth along with the born genius myth that is challenged by this research. You are right, you could train all day long and not achieve greatness. But those who do achieve greatness train all day long, but train a certain way. They train harder and train smarter to perfect their craft than the rest of us. Examples are used in this research from music, science, business, sports, etc.

And in Colvin's book the list of research is esay to follow and then track down from there and delve deeper into the issue.

This is a really interesting post, thank you for it. I'm wondering, Dr. Boettke, if there's any way this can fit into economic theory? For instance, Mises argues in Human Action that creative genius "comes to pass in history as a free gift of destiny." I would have to read Colvin's book, and I intend to, but it seems that he's arguing the contrary: that exceptional performers do labor (as in practice very effectively) for the attainment of an end (the ability to perform superbly).

Have there been other great economists in the Austrian tradition (or in any tradition) who have commented on this?

Thank you very much.

Dear Ryan,

On this issue, it seems that Mises may have been wrong in his assessment.


Way to go Pete! Hellz yeah!

Let me play Devil's Advocate here:

I think talent is underrated. The combination of high (certainly well above-average) talent and hard work gets you Vijay Singh. The combination of freakish talent and hard work gets you Tiger Woods. The combination of high talent and hard work gets you Derek Jeter. The combination of freakish talent and hard work gets you Albert Pujols. *All of those people set ridiculously high standards for themselves.* But hard work, high standards, and a good attitude are probably overrated. For every David Eckstein there are ten J.D. Drews. For every Doug Flutie or Mark Warner there are ten TOs (okay, maybe seven). What was Reggie Jackson's attitude? John Nash's?

If the message is that serious self-evaluation and taking responsibility for our success will make people more successful, I agree. If the message is that those characteristics are the primary difference between elite performers and everyone else, I disagree.

I often wonder if these studies have done enough to check on people who tried to behave like high performers and systematically "failed". Would the psychological costs be great enough to outweigh the potential benefits?

Thus, comparing the average Top performer to the Average Performer makes the usual mistake of confusing the marginal vs average, which economists well understand.

Until they show that the marginal Average Performer would clearly do better (taking all psychological costs of failure into account) by emulating the successful we should discount their claims.

Steve & jjn,

I think everyone agrees that everyone is born with a bundle of qualities, which you can develop.

Given your innate qualities you can pick an area to focus on, and training and developing your qualities will improve them.

The Colvin argument appears to be simply: here is how to effectively train yourself, and here are some studies that indicate if you take a large group of people, divide it into two, and one group trains they will succeed at great levels compared to the group that sits on a couch and watches TV and relies on their "talent" to achieve in life.

"I often wonder if these studies have done enough to check on people who tried to behave like high performers and systematically "failed". Would the psychological costs be great enough to outweigh the potential benefits?"

Actually, I see books like Colvin simply to be adding some metrics and investigation on study methods of "classical education". The method described by Colvin, and classical education in general, is worth doing for itself - the means *are* the end, so it is not possible to consistently "fail" (only consistently not practice and train). The approach is essentially that of an engaged life.

A very interesting post! Please indulge me to share some insights from being a former scholarship athlete at the D1 level. The basic premise of smart practice, discipline, self critique, ect, is certainly important to success (especially on the team level). I would argue that it is especially important for longevity in an individual sport. Age is the great equalizer in athletics. With age, all talent eventually begins to fade.

There is no substitute for talent however. I played football with several All-Americans, in whom I *never* consistently noted any of the highlighted characteristics. What I did note however (to my amazement and disgust) was how little they could train and still be successful. They were often the ones who would fall asleep during the film sessions, while us lesser mortals were reviewing and critiquing our every step. My own brother also played D1 ball. He was faster and larger than me in stature, and I can assure you he did not train half as hard (or smartly) as I did, and had more success. Without this intense training and skill-specific practice however, folks like me who were on the bubble talent-wise, would have never seen the field or contributed to the team efforts. The training was a great benefit to the marginal athletes.

Now I am married to a women's basketball coach. My father-in-law is a basketball coach. My brother is a coach. We have had lengthy discussions about these very issues. I think they would probably agree with my assessment in the most private moments, but never publicly. In fairness, I have not read this book, but the summary of the conclusions presented here sound good, especially to those who like to study athletes from the sidelines, but unfortunately I conclude from actually having competed on a fairly high level that much of the premise is unfortunately a myth. "There is in fact a path leading from the state of our own abilities to that of the greats"...Patently untrue! There is not necessarily any such path for most mortals.

My three sons are simply not as fast or strong or as large as I was. Now it would be a recipe for MISERY, FUTILITY, AND FAILURE if I convinced them that if they practice smartly and discipline (self-critique) themselves correctly over a long grueling period, they too could play D1 football. I love my boys too much to teach them lies. What I can do however is to encourage them to develop their own unique abilities (talents) and interests to the fullest extent by using some of the principles outlined above. In this aspect, I do agree that proper smart practice and self-critique are important to maximizing your own ability. I remember when I ordered the Nolan Ryan pitching videos. Nolan makes the point that he can show you what he does, but this does not mean you will be able to throw a 100 mph fastball. By using these techniques you will be able to throw the best fastball that you are capable of. For most, that is not big league stuff.

Most often, the top athletes are simply more gifted athletically. In individual sports such as golf, their techniques are simply an attempt to gain an edge over other elite competition and improve their longevity at a high level. This is not where most of us live.

P.S. I hated the movie Rudy.

I am glad to see K Sralla lend support to my concerns. As for Arare's point: the book presents these cases as normative guides to performing well. If it were just about being worth "doing for itself" there would be a greater investigation of people who did not achieve objective, externally validated success.

The truth is that these attitudes "may" help those who are already in the talent zone. But the minimal qualifications are quite high.

Put it another way: The odds that an econ undergrad who can't break 700 on the SAT and GRE Math and who finds Real Analysis difficult will eventually be able to become a successful theorist with many pubs in Econometrica and a job at Princeton or MIT are probably on the order of winning the Lotto in one go. Furthermore, the creation of work habits predicated on trying to become a top math theorist would be delusional in the extreme.

The work habits discussed "may" be good habits for all levels of workers, but NONE of the cases(which are mostly about those obtaining objective success) provide evidence that such attitudes are in fact positive and not harmful.

"If it were just about being worth "doing for itself" there would be a greater investigation of people who did not achieve objective, externally validated success."

I have still to read the book, but one obvious point is that investivagting people who achieved objective, externally validated success is an important subset to study - if only for the reason that we can define and measure success here, and have convincing general conclusions. Nothing here suggests that the results are only limited to such types of pursuit, and really - all pursuits are measurable, at least subjectively.

k sralla,

The book makes extensive mention of mediocre talent but super hard worker in Jerry Rice as the pinnacle of athleticism (mediocre by professional football standards). The Polgar sisters of chess fame don't possess exceptional intellects, but all three ascended to the highest echelon of competitive chess. Tiger was put in this environment from a young age and is always refining and changing his golf game. Exceptional performers always share Tiger's mindset.

Yes, people who are 5'2 and 120 pounds will never be NFL offensive lineman, and I'd be hard pressed to find a way for them to work into even being successful high school player. The point isn't that talent is unimportant, only that it is "overrated". For every ultra talented John Elway there are dozens of Jeff George's. Look up any NFL teams 1st round draft picks of the past decade. Every one of their busts will have "positives" that say something like: has the quickness and explosiveness to succeed at a high level, is quick off the block and hard to move... ect. et al., and most of them will have "...disappears for long stretches of time." These players who have more physical gifts than Rice or Brady are just relying on "talent" because talent has propelled them to where they are. This is the author's point, arguing about statistical outliers is arguing past him.

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