Talent is Made Manifest Through Practice

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"Genius is what makes us forget the master's talent." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value) 

The video at the end of this entry is an ABC News piece that can be examined through a Wittgensteinian perspective. The topic is talent, and the article examines what contributes to the realisation of talent (or ability). In brief, the news item makes reference to the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and emphasises the importance of hard work (practice), effective teaching, and access to the space and time for total concentration.

Isn't this common sense? How else would success be achieved? Surprisingly, this picture contradicts another prevalent world picture that is sustained in the American public and media; that is, there are those in the community who exhibit extraordinary talent which can launch these individuals into the heights of the culture through their innate ability alone. In the words of Coyle, "talent is the last magical thing. It's magic ... Tiger Woods is magic. Michael Jordan is magic. Mozart was magic." 

Contributing factors such as context, culture, practice, relationships and circumstances are pushed to the periphery because they may threaten to unseat the prevailing mythology that some people are just amazingly talented.  One would prefer to believe in genius, luck, and egalitarianism rather engage in deeper questions into the people, opportunities and culture that foster particular skills and practices. The ideas presented in the video do not deny that innate ability plays a role in the realisation of talent; however, the ideas seek to correct a misleading view, which is one that seeks to diminish the vital role of other key factors in the fostering and maintenance of talent. To restate, these include perseverance and regular practice, access to effective teaching and mentoring, and access to relevant opportunities. If I can add a further factor, I would say that it also requires access to pathways, institutions and cultural values that promote, sustain and extend certain practices:

“It is easier to be a ‘tacit teacher’ within an ongoing community of practice, where one is not the only influence drawing learners into reflective participation; conversely, it is harder to be a ‘tacit teacher’ when a cacophony of other influences distract and compete with one’s own influence.” -- (Burbles, 2010, pg 212)

I could go on to examine the myth ... Why it is attractive? Why it exists? What purpose does it serves? What does it reveal about the people who adhere to it?  ... And at a future stage, I just might return to these questions. For the meantime, I want to briefly allude to the Wittgensteinian features that I noticed in the news item:

  • practice - we are not governed by rational knowledge. Instead, we come to our ways of acting and thinking through our sustained practices (our training), which also means that critical thinking must be taught and cultivated.
  • paradox of rule-following - all rules stand in need of an interpretation. For one to correctly follow a rule requires one to be initiated into the interpretation of the rule within a community of practice over multiple exposures. Again, a successful following of a rule is not necessarily intuited. It is shaped in consultation with a master.
  • aspect seeing - one is trained to be able to notice and interpret what is salient and significant. One must be trained to move from a state of "aspect blindness" to "seeing as" and that this process does not occur innately. It is wrapped up in forms of living amongst others. 
  • form of life - our claims, our knowledge, our beliefs and our practices all make sense in a form of life. The language we speak, the activities we engage in, the knowledge we encounter, the stories we tell all arise in our practical engagement with a way of living. In this sense, the bedrock justification of any action is found in how they sustain a form of living. Additionally, if one is not part of a form of living (amongst others), then it may be difficult to ascertain how certain beliefs and practices arise and are relevant. One would not have access to the form of life of which the beliefs and practices are part. 

Whilst it can be charming to believe that success can be achieved without hard work and access to expert teachers, space and time, and opportunities, the more accurate picture is quite different. The mythological picture is compelling. It gives hope that anyone, anywhere can succeed since it highlights the internal (talent) over the external (teaching, opportunities and pathways).  

Watch the video, explore and tell me what you think.

The myth of talent is an attractive picture in the American public and media domains. There is a fascination with the belief that certain people are born extraordinary. Isn't talent merely the realisation of ability through practice, initiation and culture?