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Q & A: How Much Does Intelligence Matter at College?

December 17th, 2008 · 58 comments

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An Interesting Question…Doogie!

A student recently sent me an interesting question. It’s a topic I’ve thought a lot about, so I thought I would share my answer with you.

Here’s the original question:

To what extent does intelligence matter in college success? I have a group of friends that try very hard at school, yet fail to score the grades a select group of people I know are able to do. This question captures my concern about grad school admissions: no matter how hard I try, there will always be hundreds of other “geniuses” out there.

I responded: I don’t believe that intrinsic intelligence plays any significant role at the college level.

Let me explain why…


Doogie Howser Nation

Americans are obsessed with genius. We love the idea of Doogie Howser. We think there are math people and arts people, naturally gifted writers and those who were born to play golf.

In the classroom, however, this causes problems. When we see a student breeze through a class while we struggle, we label him “naturally good” at the subject and then write it off as something that we’re not meant to master. This holds back a lot of students from reaching their potential. It also causes a lot of unnecessary anxiety.

Here’s the thing: I don’t buy it. And neither do scientists. No matter how hard researcher look, they can’t find any trace that significant natural abilities actually exist.

How Does a Piano Virtuoso Become Good?

In the early 1980s, Benjamin Bloom, an educational psychologist from the University of Chicago, launched a massive research effort to answer a simple question: how do extremely talented people become good?

His team identified 120 individuals who achieved international recognition. They were split evenly between the following fields: concert pianists, tennis players, swimmers, mathematicians, sculptors and research neurologists.

Over a period of five years, his team conducted extensive interviews with the individuals (and their families) to reconstruct their path to superstardom. The important result from this study was not what Bloom found, but what he failed to find: There was no trace of prodigies.

These stars got good only after many years of deliberate practice. Not only did it take a long time, but for many of these years there was no evidence that they would one day be great. After 6 years of serious training, the future concert pianists, for example, were still competing only at the local level. And they lost as much as they won The swimmers, on average, competed for 8 years at the national level before they started placing first, second, or third. Among the mathematicians and the neurologists, no one become renowned until their late 20s or early 30s.

This begs a natural follow-up question: if practice is key, why did these 120 individuals practice so hard while so many others give up? Fortunately, one of the researchers from Bloom’s team thought this question was worth exploring.

The Source of Persistence

In a 1997 study, Lauren Sosniak, a current Berkeley professor who was a member of Bloom’s original research team, dived back into the interview archives to figure out why the superstars persisted. She soon discovered that almost without exception they had all been exposed to their field, in a playful, unstructured, exploratory manner very early in life.

This random exposure built an interest which gave them just enough confidence to persist through the first stage of formal training. This extra persistence distinguished them enough to get re-discovered and advanced to more rigorous formal training. Their confidence grew. They were rediscovered and placed into ever more elite groups. Their confidence grew some more. And so on…

How a Math Person Becomes a Math Person

Sosniak gives the example of a future math star who recalled that when he was a kid, his dad would play a game where he would ask him what fraction of his omelet was left on the plate. He thought it was fun and soon learned his fractions.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, how this early exposure might have played out throughout the future mathematician’s education.

The omelet game might have generated slightly more confidence when the student was in his early elementary school math classes. His teachers, impressed that he seemed to know the fractions so well, probably would have then tracked him into the gifted and talented programs for math. At that young age, there isn’t much criteria to judge by, so seeming to be engaged in the math classroom is as good as any.

Once there, the student would get advanced training. More importantly, his confidence that he was good in math would increase. This would lead him to spend more time grappling with problems, which provides perfect deliberate practice (he’s stretching just beyond his ability) which in turn would make him even better. This gives him more confidence which leads to more deliberate practice and more ability, and the cycle continues.

By the time he arrives at college he’ll be considered a math whiz. By the time he’s 30, he’s a star in his field.

Why?

Because his dad liked to play with his food…

What You Can Do

You will encounter people at college who are much better than you at certain subjects. As we learned, this has nothing to do with a natural ability that you lack. They have simply done more deliberate practice of the relevant skills than you.

Here’s the good news: you can reduce this gap. Instead of despairing about your lack of ability to solve math problems or ace the LSAT, figure out your own plan of deliberate practice.

For example, you can experience huge jumps in math ability by tackling problem sets in a way that stretches your ability and adopting insight-driven review. Remember, this is how I went from a non-math person to a math whiz in one semester.

The same idea holds for other subjects. Early in my college career my papers were lacking. I came from a public high school. Many of my peers were from top private schools that had more demanding classes. These students simply wrote much better than me.

I didn’t, however, despair: “I just don’t have a gift for writing!” Instead, I practiced. I wrote for the newspaper. I wrote for magazines on campus. I obsessed over my papers, pushing myself to be better with each draft. By the time I reached my junior year I would regularly get notes that my papers were some of the best in the class.

I made myself into a “writing person.” Natural ability had nothing to do with it.

To answer the question that motivated this post: stop obsessing over intelligence. People are good at what they’ve practiced. Figure out what you want to be good at, then start making yourself better. You might not catch up to the rare student who has been building his ability over the past decade, but you can get good enough to score well.

Unless of course you’re Doogie. For him, everything just comes easy…

58 thoughts on “Q & A: How Much Does Intelligence Matter at College?

  1. Andrea says:

    Excellent post and something important for college students to remember. Persistence and motivation are more important than I.Q. when it comes to success.

  2. Nazim says:

    NPH is a genius and a ladies man.
    See: Harold and Kumar

  3. Nazim says:

    NPH=Neil Patrick Harris[Doogie Howser]

  4. I agree with it completely. And I specially like the example. It’s something I can relate to. I would credit everything that people credit me by to my parents and fellow students (my elementary school was beyond awesome) who encouraged me to read books even when I was in Nursery. =)

  5. Sebastian says:

    There’s a lot of truth in your post, most “prodigies” of any field DO work hard to get where they are.

    However, we are talking specifics. Specific subject, sport, ability.

    I see true genius, prodigy, and intelligence not in what one can master… but in how quickly.

    Your post is uplifting and gives hope for us “non-prodigy” people. However, there’s no going around the fact that, for example, my good friend can memorise 50+ foreign words in the time it takes me to memorise 10. Or read three books in the time I read one, and with better recollection than mine (on ANY subject we ever had together).

    It is true, anyone can master a specific ground with perseverance. However, the sheer speed is what separates “anyone” from genius. And while we are still determined to do “A” the genius is already on “E, F, G” … that to me is the disheartening part.

    What do you think Cal?

  6. Study Hacks says:

    I see true genius, prodigy, and intelligence not in what one can master… but in how quickly.

    Researchers cannot find examples to support this. When Ericsson, for example, studied world-class musicians, he could find no examples of prodigies who became good in a small amount of time *or* grinds who didn’t become good even though they practiced a lot. Study after study shows that ability comes down to the amount of deliberative practice.

    my good friend can memorise 50+ foreign words in the time it takes me to memorise 10

    Over his lifetime he has had a lot more deliberative practice on word memorization than you. If you were to spend an hour every day really stretching your ability to recall fast you would eventually catch-up.

    (Indeed, there’s whole industries built around increasing your memorization ability through practice. There’s even huge competitions about memorizing numbers and such. The best contenders are those who have practiced the most).

    Or read three books in the time I read one, and with better recollection than min

    Practice…

    An English Major, for example, can not only read a novel faster than me but have a much more nuanced grasp of the style, characters, and meaning. If I studied literature hard for a few years, I could catch up.

    I think you’re mistaking “speed” as a result of a practiced talent for speed of acquisition of talent.

  7. Mark says:

    I know that I’m picking nits, but it is *deliberate* practice, not *deliberative* practice.

    That said, deliberate practice may be necessary for greatness, but it certainly is not sufficient. Whenever you see someone who is dominant in pretty much anything, it is always someone with some kind of natural advantage in *combination* with deliberate practice. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t use deliberate practice to improve ourselves.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    Whenever you see someone who is dominant in pretty much anything, it is always someone with some kind of natural advantage

    That’s sort of the point. We assume there is some natural advantage, but when researchers go looking for it, in many fields they can’t find. This is especially true in music. There has not been demonstrated anything that resembles a natural talent for music.

    My argument in this post is that we too often reinterpret environmental advantages — eg, the mathematician getting early exposure to fractions — with natural ability advantages.

    1. Kristina says:

      I know you’ve said over and over again that basically practice makes perfect in people we think have natural abilities. I used to think that I had natural ability in music and writing but now that I think of it, I’ve been interested in and have practiced these things since I was in diapers. But I still have a few questions: I’ve known a lot of very smart people in my high school senior class (most of them were valedictorians and salutatorians) and they seemed to pick up anything new they have to learn faster than everyone else, even in topics they weren’t good in. Wouldn’t that be natural ability? And what about the geniuses in MENSA. Some of the people in those organizations don’t even have a double digit age and are smarter than the majority of society. Some of us would have to spend years and years to increase our IQs but people in MENSA are literally just born with extreme intelligence. How can that not be natural ability?

  9. Right on Cal. I would suggest reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers: The Story of Success.” He has a lot of interesting tidbits in it, and part of deals with the notion of intelligence. He likens intelligence to height in the NBA. Height is an advantage in the NBA to a point–after which other things begin to matter more (e.g., jumping, speed, ball-handling). Similarly with intelligence, it matters up to a point for some task, and then a lot of other things begin to matter more. If you believe in IQ tests, then you can be certain that Einstein/Edison/(insert famous smart person from the past) didn’t have the highest IQ to ever live, yet these remembered individuals made major contributions.

  10. Sebastian says:

    Good point Cal, there are methods to deliberately (and sometimes involuntarily) improve skills such as memory and reading speed. And it is very likely that the friend I mentioned is more skilled (not more talented) in these areas. It is also very possible that he involuntarily found himself in some situation that promoted practice of such skills. Just one purely-theoretical possibility: He played hours and hours of a video game that promoted picture memory and quick reading of subtitles.

    Unfortunately for me, all the methods/books that I have tried on memory or reading improvement turned out to be gimicky and did not give me any feeling of improvement. This, I suppose, leads me to be a bit sceptical towards an idea that such improvements are at all possible.

    So my question to you is: Do you have any idea of what a memory and/or reading PRACTICE routine would consist of?

    Just don’t say “read a lot” … because I do, and I’m trying to get faster to read even more 😉

  11. Malangyar says:

    Excellent post, thanks.

  12. MTM says:

    This argument taken to the fullest extent, however, implies that everyone is BORN with equal footing. I just feel that this is simply not true. People are not born equal, especially not in the case of athletics. Some people are born with more fast/slow twitch muscles, and it wouldn’t matter if I practiced everyday for a lifetime and while they only practiced twice a week; they would still be better.

    Another example would be music. A person born with perfect pitch would be able to sing on key earlier. You can argue that perfect pitch can be developed, but like an above commenter said, while we’re doing that, they’re off composing symphonies or whatever.

    While I’m sure the effect is not as great for academics, I find it very hard to believe that there is not differing intelligence among people.

  13. Study Hacks says:

    Another example would be music. A person born with perfect pitch would be able to sing on key earlier.

    Music turns out to be a particularly bad example, because when they went searching for things like perfect pitch predicting later success, they couldn’t find it.

    But I agree with your broader point, there are differences. Especially in sports. I just finished re-reading Michael Lewis’s “The Blind Side,” which makes that point pretty clearly.

    I guess a good way of putting it is that the idea of natural abilities has become overblown and too broadly applied in our culture. If you’re a left tackle for an NFL team then natural ability plays a huge role. But for things like academic performance, or business smarts, or these other high-level meta-tasks, it all comes down to practice.

  14. Study Hacks says:

    Unfortunately for me, all the methods/books that I have tried on memory or reading improvement turned out to be gimicky and did not give me any feeling of improvement. This, I suppose, leads me to be a bit sceptical towards an idea that such improvements are at all possible.

    Read about deliberate practice. Gimmicks or reptition are not enough. It takes a special type of effort.

  15. Anna S. says:

    I agree with the post completely. People seem to enjoy rationalizing that there is some inborn quality that they don’t have to explain why they aren’t math geniuses or professional figure skaters. It makes some people feel better that the ‘geniuses’ are on another plane and not people just like them who put in thousands of hours of practice and experience to get where they are.

    My friend Khatzumoto put it this way:

    What about basketball? Lots of Africans in the US play it for fun. Hours and hours of ball with their friends.

    And what do we say about all these Africans?

    We say they’re “talented”. It’s “genetic”. They’re “tall”. They have “fast-twitch muscles”. They have “big hands”.

    Really?

    Really?

    Because it couldn’t be that, oh, they’ve put in thousands of hours of enjoyable practice? Heaven forbid their bodies might have changed as a result of all this practice (just because it looks effortless, that doesn’t mean there was no effort involved)? It couldn’t be that it was the only thing that seemed fun to do? It couldn’t be that certain Kenyans live at 2500m above sea level, eat more fresh vegetables than the Fresh Vegetable Monster on Sesame Street, and run to school all their childhoods and then join the military where it just so happens that they keep exercising?

    Explaining extraordinary talent by magic makes people believe, wrongly, that they don’t have what it takes to do these sort of things and I’ve seen many people use it as a tool to help their own self-esteem from feeling hurt because people just like them have done awesome things that they haven’t.

    Scientific American also seems to agree: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-expert-mind&print=true

  16. supergirl says:

    Actually, everyone is born with perfect pitch. You lose it around age 3-5 if you don’t get exposure to either music or a tonal language before then (perfect pitch is four times more frequent in adults who are native speakers of a tonal language, and occurs in 3/4 of adults in Japan because of compulsory music training in kindergarten, compared to 5% of adults in Australia which has pretty crap music education)

  17. Dan Erwin says:

    Anders Ericsson, who has led much of the research on deliberate practice lays out three key elements to it:

  18. Dan Erwin says:

    Anders Ericsson of Florida State, who has led much of the research on deliberate practice, lays out three key elements to it: set specific goals, obtain immediate and expert feedback, concentrate as much on technique as on outcome.

    Sometimes getting the feedback can be difficult–but that’s the researched requirement for success.

  19. Sameer says:

    I don’t know… I know people who are just quicker thinkers than I am. They also read faster. This is true of my girlfriend, whom I know pretty well, and as far as I know, she hasn’t been exposed to situations requiring quick thinking or reading any more than I have.

  20. Eman says:

    Wow, this was truly an awesome post and very encouraging to those who lack confidence and easily give-up. This is my first comment on any post, but this was so good and motivational for the meek, that I had to reply. Keep awesome study hacks like these coming! I love this site.

  21. Greg says:

    Another take on this is that while we DO NOT have control over talents in our DNA or the environment our parents provided, we DO have control over our actions (persistence, sticktoitiveness, practice).

    This is demonstrated when you go back to your 30 year high school reunion and find the popular (talented) kid managing a convenience store and the average kid the CEO of a company.

  22. Study Hacks says:

    They also read faster. This is true of my girlfriend, whom I know pretty well, and as far as I know, she hasn’t been exposed to situations requiring quick thinking or reading any more than I have.

    She probably read more than you growing up. Reading is great form of deliberate practice, especially when the book is a little beyond your level.

  23. Study Hacks says:

    People seem to enjoy rationalizing that there is some inborn quality that they don’t have to explain why they aren’t math geniuses or professional figure skaters. It makes some people feel better that the ‘geniuses’ are on another plane and not people just like them who put in thousands of hours of practice and experience to get where they are.

    There was a New Yorker article last summer about marathoners. One thing that caught my attention was the huge role training type plays. People had long assumed, for example, that Kenyans must have an extraordinary percentage of the right type of muscle fiber in their legs. This is hard to test (because you have to literally take a chunk of flesh), the small amount of tests that were done didn’t show a huge difference there. The new thinking is that it has to do with life style, and the amount of long-range, high altitude running that people from this country participate in from a very young age.

  24. Study Hacks says:

    I know that I’m picking nits, but it is *deliberate* practice, not *deliberative* practice.

    Whoops! I made the change.

  25. allie says:

    One of my favourite quotes:

    “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
    Talent will not; nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
    Genius will not; unrewarded genius is a proverb.
    Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
    Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

    – Calvin Coolidge

    It totally sums up this whole post.

  26. Benedikt says:

    As always, you make an important point.
    Sadly, this time I can’t share your conclusion – and neither can science. (I think that your interpretation of Blooms study (possibly even the study itself, I didn’t read it) suffers from winners bias.)
    I’m especially refering to your statement.
    “That’s sort of the point. We assume there is some natural advantage, but when researchers go looking for it, in many fields they can’t find. This is especially true in music. There has not been demonstrated anything that resembles a natural talent for music.”
    (It took me five years to get my degree in music education, now I am writing my dissertation and studying psychology – that’s why this topic matters much to me.)
    While it’s true, that some scientists assume, that talent doesn’t matter much or at all, the most assume (and show at least cirumstantial evidence for this) that without sufficient giftedness you lack the possibility to develop as fast or far as others. For further information (I’m no expert in this particular field) I recommend Simonton (1999, “Talent and its development.” Psychological Review, 106, 435-457), Bastian (1991, “Musikalische Hochbegabung und Förderung”. Germany: Mainz Schott) and more general Burt (1963 “Is intelligence normally distributed?” British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 16, 175-190) – you cand find this one online.

    In a broader view, I don’t like your argumentation in this post: You just assume, that training is the prevalent influence and ignore the whole nature-nurture-debate as if it never happened. If we *assume*, that talent isn’t important, your conclusions are of course right. I just don’t think that this assumption can be made – even if we would like to do this. Even, if it leads to right conclusions regarding our daily life and our struggle to get better.

    (Sorry for my English, I am practicing deliberately and will continue to do so…)

  27. Study Hacks says:

    In a broader view, I don’t like your argumentation in this post: You just assume, that training is the prevalent influence and ignore the whole nature-nurture-debate as if it never happened

    I’m not “assuming” anything, I’m reporting on the direction direction of the literature. Take a look at Ericsson’s work, or Colvin’s new book “Talent is Overrated,” which does an excellent summary of the relevant research. Gladwell’s new book “Outliers” does an okay job at this as well. The more researchers try to isolate natural abilities playing a big role — in many different fields — the less they find.

  28. Nazim says:

    Is there anyway I can accelerate this process of being a math person?
    My dad never played with my food 🙁

  29. Maureen says:

    Great post, Cal!
    You really pack a lot of insight into one post.
    I really enjoy reading your blog and have read your two books. Keep up the great work!

  30. Fantastic post. However, even if its for repetition’s sake, Cal, explain to me the following:

    I study theology, as does my best friend. Now whilst I have to read books, make notes, formulate essay plan etc, he just reads the books and DOES. He doesn’t need to take notes on the books hes read or in class either.

    He didn’t go to a better school than me, his parents are as educated as mine, and he had a horrible time growing up. We both read as children. The only difference in our lifestyles growing up seems to be that now he tends to read more philosophical works. (I know I’m cutting out a lot of detail here.)

    I just don’t get it – he still manages to do more reading than me, and always writes 1st class essays. The guy has never done worse than a 2:1 (above average) and he never takes notes. Surely in this case there has to be some hidden talent that I just don’t have?

  31. Hung-Su Nguyen says:

    Reminds me of the metaphor of the bamboo plant.

    For those who haven’t heard it, a bamboo plant will not grow for years after it is planted. There will be absolutely no motivation whatsoever for you to continue watering it. If you persist, eventually, the plant grows very very suddenly, perhaps 5 feet in a single day!

    This happened to me just a few days ago, when I realised the meaning of a koan i heard as a child some 13 or so years ago. (Tree falling in a lonely forest, if you’re curious) A perfect metaphor for my circumstance. =]

    Nice post by the way. =]

  32. Benedikt says:

    The more researchers try to isolate natural abilities playing a big role — in many different fields — the less they find.

    That may be correct, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t such a thing as talent. The studies quoted by you show that deliberate practice is important, yet they don’t proof that there is no such thing as talent. They also fail to show, why students practice deliberately in certain fields instead of others – Developmental Psychology assumes, that each child looks for his environment. Your example (dad playing with his food) sets a monocausal sequence which doesn’t use the concept of talent and relies instead on contingency – it works, but it would work as well (and I think, in most cases, even better) otherwise. Once more, no proof for the unimportance of talent. It’s an assumption you’re making and – as I wrote – one, that may be enough for daily considerations. That doesn’t mean that it’s scientifical sufficient.

  33. Suzie Bee says:

    I think that the point is:
    if you take two people with equal talent and one practices and one doesn’t, the one who practices will be better in ten years time. If you take one person with talent who doesn’t practice and one without who does, the one who practices will be better.

    I’m totally unmusical. I have some kind of conceptual difficulty reading music and playing anything on an instrument that I don’t know by heart anyway. However, my younger brother has played violin, drums, piano and is now singing in a choir. Just goes to show – practice does help.

  34. Study Hacks says:

    Once more, no proof for the unimportance of talent. It’s an assumption you’re making and – as I wrote – one, that may be enough for daily considerations. That doesn’t mean that it’s scientifical sufficient.

    The scientific method accepts an effect once evidence of such an effect has been found. Not the other way round. Scientists don’t set out to prove talent does not exist they set out to prove that it does. The more they fail at the latter the less an less likely the talent hypothesis becomes.

  35. Study Hacks says:

    if you take two people with equal talent and one practices and one doesn’t, the one who practices will be better in ten years time. If you take one person with talent who doesn’t practice and one without who does, the one who practices will be better.

    I think what’s interesting about the most recent research is that it calls into question that there is any difference in talents. Ericsson for example seems to show that the amount and type of practics is the entire difference.

  36. Benedikt says:

    I know that lengthy discussions are not common in your blog and I’m not sure whether our discussion is still of any interest to anyone else or even you. Just write me a Mail if you prefer a dialogue that way.

    The scientific method accepts an effect once evidence of such an effect has been found. Not the other way round. Scientists don’t set out to prove talent does not exist they set out to prove that it does. The more they fail at the latter the less an less likely the talent hypothesis becomes.

    I could argue about this point and the importance of hypotheses as long as proven effects fail to explain a lot – like, sadly, Ericssons deliberate practice does. But that’s not exactly the point. More important is:
    Why do you assume, that there is no such thing as individual talent if there are many phenomena (see below for examples) that can be explained far easier by assuming the existence of something called talent (compare for example Suzie Bees statement) than by complicated constructions of deliberate practice and motivational effects? My own speculation: Because you want to. You fail to apply Occams Razor because the results don’t fit into your world-view. A world-view I’d like to share but one that is also improbable. So far just my assumptions (and a little bit of provocation, not in bad faith), now for the scientific discourse.

    – Twin research shows high correlations in abilities of twins, that didn’t grow up together. (I think even in interests, but I’m not sure whether there are studies proving that.) While intelligence is far from a determing factor (!), it correlates with many other factors like success in school (r = 0,50 – r = 0,60, compare Gustafsson & Undheim, 1996 “Individual differences in cognitive functions”). How would you explain a significant correlation in school success of twins (I’m not sure whether a study tests for that)? That is, if there where such a study, would you still not change your view? (And if you don’t see the necessity – just explain me, where I got you wrong.)

    – Pascual-Leone (1970, “A mathematical model for the transition rule…”) showed, that the number of items (words, pictures…) someone is able to reproduce after a certain time correlates with his IQ. Would you argue, that a) nevertheless that brings him no advantage over someone whith a lower IQ who tries to learn the same items or that b) everybody has the same Start-IQ and differences are established by deliberate practice?

    If you are still interested in this topic (I think so), I found something that could interest you, psychology of attributions – that explains a lot of the things similar to you concepts, the first important article is from Heider (1958, “The psychology of interpersonal relations”).

  37. Study Hacks says:

    I know that lengthy discussions are not common in your blog and I’m not sure whether our discussion is still of any interest to anyone else or even you.

    I don’t mind long discussions. I’m a grad student, it’s what I do for a living! 🙂

    To be sure, the debate on the importance of talent is not settled. There are smart scientists on either side. I’m merely reporting one side — the side gaining traction right now. You’re doing a good job of reporting some of arguments from the other.

    In response to some of your specific arguments:

    The idea that some people are simply more talented *is* a parsimonious explanation for ability differences. However, once scientists go looking for such natural talents and fail to find them, it becomes much less parsimonious. At this stage, deliberate practice seems the simpler explanation because it is easy to find evidence for its effect. Whereas natural talent, at least in the fields studied, if it existed would have to be somehow undetectable.

    Keep in mind, on almost any question you can find some studies that support you view. For example, if you’re a fan of acupuncture, there are some studies that seem to show an effect. That’s why researchers consider the trends in the research. Here’s a basic rule of thumb: if the effect is real, then the better the experiment the more pronounced it becomes. If it’s not a major effect, then the better the experiment the harder it is to find.

    With this in mind, I’m less interested in individual studies and more interested in the following: if people are born with some intrinsic talent, why can’ scientists routinely and commonly measure it and show it’s effect?

  38. Elizabeth S. says:

    I agree with the fact that people can work hard and have a much better chance of becoming “good” at whatever subject they want to excel in. Actually going to class is a great plan for people who are regular OR nontraditional students – and taking notes also helps.

    A good attitude can also help, study groups and studying smart for tests and quizzes.

    I do believe, though, that people are born with definite aptitudes that can help them learn. And some people are definitely born geniuses or gifted.

    But hard work DEFINITELY can made a HUGE difference.

  39. Mandy says:

    Wow. I just read an article a couple of minutes ago reinstating the same thing. Check it out:

    http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/how-to-be-a-genius/2006/10/13/1160246332748.html?page=fullpage#

  40. RF says:

    I think if you talk individual case studies there are simply too many. And because of that it’s interesting why scientists can’t prove it. Doesn’t this article kind of contradicts other stuff on this blog? Because the majority of this blog talks about how it’s not how much you do but how you do it. So it’s technique rather than pseudo work. It kind of says here that the more you work the more you’ll catch up but if you don’t do it right it won’t work no matter how many times you’ve practiced it. I’m talking academic wise of course.

  41. Study Hacks says:

    Wow. I just read an article a couple of minutes ago reinstating the same thing. Check it out:

    Cool article. Some quotes that jumped out at me:

    Studies of extraordinary performance run the gamut, employing memory tests, IQ comparisons, brain scans, retrospective interviews of high achievers and longitudinal studies of people who were identified in their youth as highly gifted. None bears out the myth of inherent genius.

    And…

    A sober look at any field shows that the top performers are rarely more gifted than the also-rans, but they almost invariably outwork them. This doesn’t mean that some people aren’t more athletic or smarter than others. The elite are elite partly because they have some genetic gifts – for learning and hand-eye coordination, for instance – but the very best rise because they take great pains to maximise that gift.

    Which allows that there are inherent difference, but they tend to be swamped by effort.

  42. Study Hacks says:

    Doesn’t this article kind of contradicts other stuff on this blog? Because the majority of this blog talks about how it’s not how much you do but how you do it. So it’s technique rather than pseudo work. It kind of says here that the more you work the more you’ll catch up but if you don’t do it right it won’t work no matter how many times you’ve practiced it. I’m talking academic wise of course.

    This is a good question. The goal of my studying advice is to make students less terrible. In other words, most students are really really bad at studying. By being not bad, you’ll have a much happier college career. When it comes to extracurriculars, I think this fits well with my philosophy of focusing on a small number of things.

    My point with this article is that in your quest to become less terrible, don’t get psyched out by the idea that you’re naturally “bad” at some subject. It’s probably just differences in practice and you can catch up enough to do well.

  43. Adam says:

    I seriously doubt a lifetime of deliberate practice will turn a person with Down Syndrome into someone like Murray Gell-Mann.

    Let’s not even exaggerate that much. Brains are not born equal. I most likely have some form of ADD/ADHD and no amount of deliberate practice will allow me to concentrate on a particular problem as long as my peers. The slightest distraction will turn a final exam into a catastrophe. Given enough time to think quietly to myself, I will get things, but I cannot even hope to develop the speed and fluency of abstract thinking that my peers have. I do not “get” things without tedious explanation from experts, while others can simply pick up a book and gleam all the necessary information from it. If you leave two people to the same difficult problem, oftentimes one will not get it and the other will. Not everyone can make the same leaps of logic – how can you “deliberately practice” such a skill that we hardly understand? One cannot train themselves to have a “Eureka!” moment. They’ll either get it or they won’t.

    I don’t believe that there is any substitute for deliberate practice, but you cannot say that intelligence has no significant role in college success. How do you explain children who could do multiply huge numbers in their head at a very young age? Certainly these children did not “deliberately practice” their multiplication tables in secret and then showed off to their parents. There are many facets of human intelligence, and some will have an affinity for this one or that. That doesn’t mean they are guaranteed success in life, but given the correct environment it will certainly give them an edge.

  44. Rowah says:

    According to Wikipedia, when comparing Einstein’s brain to those of control brains, “scientific studies have suggested that regions involved in speech and language are smaller, while regions involved with numerical and spatial processing are larger.”

    I know Wiki isn’t exactly scholarly.

  45. Jeff says:

    If you’re a left tackle for an NFL team then natural ability plays a huge role. But for things like academic performance, or business smarts, or these other high-level meta-tasks, it all comes down to practice.

    Your statement pretty much contradicts Bloom’s research. Swimming and playing tennis aren’t exactly high-level meta tasks. More importantly, why do you assume that genetic differences can account for varying levels of success in athletic pursuits, but not in academic pursuits? Just because the inherent advantages genetic differences convey in one are easily visible doesn’t mean they don’t exist in the other.

    I think you’re doing a disservice to your readers by implying that everyone has the same capacity for success and if only they tried hard enough, they too can be fabulously successful in their chosen fields. It creates unrealistic expectations and engenders resentment by providing people with a scapegoat for their failures. People aren’t created equal. Your refusal to “buy it” won’t, nor any amount of wishful thinking, ever change that reality.

    Less I be misunderstood, I’m not saying hard work and deliberate practice don’t have an effect on one’s chances of success, only that they have their limits and they are much smaller than you imply.

  46. Study Hacks says:

    Your statement pretty much contradicts Bloom’s research. Swimming and playing tennis aren’t exactly high-level meta tasks. More importantly, why do you assume that genetic differences can account for varying levels of success in athletic pursuits, but not in academic pursuits?

    For the specific case of left tackle, you have to be over 300 pounds, but with the weight distributed in such a way that makes you incredibly fast for someone your size. I’m not sure how much is genetics and how much is nutrition — but it’s certainly not all practice!

    I think you’re doing a disservice to your readers by implying that everyone has the same capacity for success and if only they tried hard enough, they too can be fabulously successful in their chosen fields.

    I don’t know about being fabulously successful in their chosen fields. But when it comes to college-level courses, I think putting too much emphasis on natural ability is a fallacy.

  47. Sheila says:

    Excellent post! Thanks for sharing!

  48. faisal tasneem says:

    hi
    I am faisal n i m 17yrs old i m doing my A-Levels n nw m in AS but the problem is i m facing is that i cant seem to handle the stress of projects studies n exams n assignments n i failed in all my subjects in the recent school exams can u please help m out n tell what cn i do to imrpove my grades and how do i handle the stress

  49. Study Hacks says:

    I am faisal n i m 17yrs old i m doing my A-Levels n nw m in AS but the problem is i m facing is that i cant seem to handle the stress of projects studies n exams n assignments n i failed in all my subjects in the recent school exams can u please help m out n tell what cn i do to imrpove my grades and how do i handle the stress

    A good starting place is the five articles listed under “Popular Posts” on the righthand column of this blog. Give them a read, and then let me know if you have some more questions.

  50. orientalist says:

    A very encouraging post-Thanks Cal

    But I have a question; surely if one has more deliberate practise as a child, they will have an advantage, as people learn and retain things quicker as children?
    Or are you saying this isn’t the case?

  51. cmpalmer says:

    I went to college with a guy who was a phenomenal guitar player. We played in the college jazz band together, but he was also in my pre-engineering courses. He did fairly good in physics and calculus, but he did eventually drop out to pursue a music career. Of all of the musicians I know, he is the only one who “made it”. I’ve watched him on MTV, he’s written songs for Grammy winning albums, and he’s toured with several famous musicians.

    Back in college, we were in awe of his guitar playing abilities and, to a lesser extent, that he was so good and made great grades in high school. Surely he must have been a musical prodigy. His secret? Every day, from the time he was around 11 or 12, he came home from school and played guitar for 3 hours, then ate supper, then spent an hour or so on his homework. On Saturday and Sunday, he still put in at least 2-3 hours on guitar. Every week. For six years. If he had any abnormal innate skill, it was in being dedicated enough as a teenager to spend a fixed amount of time every day to work on his playing.

  52. Benedikt says:

    It’s one year later and winter vacation again, so here is my overdue answer.

    if people are born with some intrinsic talent, why can’t scientists routinely and commonly measure it and show it’s effect?

    Probably because neither talent nor its effects can be isolated. As we both agree there isn’t only the influencing factor talent, but there are also other very important factors. Because of the special ethics involved in this field of research, you can’t conduct proper experiments, for example you can’t take two newborn babies and manipulate the variables because the relevant decisions belong to the parents (and later, the child itself), not to researchers – we surely agree on that, too.

    So the closest thing you actually can do that resembles an experiment (in German it’s called a “Quasi-Experiment”) would be to look for two babies starting with the same genetic code but growing up under different cirumstances and watch, whether they develop similar. Exactly that has been done with twin studies. I can’t imagine another effecive method to measure intrinsic talent – if you can, I’m very curious.

    I think that answers your question. Nevertheless: The things we can influence aren’t the talents, with which we are born – for this reasons I share your conclusions regarding practical consequences. But regarding epimistological consequences (the “truth”) I’d argue that your way of arguing resembles the well-known joke about the drunk who’s looking for his keys under the lamppost – not because he’s sure that he has lost them there, but because that’s the only place where he can see anything at all.

  53. Ben says:

    Interesting (and apparently controversial post). Personally, I think both sides have merit. Certainly when it comes to world class proficiancy, practice is the crucial factor. Earlier there was a quote (several actually), about reading speed. You said the fast readers probably read more. Okay, I agree in some circumstances that’s true, but aren’t there people who simply read quickly? Personally, I’m acquainted with a number of speed reading techniques (and I’ll add memory techniques to that, since the situations are similar). These are techniques that most people don’t use often. But there are SOME people that just use the techniques naturally. Couldn’t this be considered an innate talent? Certainly the techniques can be learned, and those who practice them have a significant edge over even the naturals, but won’t the natural have a significant advantage over the average person? I imagine there are similar situations in other fields.

    P.S. There was a comment about ADD/ADHD earlier, citing it as an incurable setback. Dominic O’brien, 8 time world memory champ, was initially dyslexic and had ADHD, and claims that he is no longer afflicted by either. Worth looking into?

  54. Benedikt says:

    @Ben: I share your position and I think Cal probably does so, too. Today I can phrase my understanding of the discussion here better than one or two years ago: I think that a difference has to be made between which assumptions are true and which are useful.

    Cal’s argument for our ability to improve ourselves is one that is concerned especially about a useful outcome. And of course: What good is it to mourn our shortcomings or to gloat because of our strengths? Nevertheless, and that’s the thing I wanted to show (and your example comes in handy, too), we have certain strengths and other weaknesses.

    That of course doesn’t have to mean, that everything we think of as a weakness (or strength) has to be one – compare the “curse” of ADHD or similar examples.

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