Practice, skill, or talent? The nature of nurture

Warning! What follows is long, somewhat technical, and boring to look at. It may also be rambling, and at least somewhat incoherent.

This NYT caught my eye recently:
I’d heard about this study, and even praised it, somewhat, to my
Gladwell-quoting wife. So, basically, 10,000 hours alone does not make
you an expert, or highly skilled at doing something.


Some things to think about: the meta-analysis shows that “practice”
broadly construed, “explains”[1] about 20 – 25 percent of the variance in
performance across a wide variety of tasks. This is about the same
amount of variance in job performance measures explained by measured
cognitive ability (what we psychologists usually term “g“,
loosely, IQ test scores; the meta-analytic correlation between cognitive
ability and job performance is somewhere in the neighborhood of .5,
which equals about 25 percent of variance explained in the
outcome). General cognitive ability does seem to me to be the most
natural measure that we have for “talent”, but that’s a complicated
statement that I’d like to break down.

Consider, for instance, chess or piano playing. It’s difficult to tease
apart something we might call innate talent from practice
in these domains. That is, no one is born knowing how to play chess or
play the piano. These are learned skills. Now, some people may pick up
those skills faster than others, or may develop broader, deeper
knowledge of chess or the piano earlier than others. This might be
called a natural talent. But where does it arise from? Surely,
intellectual and physical capabilities matter, but so does
practice–some people will develop a love for these activities very
young and spend a lot of time playing before others even discover them.

Basically, my argument is that nature and nurture are fundamentally linked. That is,
evolution hasn’t selected us for our ability to play the piano or even
to do mathematics. We have mental “organs” that are good at figuring
those things out, though (“an instinct to acquire an art,” from Darwin
via S. Pinker, see Shalizi’s review of “How the Mind Works”:
Or of course, read the book itself. It’s good.)
I have some fairly general thoughts about this, which draw heavily on my
association with Joshua Jackson ( and
Brent Roberts (
See here,,
and here,

I want to be clear that I don’t think either “camp” to the extent that
there  are camps is fully correct, and as articulated by
Scott Barry Kaufman in the linked article and elsewhere (for instance,

“A lot of these people who look like prodigies or gifted kids, then,
aren’t born with all this knowledge; what they were born with is how I
define talent: a passion or proclivity to master the rules of a domain.”

The trouble with all of this, when the research enters the public arena,
is that the nature versus nurture debate is part of our collective
consciousness. People know it, as a debate, and so when an explanation
that fits either side of the debate appears, the inclination is to force
it into this dichotomy, not to try to figure out the mechanisms by which
both forces shape behavior.

[1] I put scare-quotes around the word “explains”, because this doesn’t necessarily
mean what most people would think it means. I am a card-carrying
statistician (, so I feel obligated to be careful
here. The percentages listed above are in the so-called R-squared
metric, which indicates how much variability in the outcome variable is
shared with variability in the predictor variable. This is a purely
descriptive notion, and can be pulled around by a host of uninteresting
factors, most notably, the scale of the predictor variable.


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