Tuesday, 11 January 2011


“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” -Stephen King

The comments from my last blog post have led me to brush up a little on Attribution Theory. Most especially I've been reading about Fundamental Attribution Error: the tendency to attribute the causes of behavior to dispositional traits rather than situational effects. For example, when someone spills something we tend to assume that they're clumsy rather than considering that the glass might be slippery or that they've been distracted by a friend or by stressful thoughts about a situation at work or at home.

So how does this relate to talent? Well, talent is principally something we attribute to others and it's also something we tend to think of as arising from internal processes rather than being produced by external factors. Whilst many people may believe that we can do little to induce talent, it's generally accepted that it’s possible to draw it out and encourage it (or the reverse). Teachers especially, are in the business of spotting talents in students and assisting their fuller development. In many ways teachers have the daunting responsibility of identifying underlying talents and guiding students to pursue them – in effect shaping the course of their lives. But at what point might the identification of talent be thought of as a fundamental attribution error? Perhaps Timmy just appears to be talented at maths because his older brother took a few moments to help him understand a few useful underlying principles and now Timmy enjoys maths more than anything else and is in advance of his classmates because of it. Perhaps Timmy had the temerity to paint on the classroom wall last time he did an art class and got told off. Perhaps he just likes the maths teacher. There are so many potential variables which contribute to the formation of each individual that to generalise by assuming someone is talented seems narrow minded at the very least. As we well know, teachers make mistakes, sometimes grossly. Consider, for example, the headmaster who said that a five-year-old Bertie would never amount to anything. Later, in Technical College, this same student was described as “a lazy dog who never bothered about mathematics at all.” Fortunately Einstein didn't take much notice of what these teachers thought, but many students lack such independence of thought.

Much as I agree with the above quote by Steven King, I think it also highlights a pervasive misunderstanding in contemporary attitudes which see success, rather than fulfillment, as the pinnacle of human achievement. Should we be encouraging young people to pursue their talents, that we have skillfully identified with our unique but untutored gift for talent spotting, or should we encourage what they find fulfilling? I fully admit that the two often overlap, and all for the better. But sometimes they don’t and we do students a serious disservice, much as it may break our hearts to see them squander the talents we perceive, when we encourage them, oblige them or subtly coerce them into pursuing routes which do not accord with their own desires.

But it isn’t only external perceptions that shape student achievements. Self perceptions also play a significant role in determining how individuals develop (though these perceptions are by no means immune to the influence of parents and teachers either). In various studies carried out by Carol Dweck and collaborators it was repeatedly found that students could be divided roughly equally between those who sought “learning goals” (increased competence) as opposed to those who sought “performance goals” (goals that provided favourable judgements or – crucially - the avoidance of negative judgements about their performance). These different goals were found to be predicated on contrasting beliefs about the nature of ability. Students who believe that ability is a fixed entity tend to seek performance goals and to avoid risk taking whilst students who believe that ability is alterable (ie: can be improved) are more persistent, relish challenges and see failure as an opportunity to learn (learning goals). Unsurprisingly these students also achieve significantly better results in challenging tasks. The upshot of this research has been a strong advocacy for methods of teaching that shift student perceptions of ability as a fixed entity to ones that see ability as malleable and therefore subject to hard work and determination. This makes a real difference.

Imagine the obstacles in Art Schools then, where many students have come specifically because school teachers have encouraged their unique talents? And what is talent after all, other than a stubbornly immutable conception of innate ability? No wonder you hear the word used so little in studio discussions or tutorials – it’s practically taboo. But that’s not the only obstacle art school teachers face. In this world increasingly dominated by X-Factor’s and Nation’s Got Talent shows it seems to be becoming increasingly difficult to persuade young people that hard work isn’t a sign of weakness but, on the contrary, is the road to mastery that even the most talented need to tread.

"I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent; curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas.” -Albert Einstein


This Brazen Teacher said...

Thought provoking J. Hamlyn.

Have you heard the story of Rudy Ruettiger... and Norte Dame student who tried out for the Fighting Irish year after year... finally and barely making the team his senior year... then doomed to sit the bench each game. His persistence and grueling practice won him the respect of teammates however, who coaxed the coaches into letting him on the field the last play, of the last game of the season. Rudy sacks the opposing team's quarterback, leading his team to the big win.

Beautiful story about hard work as well as fulfilling work. And if one moment of spot light was Rudy's life mission, than his hard work was not in vain. Yet is that enough for most people? I don't think so. Rudy worked doubly hard as most talented players... for half the results.

What if Rudy had found his innate talents, and then put forth the same effort? He would no doubt be engaged in sustainable, successful self actualization.

I like this post. Nor am I trying to say that Rudy should have lived his life in the way I deem most appropriate, because as you eloquently point out... it is not our place to decide for another. Yet I do think that talent is real... and that is why some players just "get football" and some can work their tails off and be met with endless failures.

On a random side note... have you read Malcolm Gladwell's- Outliers?

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Brazen,
You raise a whole bunch of interesting issues there. The main one being the difference between group ability and individual ability. It’s becoming increasingly clear that group achievements are a good deal more complex than has previously been thought:
“A striking study led by an MIT Sloan School of Management professor shows that teams of people display a collective intelligence that has surprisingly little to do with the intelligence of the team’s individual members. Group intelligence, the researchers discovered, is not strongly tied to either the average intelligence of the members or the team’s smartest member.”
So Rudy Ruettiger may have lead his team to a big win, true, but perhaps his ‘talent’ wasn’t so much a unique ability (leadership) so much as a catalysis of complex relations which can’t be distilled down to a single individual. Perhaps the great unsung ingredient is what happens when complimentary factors unite. It’s a combinatory process rather than one built around individuals. Of course, this is pretty wild speculation but on the other hand we’ve all experienced group dynamics that are undoubtedly greater than the sum of their parts. How do we account for this?
You say: “What if Rudy had found his innate talents, and then put forth the same effort? He would no doubt be engaged in sustainable, successful self actualization.”
Perhaps. But this is only true if we continue to think of talent as something that happens IN individuals – ie: if we see Rudy as an individual player perhaps we miss the real talent. The real talent is what happens in his relation with other collective affordances and who in the world has the talent to be able to predict – let alone engineer – that on a regular basis?

Jim Ewen said...

Reading both the above I can't help considering that the ego, more often than not, may/must be placed aside in order to attain. Yet, as a teacher or guide, encouraging a talent or recognising something in someone would suggest that the ego is brought to the fore? Not sure if a question mark is required there but ending with my, often, signature ellipsis didn't suit.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Jim,
Thanks for the comment.
If we take ego to mean self esteem (loosely) then yes, it certainly seems to play a important role in confidence and confidence building. Low self esteem can really deter risk taking whereas excessive self esteem can lead to foolhardiness. Like a lot of things I guess it's a question of balance.

J. Hamlyn said...

@Brazen again:

J. Hamlyn said...

And just for my records:

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