Accidental talent

August 30, 2020

Articles | Collections

A project on motivation, goals, habits and the elusive talent.

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This is a compendium article.
Status: very early stages.


Talent is overrated. That appears to be the conclusion of a slew of research into motivation and success in recent years. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell comments:

in examining the lives of the remarkable among us; the skilled, the talented, and the driven... there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success. What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they're like; what kind of personalities they have, or how intelligent they are, or what kind of lifestyles they have, or what special talents they might have been born with. And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top.

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Gladwell, like Angela Duckworth in her research on grit, thinks we have been:

distracted by talent

Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

But this is frankly no new idea. Duckworth herself quotes Nietzche on this point extensively:

Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became 'geniuses' (as we put it), through...that seriousness of the efficient workman

Nietzche, Human, All Too Human

This idea of giftedness is littered among the ancient writers. The ancients often endorsed a kind of selective genius inspired by the gods, though the Sophists were divided on the issue.

By the time of Kant, 'genius' was the domain of artists, and for many, as Aquinus:

Solus desu creat (God alone creates)

Aquinus, Summa Theologica

This is a similar kind of divine inspiration the ancients put forward. By the time of Nietzche scientists had entered the fold. Perhaps it was the deterioration of belief in god and metaphysics through the enlightenment that led us to talent as inborn qualities. For Schopenhauer genius was tied to production for production's sake, which is reminiscent of Duckworth's Grit.

What's clear is that everyone is super confused about it, but we sure should be interested. Positive psychology, for example, is dedicated to this concept. Rather than concentrating on interventions to bring the bottom of the bell curve up, they're interested in studying the top of the bell curve to bring the average up.

What's also clear is that some people are special in various different ways. But some people are lucky. Some have an intersection of both. We tend to disregard the lucky.

This particular interest was put into sharp focus by my recent study of cults. I suspect 'successful prophets' are more leaders of convenience than Weber's 'charismatic leaders'. I suspect too that our focus on the 'intentionality' of cult leaders is misplaced. The actions of these leaders, and of the followers, seem like haphazard responses to circumstance, and some part of that dynamic allows sickness to be brought forward.

As such, exploring the difference between 'talent' and 'grit' by cutting various ideas of genius along the psychological concepts around habit formation and goal setting seems like a fun project. What factors really determine 'success'?

So, we'll explore the following ideas:

  • the role of luck
  • the opportunity to create our own luck (a la Camus' Create Dangerously)
  • the role of perserverence (Duckworth's grit)
  • motivation and goal theory
  • the new motivation, i.e. 'just turning up' (a la Pressfield's War of Art)
  • the strange issue of focusing on perserverence, and not celebrating
  • the role of ZPD and mentorship
  • Anders' deliberate practice (what experts do) vs Csikzentmihalyi's flow (how experts feel)

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