Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Of Interest

Like every Monday morning at work, I set about perusing the NYT Online to see what I have missed through my inattention during the weekend. Among other important articles about the resignation of Goss from the CIA, I stumbled across a piece by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt "A Star is Made." It is unimportant to present a careful dissection of the argument, but simply put, the authors posit that talent is near worthless to effort. Great musicians, athletes, writers, etc are not born with talent, but become good through repetition.

Slightly more subtly, the article moves from a paradigm of "practice" to one of "interest"--which was more intriguing to me.
Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task; playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome...Ericsson's research suggests a third cliche as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love; because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.
Like many Levittine arguments, I initially tossed it out; obviously there are people who are more talented than others. While Michael Jordan is a better basketball player than I (which is no surprise, as he has practiced a whole lot more than I have) he is also better than Toni Kukoc, who probably shot nearly as many layups in his life.

What Levitt Inc propose is much more significant however--Michael Jordan is more interested in basketball than Toni Kukoc. Not interested in the sport--I am sure they both love the game--but the article posits that MJ is interested in those facets, the "specific goals" as they are referred to, than TC. Basketball is not one whole unit, but it is made up of zillions of finer aspects: dribbling, layups, guarding, wrist motion, etc. Levitt proposes that MJ just likes the sum of all these parts more than most players of the modern era, and as such, practiced to "obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome."

The obvious question which this thesis admits is: Ok, you have replaced the word, "talent" with "interest." So what causes one to be interested?

I didn't find the answer to that question in the article, but the conjecture is not as flat as I suggested. It means that if you think you are interested in a vocation, ask yourself, "Do I like the individual aspects, that sum to the whole?" Some people love physics, but are just not interested in doing long intergals or in trig. identities. I got news for you, it means you are not really interested in physics. And if you stay up at night pondering what other groups of Hermitian operators will solve Schodinger's equation, what you are doing in not called curling, it is called physics--sometimes things just get mislabeled (no philosophy of language discussion now, please), and you just might need to relabel them for yourself.


NoFreeLunch said...

I like David Galenson's theory that creativity falls into two categories, conceptual and experimental. That determines what problems people are interested in and how they set goals.

miriam said...

I don't think the arguments are meant to explain the precise rankings in "skill" or whatever of all individuals in the world. they are meant to explain the difference between classes (eg, groups of good soccer players, surgeosn, etc. vs the amorphous group of people-who-are-not-that-good-at-that) - the "elite" and "us." michael jordan and toni kukoc (whoever that is. shows you what i know...) are both memebrs of the former class, and allegedly got there by practice and intrest. but it seems silly to claim that "itnerest" or whatever is the sole predictor of someone's exact level of skill. for example, the differences between to members of the 'elite' might quite plausibly have to do with quirky physical or experiential differences over the course of their lives.
just a thought.

having just read today's metro section i am convinced, at least for the next ten minutes, that local news is probably more important that whatever is happening at the cia. or at least as much so. anyhoo...

miriam said...

while my last post is full of typos, i have to apologize for the subsittution of "to" for "two" since that looks as much like an illiterate mistake as a careless one...