Outliers -- strike two.

Ok, this claim in Outliers can’t pass without comment.  On p.40, Gladwell implies that even Mozart was not really so special.  Yeah, he started composing at age six, but lots of that was just rearrangements of others’ works and he didn’t produce anything that could be considered a masterwork until he was 21.  Right.  How many six year olds do you know who can compose anything?

This reminded me of a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society that I came across many years ago.  It was published in 1770, and provides an account of the talents of the young Mozart (he was 8 at the time).

This paper is one of the classics highlighted by the Royal Society in their Trailblazing series.  Here is the summary they give:

At 8 years old Wolfgang Mozart was a sensation in London, but Barrington was a sceptical observer. Was Wolfgang as young as he claimed to be? Was he really that talented? At the Mozarts’ lodgings Barrington set the most difficult tests. Wolfgang played a five-part duet scored in different keys by sight ‘in a masterly manner’. He even corrected his father, who accompanied him. On request he extemporized songs embodying love or rage. Barrington also noted that little Wolfgang was as playful and distractible as any ordinary child. A favourite cat was given preference over playing the harpsichord. Barrington was convinced and wrote that the young boy’s musical gifts were ‘amazing and incredible almost as it may appear’.

Overall, the argument in Outliers seems to be that early opportunity combined with lots of practice (10,000 hours) are the major ingredients in exceptional achievement. Innate abilities are not so important. My take on this is as follows. Sure, those who excel are often a) encouraged/pressured/supported in such a way that they can devote a lot of time and effort to a particular skill and b) actually spend the time needed in developing the skill. But why are some people encouraged/pressured/supported and why are they willing to put in the effort? I suggest it’s because they show remarkable early promise and are able to learn quickly enough that they can remain dedicated without losing interest. Moreover, those who have exceptional innate talent may seek out any opportunity to express and nurture it.

Here’s Tiger Woods at 2 years old:

Do you think Earl Woods would have encouraged him to golf so much if he didn’t show this remarkable early potential? I suspect the same goes for most great athletes, musicians, singers, and so on. Do you think a toddler would have been interested in golfing so much if he didn’t have a natural talent for it? I would argue that Gladwell may have it exactly backwards — innate ability is what causes some parents/teachers/whoever to create opportunities for a child and also is what motivates the child to work so hard at improving his or her talents. Opportunities, 10,000 hours, and all that may be crucial, but they may never happen without innate abilities.


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