Sunday, March 4, 2012

Turning Gifts into Talents

I believed, as a child, in the inherent fairness of the universe. Because it seemed to me unfair that some people were so much better than others at baseball or dance or painting or comedy or sprinting or spelling, I concluded that everyone had to have one outstanding skill. I determined that everyone was the best in the world at something. Later, I scaled back my overly-optimistic view of universal fairness to decide that, although many people may lack an outstanding talent, they were at least better at something than anyone they might be compared to. She can run faster than him; he can beat her at chess. That seemed minimally fair to my 7- or 8-year-old mind.

I've since given up hope on such elaborate plans of fairness being orchestrated by the universe. By adulthood, we've all seen too many tragedies, too many lives cut short, too many awards given to the undeserving, too many of the good guys falling to the bad guys to still believe there's anyone watching out for fairness. But I've also given up on the idea that anything is handed to anybody. Even the most talented have developed their gifts. Singers take voice lessons; athletes train; scientists study.

Françoys Gagné, Ph. D., of the Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada, has developed a model to explain the development of talent (which he defines as the outward performance of a skill) from a gift (which he defines as an innate propensity for a skill, or aptitude).

His model explains how a natural ability--creative, academic, athletic--might be developed or ignored (and he acknowledges the role of chance in every aspect of skill development). The catalysts for development are interpersonal characteristics, such as interest, resilience, and motivation; and environmental characteristics, such as the cultural milieu, family support, teachers, coaches, mentors, and programs. These determine whether or not an individual will have a chance to develop, through practice and education, that gift. An aptitude for music might not develop into a talent unless the individual has an interest, and money for lessons, or programs available. (A gifted Austrian, for example, may develop into a talented skier while a similarly-gifted Hawaiian might not; the reverse would likely be true if the gift is surfing.) These catalysts also determine whether an individual even cares or tries to develop their skill, or whether they persevere in the face of set-backs, or have the income to afford coaching, etc.

Gagne's model is most relevant to school districts which want to ensure that gifted students are not prevented from reaching their potential. For many young people, their only hope for receiving the training they need lies in the neighborhood school. In fact, Gagne has recently argued that far too few minority and low SES students are identified and nurtured. If the schools don't support gifted students, many gifts will never be developed.

This may be true whether students are highly gifted or just normally gifted. In fact, his model would seem to hold true regardless of aptitude. This is demonstrated dramatically by Venezuela's program called El Sistema, or The System. On the face of it, it's a simple system: make instruments and training available across the country for all youngsters of any background, any ability; give them hours of instruction each day; require them to practice another hour on their own each day. But the results are extraordinary. Even at the local level, normal children in fourth and fifth and sixth grade, even from the poorest neighborhoods, achieve impressive results. At the national level, their highest achievers are both inspiring and humbling. Time + effort + support = an almost unimaginable musical flowering.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that it takes 10,000 hours, more or less, to develop and master a skill. That's about three hours a day, every day, for ten years--or half an hour every day for 60 years. You want to play guitar like a virtuoso? Practice, and take lessons, if possible. For years. You want to dance well? Years of practice. But anybody, theoretically, can do it, not just the gifted.

Similarly, some karate instruction obeys the 100,000 repetitions rule. To be able to properly execute a move, without thought, without error, you must practice it 100,000 times. More difficult moves require twice that. In theory, anyway.

Life doesn't offer us very many 10,000 hour chunks. We may only have time outside of work to master a single skill--one instrument, one foreign language, one sport, one academic discipline. But that's still good news. As long as our heart is still beating, we are not shut out. Arts and sciences are not only for the gifted; they're also for the persistent. Music, or dance, or poetry, or drama, or physics, or calculus, or painting, or fiction, or ultimate frisbee can still be learned, and mastered.

It's just as simple, and just as difficult, as taking the time to try, to practice, and to learn.