The ‘talent – born or made?’ debate is one of those L&D issues that resurfaces from time to time, although it’s not entirely clear in any empirical sense why this should be the case. Perhaps its longevity as an issue is something that we can chalk down to the power of belief: advocates of each side of the argument could be forgiven – or at least understood – for succumbing to the attractions of their case. One would hope, however, that those working as coaches, trainers, educators or developers might be more swayed by the ‘made’ argument. If not, there is more than a suggestion that they are denying the potential impact of their work – and potential is surely the critical word here – or tacitly abnegating responsibility.
Much of the writing around the debate is drawn from the world of sport. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers considered hockey players as well as Bill Gates, and one of our favourite books on the subject (and, albeit perhaps inadvertently, about learning transfer) – Bounce – was written by former table tennis player-turned-journalist, Matthew Syed. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that my eye was caught by the sub-head on a recent article in The Guardian, provocatively titled – at least in it’s original printed form – Born to Win. I could be journalistically witty and say something about ‘Red Bull to a rag’, but the lines that spiked my interest were these:
The ‘10,000 hour rule’ now dictates the way many athletes are trained. But practice makes little difference, says David Epstein in an extract from his new book, without the ‘trainability’ gene.”
The article that follows doesn’t live up to its promise for me – I’d suggest that you read The Wall Street Journal’s review of Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene or an interview with its author at the Keepingscore blog. While he is critical of the ’10,000 hour rule’ – and there is more of a grain of truth in the impression that this is exactly the kind of soundbite-cum-magic-bullet that many of us will have a magpie-like attraction towards – it is not totally dismissed: Epstein’s argument is that it is only a part of the equation. After all, some people can practise something for eternity and still be merely average. Looking at my piano playing, I’m not about to argue – even when my painfully slow upward progress has been bolstered by coaching, mentoring or deliberative practise. While we’re all familiar with the ‘1% inspiration, 99% perspiration’ recipe for genius – and the Podium Café review of the book’s reference to Swedish high jumper Stefan Holm as a comparative dwarf for his sport but “a persistent dwarf” raised a smile – we may have to come terms with the messy answer that there is more than one recipe for success.
I’m also fully aware that migrating Epstein’s arguments to a business arena from a sports field – physical attributes are inevitably more significant in the latter, and genetics will therefore play a part – is a fallacious activity, but I’m also conscious that I almost certainly won’t be the first or last person to do so. What interested me most was a sense of the born/made match playing out with a subtly moved goalpost: while ability had been the focus, now it was becoming trainability.
My involuntary flinch while reading The Guardian was not at that word, but at the idea of “the ‘trainability’ gene”. Writing in the context of this blog, some degree of bias can probably be assumed: believing that ability is not inherent or that it cannot be enhanced would be to undermine pretty much everything we do and everything that we – and others in aligned professions – believe. If we can’t help make anyone better, what’s the point? One part of the reason that transferring arguments from sport to business strikes me as specious is that the business context includes something often labelled as ‘learning skills’.
Maybe these are a leftover from the days when learning was seen as happening almost exclusively in classrooms, from before the 70:20:10 rule of thumb (70% informal learning, 20% coaching and mentoring, 10% formal training), but the idea that we can learn to learn is not – as far as I’m aware – entirely dead. Indeed, if we are to find ways of accelerating the development and realisation of individual potential, breathing as much life into them as possible seems like an imperative. And while their acquisition may – like any kind of learning be incremental, and dependant for its lasting effectiveness on the skilful use of learning transfer techniques, I think we may also be able to argue that they be gained to a reasonable degree in less than 10,000 hours. (I am currently pursuing a Masters degree. Learning skills were a key part of the introductory elements of the programme, but 10,000 hours would represent over 8,300% of the entire classroom time during the entire programme.)
This isn’t, of course, to condemn Mr Epstein, who – as his blogged discussion with Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code shows – would not refute that the arguments are more complicated than media coverage might (wish to) suggest. As he says in his first response:
[…] my friends think of me as a guy who thinks that training is a miracle, because it can totally transform someone. But the questions I get on TV are mostly, “What’s the gene for this, what’s the gene for that?” Like this TV show I went on yesterday tweeted “David Epstein thinks that there’s an actual sports gene that separates athletes from the rest of us.” I totally don’t think that.”
If you’re really interested in thinking about the role of genetics and neuroscience in informing learning and development practice, the interview may be a very fruitful read for you. Indeed, Mr Epstein even has the grace to profess surprise at the level of media interest and the seeming rush of some others to look for a ‘pre-programmed’ response to everything. It’s almost as if journalists have a gene that predisposes them to look for simplistic explanations.
But whatever the science – and surely L&D should take an active interest in its research, as it can inform best practise in the future – there’s another argument here. If selection is an element of effective learning transfer, the point at which we select and the basis on which we do so is an important one. The other question, perhaps, has a similar potential to be awkward: even if learnability is to some extent genetic, should L&D focus its efforts only on those who most display the gene or on everyone. If my potential will only carry me so far, should I be the only person who remains interested in achieving it?