Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters

David Z. Hambrick and Elizabeth J. Meinz, New York Times, November 19, 2011


{snip} In a pioneering study, the Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues asked violin students at a music academy to estimate the amount of time they had devoted to practice since they started playing. By age 20, the students whom the faculty nominated as the “best” players had accumulated an average of over 10,000 hours, compared with just under 8,000 hours for the “good” players and not even 5,000 hours for the least skilled.

{snip} Summing up Mr. Ericsson’s research in his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell observes that practice isn’t “the thing you do once you’re good” but “the thing you do that makes you good.” He adds that intellectual ability–the trait that an I.Q. score reflects–turns out not to be that important. “Once someone has reached an I.Q. of somewhere around 120,” he writes, “having additional I.Q. points doesn’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.”

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, restates this idea in his book “The Social Animal,” while Geoff Colvin, in his book “Talent Is Overrated,” adds that “I.Q. is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at a job for a few years, I.Q. predicts little or nothing about performance.”

But this isn’t quite the story that science tells. Research has shown that intellectual ability matters for success in many fields–and not just up to a point.

Exhibit A is a landmark study of intellectually precocious youths directed by the Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow. They and their colleagues tracked the educational and occupational accomplishments of more than 2,000 people who as part of a youth talent search scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. (Scores on the SAT correlate so highly with I.Q. that the psychologist Howard Gardner described it as a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.) The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile–the profoundly gifted–were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.

In our own recent research, we have discovered that “working memory capacity,” a core component of intellectual ability, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities. In one study, we assessed the practice habits of pianists and then gauged their working memory capacity, which is measured by having a person try to remember information (like a list of random digits) while performing another task. We then had the pianists sight read pieces of music without preparation.

Not surprisingly, there was a strong positive correlation between practice habits and sight-reading performance. In fact, the total amount of practice the pianists had accumulated in their piano careers accounted for nearly half of the performance differences across participants. But working memory capacity made a statistically significant contribution as well (about 7 percent, a medium-size effect). {snip}

It would be nice if intellectual ability and the capacities that underlie it were important for success only up to a point. In fact, it would be nice if they weren’t important at all, because research shows that those factors are highly stable across an individual’s life span. But wishing doesn’t make it so.



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  • Jose

    Yes, but as all enlightened people know, talent is distributed equally across all races.

  • Anonymous

    “wishing doesn’t make it so”.

    Perhaps wishing doesn’t make it so but having it repeated over and over by the organs of the state sure helps.

  • Harumphty Dumpty

    “Once someone has reached an I.Q. of somewhere around 120,” [Malcolm Gladwell] writes, “having additional I.Q. points doesn’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.”

    Anti-Whites make a huge effort to convince Whites that nothing that matters matters. It’s all part of convincing Whites that White Genocide doesn’t matter.

    It doesn’t matter that Africa is for Africans, Asia is for Asians, and White countries are for EVERYbody.

    If you think it matters, you’re a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.

    Anti-racist is a code word for anti-White

  • madison grant

    Malcolm Gladwell is an egalitarian idiot. He dismisses IQ tests because blacks do so poorly on them.

    This mulatto moron even claimed that the top 50 picks in the NFL draft are no better than those from numbers 200 to 300.

    So for all those NFL teams looking for a quarterback in 2012, skip Andrew Luck and go with no. 300 in the pick!

  • kgb

    Well, now we know that Gladwell is an idiot. Does anyone really believe that an extra 30 or 40 points of IQ make NO difference?

  • Anonymous

    These assertions of the inevitable (?) importance of high high

    IQ are based on population averages–likelihoods. A correlation captures within itself very significant variations within the individuals of the population from which the correlation arises.

    Anecdotal evidence does clearly indicate that often enough accomplishments of enduring significance–especially in the arts–come from those who are merely intellectually adequate but in terms of special abilities (visual-spatial ability, e.g.) and will power, etc,., are extraordinarily endowed. This does not deny the somewhat axiomatic fact of life that work of the very highest order necessarily comes from those who are more than merely adequate in terms of measured IQ.

  • sbuffalonative

    I’ve always found the notion of ‘strivers’ to be yet another absurd attempt to promote the unqualified.

    Imagine certifying doctors and engineers on the basis that poorly performing students should be promoted because they tried their best.

    As I said, absurd.

  • AvgDude

    I think some of the talented people who’ve put in the 10,000+ hours of practice should be forced to give some of their talent to the “less fortunate” people who chose to smoke joints and get hammered instead of practicing. It’s just not fair otherwise. When talent is put on display, it should be the law that we all pretend that the smart people aren’t so smart and the dumb people are better than they really are. Otherwise, we’re guilty of being haters.

  • David

    “Sorry Intelligence Elitists”

    Practice correlates to 50% of the difference and working memory 7%. Sounds like Strivers are still coming out well. Sorry Intelligence elitists. Of the 7% with better working memory, how is “success” measured. Do they make more beautiful music? Sell more records? Are they happier?

    Then we use the criteria of “earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work”

    Who cares? I’ll tell you who cares. High IQ PhD’s. Securing a patent – is it worth anything? How much money does the average patent make? publish an article in a scientific journal – how much money did they make? How interesting was the article? Publish a literary work – how successful was it compared to non-high IQ individuals (Twilight series anyone?) This is exactly what two PhD’s would write, something about their narrow world and the like minded people within it. Who cares!

    Here’s an article in a scientific journal and it’s rife with gaps and poor judgment by PhD’s. Gladwell writes about the need for creativity and how creativity is a much greater identifier of success.

    And then to entitle it “Sorry Strivers?” Please!