Friday, February 01, 2008

brilliance: genius or hard work?

Are brilliant talmidei chachamim blessed with some sort of genius gene, or is success in learning as much a matter of hasmadah and hard work as raw intelligence? From Complications, by Atul Gawande:

Surgeons as a group adhere to a curious egalitarianism. They believe in practice, not talent…Nonetheless, attending surgeons say that what’s most important to them is finding people who are conscientious, industrious, and boneheaded enough to stick at practicing this one difficult think day and night for years on end…
And it works. There have been many studies of elite performers – international violinists, chess grand masters, professional ice-skaters, mathematicians, and so forth – and the biggest differences researchers found between them and lesser performers is the cumulative amount of deliberative practice they’ve had. Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself. K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist and expert on performance, notes that the most important way in which innate factors play a role may be in one’s willingness to engage in sustained training. He’s found, for example, that top performers dislike practicing just as much as others do. (That’s why, for example, athletes and musicians usually quit practicing when they retire.) But more than others, they have the will to keep at it anyway.


  1. Anonymous12:22 PM

    Atul Gawande is an idiot. According to him, Harvard should be full of pluggers, not geniuses. Innate skill is what drives the ability to practice endlessly, and lack of talent destroys the confidence that practice will make any difference at all. Trust me- I have a rotten zikoron, and I once sat down to write a dvar torah, and sweated for days, and after finishing it I found that I was mechavein, almost sentence for sentence, to another dvar torah I had written two years before.

  2. >>>According to him, Harvard should be full of pluggers, not geniuses.

    Since he is both a graduate and a member of Harvard's faculty, I'm going to trust his judgment on who should get into Harvard : )
    You are talking about an isolated instance of a week's worth of work to write one dvar torah; he is talking about endless practice over years to perfect a talent. Obviously if I practiced basketball from today until doomsday I would not turn into Michael Jordan, but most skills in life don't demand Michael Jordan-esque ability. Being a successful surgeon, professor, Rabbi, etc. may be 99% perspiration and only 1% inspiration, as the saying goes.