Lest talent should taint top achievers

How do you suppose Professor Michael Howe became a psychologist? Was it because social science was a soft option compared to, say, physics? Or was it a subconscious decision determined by a long-forgotten childhood experience, such as being dropped on his head in infancy? Of one thing we may be certain: it had nothing to do with talent.

We know that because he says so. Moreover, he is in good company. Shakespeare, Mozart, Picasso had no talent either. In fact, talent is a myth and it’s time it was abolished. Those, in short, are the conclusions of an exhaustive study by Prof Howe and his team and Exeter University. They examined outstanding performance in the arts and sport and established, to their satisfaction at least, that excellence is determined not by some innate gift but by opportunities, encouragement, training, motivation, confidence, and, above all, practice.

If true, the findings have implications for client-agency relations. In particular, they offer posthumous vindication of the late bookmaker, William Hill, who, on being shown some creative artwork, declared that he could do better with his knob and a pot of paint. The Exeter study suggests that he might certainly have done as well as the agency’s creative team, provided he had wielded his virile member with a skill born of encouragement, motivation, confidence and practice.

Can we be sure, however, that the Prof has got it right? He says, for example: “No case has been encountered of anyone reaching the highest levels of achievement without devoting thousands of hours to serious training.”

Oh no? How, then, does he explain Trevor McDonald? The colossus of News at Ten stands, on the evidence of universal expert opinion and prime ministerial endorsement, at the head of his profession. He is the unrivalled master of the autocue, an exponent without peer of the art of looking at the words of printed matter and, through a lightning synergy of cognitive and neural processes, uttering them aloud. You and I may flatter ourselves that we, too, can read, as we may pride ourselves on our ability to walk. But, just as there is walking and walking (no one before or since has walked quite like Fred Astaire) so is there reading and Trevor McDonald. When he reads the news it stays read.

It is difficult to believe, however, that he scaled the Olympian heights of reading as a result of thousands of hours of practice. Others may labour on the foothills for ever and an eternity without coming within a mile of his, “And now finally…” No, there is no doubt that the man is exceptionally gifted. And so, too, are Noel Edmonds, Esther Rantzen, Richard Madeley, Judy Finnigan and Vanessa Wossername. You can’t tell me they put in thousands of hours of practice to get where they are. It’s obvious that they sprang onto the screens fully-formed, effortless products of a natural talent unique to them. The late Kitty Muggeridge distilled the phenomenon in her memorable observation that David Frost “rose without trace”.

Though Prof Howe is firm on Shakespeare’s lack of talent (just as he is on everyone else’s), he fails to explain why there is not a Shakespeare on every street corner. The notion that since Will’s death there has never been a young fellow given the parental encouragement to become the world’s great poet and playwright, or endowed with the pluck to put in the hours, is ruled out by mathematical probability. Nor is it in doubt that plenty of people have had the motivation and self-confidence to knock the Swan of Avon off his perch – Harold Pinter to name but one – so why has none succeeded? Possibly, suggests Prof Howe, because of lack of on-the-job practice.

Research has shown, he says, that cocktail waitresses could regularly remember as many as 20 drink orders at a time, far more than a control group of university students. “It is conceivable,” he argues, “that people who are employed as waiters gravitate to such jobs because of an in-born memory skill. But the findings make it far more likely that employees excel in recording orders because of on-the-job practice.”

Mutatis mutandis, it is conceivable that Shakespeare wrote some 30 of the finest plays in the history of literature because of some in-born skill. But it is far more likely that the very fact of his being a dramatist made him rather good at it. So why, despite my having put in thousands of hours at practising, not to mention wasting a small fortune on lessons, videos, books, and prayer meetings, do I remain incapable of striking a golf ball more than three feet? Until Prof Howe came along, I had reluctantly tinkered with the notion that I had no talent. Now I know differently. What I am without is an excuse. Worse still, though I can order 20 drinks at a time without effort, I can only get through about half of them before a measure of forgetfulness sets in.

At the bottom of Prof Howe’s thesis lies a political correctness expressed thus: “Categorising children as innately talented is discriminatory”. And so it may be. But to reach that conclusion by denying the existence of talent makes as much sense as denying that some people are more intelligent than others and more willing to put that intelligence to use. Alas, poor Howe, it’s an unequal world after all.

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