By Manying Lo (Bugle Team)
Recently, I decided to pick up a new hobby-kendo. Kendo, in simple terms, is a Japanese martial arts where ‘bamboo practice swords are used to strike various targets protected by armour’. I’m enjoying it immensely. However, not long ago I went to see a national Kendo competition, there were children aged 6-9 skilfully engaging in the art and I found myself admiring their energy, determination and talent. It made me feel a bit silly. Being twice to three times their age, I still struggle to grasp kendo footwork and I don’t have half their energy to kiai (to yell), sounding instead like an agitated frog. So, being eighteen, is it possible for me to be as skilled as a person who picked it up early?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, talent is defined as: ‘natural aptitude or skill’. This would suggest that talent is something an individual either has or does not. But how much is talent due to genetic factors as opposed to environmental factors?
The theory that practising for 10,000 hours leads to talent comes from Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer (1993). Ericson et al (1993) were interested in explaining expert performance, and believed that it was due to hard work. Elite performers begin practice at a very young age and continue to practise rigorously daily for more than 10 years. This deliberate practice also results in anatomical changes because the body is adapting to intense physical activity.
Part of the research conducted by Ericson et al (1993) involved interviewing violinists. There were four groups of 10 violinists: ‘the best violinists’, ‘the good violinists’, ‘music teachers’ (violinists not as talented, named so because they were likely to be music teachers) and 10 middle-aged violinists. They were matched based on the sex and age of ‘the best violinists’. An indicator of talent was success at open competitions, with the ‘best violinists’ being more successful than ‘good violinists’. These talented violinists also reported practising longer than ‘good violinists’ each day, even though all 4 groups had at least 10 years experience. Unsurprisingly, sleep was also an important contributor to the success of the ‘best’ and ’good’ violinists, who slept more than the ‘music teachers’. This is because sleep facilitates recovery after practice. Finally, it was found that the ‘best violinists’ spent less time on leisure activity than the ‘good violinists’ and ’music teachers’, suggesting that better violinists show a greater involvement in music and organise their time better.
However, Drayna, Spector, Sneider, Lange, and Manichaikul (2001) found that genes play a significant role in musical talent. The musical ability of identical and fraternal twins was assessed by asking each twin to judge whether popular melodies contain notes with incorrect pitch. Musical ability was more similar between identical twins than for fraternal twins. However, a problem with twin studies is that it is difficult to separate biological and environmental factors. For example, it is assumed that the twins are brought up in the same environment. However this is not the case, identical twins may actually be treated more similarly than fraternal twins, meaning that identical twins can show identity confusion. This means the performance between identical twins and fraternal twins may not be due to genes only.
Still, in terms of attempting to become ‘talented’ at an activity later in life, there has been little research. Most research focuses on talented individuals who began during childhood. So the question, is there a critical period in which an activity should be taken up in order to excel at it? Examples of late bloomers suggest that there may not be: David Zurak began dance at 23 and has since become a successful dancer in New York, Kurt Warner joined the National Football League at 28 and his accomplishments include being a Superbowl champion and Alexandre Vandermonde only began formally studying maths at 35 but started to publish papers in the same year. Although such evidence perhaps provides hope that beginning anything at a later age can lead to great achievement, the issue with such examples is that these are all single case studies. Hence, it is difficult to generalise their success to the general population.
Although talent is defined as natural phenomena and there is evidence to support this, the work of Ericson et al (1993) still provides us with an important lesson that practice and hard work is required for development, whilst case studies of late bloomers gives me hope that I can still become half as good as the 6-9 year olds out there.
Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.
Ericsson, K. Anders; Charness, Neil (1994). Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, Vol 49(8)
Spector, Sneider, Lange, Manichaikul & Drayna (2001). Genetic Correlates of Musical Pitch Recognition in Humans. Science 9 March 2001 Vol. 291 no. 5510 pp. 1969-1972