Prodigies (was writing vs. engineers)

Subject: Prodigies (was writing vs. engineers)
From: John Gear <catalyst -at- PACIFIER -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 8 May 1995 09:29:00 PDT

Someone wrote:

(snip) Only areas that kids ARE allowed to
>spend vast amounts of time on -- music, chess, writing, art,
>math, computers, sports -- are "gift professions." The Gods deliver
>skills on a silver platter to the worthy few in these professions;
>all others require actual work and training. That's the folklore,
>anyway -- you don't hear about natural plumbers or gifted undertakers
>or born pharmacists.

>To me, it looks like a straightforward case of confusing effort,
>especially childhood effort, with "natural talent."

While I agree with the thrust of this post (genius=99% perspiration + 1%
inspiration), I suggest we should be careful not to overextend our
democratic impulses beyond what the data support. We miss some fascinating
counterexamples if we do.

That is, prodigies are not simply folklore (if by "folklore" you mean
undocumentable legends). Wild talents--prodigies--have been thoroughly
documented in (at least) chess, math, and music. Prodigies are people who
perform at an extraordinary level--with mastery--having spent little or no
time learning the skills (relative to the general populace who pursue the
same activity).

There is, as far as I know, no evidence that writing (including technical
writing) is one of those fields. "Talent" in writing (and engineering)
looks a lot like

(interest)*(practice)*(rewards)
Talent = ------------------------------------------
(distractions)*(disincentives)*(barriers)

Which is why I objected to the idea that it's easier to teach a writer to be
technical than it is to teach an technical person to be a writer: the
parameters governing this relationship are different for each person, and
for each activity that a person might pursue.

(I did say I'd rather teach an engineer to write than a writer to engineer,
but not as a statement about the ability or worth of either group. It is
just my assessment, as a recovering engineer, of the way that the factors
tend to run.)

In those few fields in which, for some neurological reasons not understood,
prodigies occur, the equation is (for the prodigies only)

Talent = Talent.

Another $0.02 in the pot.


John Gear (catalyst -at- pacifier -dot- com)

The President got in trouble for coming out against purveyors of violence. A
lot of people thought that was a partisan thing to say. Some of my fellow
broadcasters got their undies in a bunch over that. I do think that we have
all found out in the last couple of weeks that there are a lot of our fellow
Americans, not Middle Easterners, but people we know, who fill up the
emptiness in their lives with hatred and violence."--GARRISON KEILLOR


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