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prodigy bias

A few days ago, a colleague asked about the name of my baby, whom I named after jazz musician John Coltrane. He responded, “Ah, he’ll be a saxophone prodigy!” Later, I realized my colleague didn’t have his jazz history right. Though Coltrane is regarded as one of the seminal saxophone players, he wasn’t a prodigy. Definitely a good musician as a kid, but he wasn’t remarkable. And by all accounts, he only become a leading player later in his life – in his thirties – after dedicating himself completely to the mastery of his instrument.

This leads me to the concept of “prodigy bias.” It’s the belief that someone who has achieved great skill was a young prodigy, one who succeeded on raw talent and ability, rather than practice.  In academia, we see this all the time. Often, we say that an academic is successful because of talent rather than work. Academia has a cult of genius. The arts also have a cult of genius. Other fields have the same bias. In sports, we focus, we focus on “athletic talent” instead of the long hours of work.

While there are definitely some people who have abundant raw talent early in life, many – possibly most – high achievers reached their level of mastery through tireless practice and honing of the gifts they had. Though I do wish for my baby to have “talent,” I wish more that he’ll have the wisdom to realize that achieving one’s goals is more a matter of practice than effortless mastery.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 28, 2012 at 4:00 am

Posted in fabio, psychology

6 Responses

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  1. Hi Fabio. First of all, congrats!

    Dan Chambliss makes a related point (problematizing the idea of talent, innate excellence) in “The Mundanity of Excellence: an Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers”, Sociological Theory, 1989.

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    Chris Takacs

    December 28, 2012 at 5:46 am

  2. Prodigy bias sounds like a special case of fundamental attribution error.

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    Pretendous

    December 28, 2012 at 9:05 pm

  3. If you’ve never read Carol Dweck’s _Mindset_, you might want to check it out sometime. She may even talk about prodigies, but either way it’s a summary of a long research agenda that reaches a similar conclusion about cultivation of talent.

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    jeremy

    December 29, 2012 at 2:39 am

  4. Congratulations Dad,

    I remember reading an anecdote about Coltrane — after a concert where he played for two hours and blew everyone away, he was packing up his horn, and the other musicians invited him to come along with them for a drink or meal or something. Coltrane declined. He said he had to go back to his room and practice.

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    Jay Livingston

    December 30, 2012 at 3:56 am

  5. Is anything new here? Obviously, talent pre-investment exists. Obviously, talent requires sweat investment to be fully realized. Obviously, investment can be intensive or less intensive depending on the personal obsession of an individual and on external inputs from coaches. Less obviously, there are some upper bound thresholds where more investment fails to pay off, and these upper bounds may be higher or lower depending on the individual. We know this from music, from chess, from gymnastics, from many fields where there’s talent, internal drive, sweat investment, and coaching. Given the four factors of talent, drive, sweat, and coaching, what is the point of papers favoring one factor over the rest and not addressing all the factors? Is it to score cheap political points?

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    Tony

    December 30, 2012 at 5:49 am

  6. Congratulations, Fabio. I can’t be the only one that wants to see a family photo. Bonus points for Christmas sweaters.

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    tina

    December 30, 2012 at 1:25 pm


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