Being Referred to as ‘Talented’ is Demeaning (part 5)

I am going to go in a slightly different direction than my previous entries on the subject in this edition. I want to talk about environmental factors, as they relate to talent/intelligence vs. the belief in the heritability of those traits. It is not uncommon to hear people refer to someone as having “God-given talent” for something or that they were “born with the genes for intelligence.”

Imagine a family where the father attended Stanford University and the mother attended Harvard. The father is employed as a physician and the mother is employed as a lawyer, they have a son and a daughter who are enrolled in school at Princeton and Northwestern. Most people would not be surprised by the children’s academic success and many would attribute it to the fine gene-pool they sprang from. Furthermore, it is quite likely that very few people would quibble with this judgment.

Now let me give you the environment, rather than the gene-pool, explanation for their children’s academic exploits. They were raised in a family where academic achievement was a priority. Because of their parents’ socio-economic successes they had many more opportunities to expand their horizons than working class or welfare children. These two children were exposed on a daily basis to an infinitely richer vocabulary than children from lower socio-economic classes.

In fact, studies have shown that children who come from professional families are on average exposed to over three times as many words daily, as those from welfare families. Working class children are exposed to more than twice as many words per day as welfare children. These differences have a huge cumulative effect on their respective children. In most cases, the vocabulary that a three-year-old child of professionals uses when interacting with his or her parents, is richer than the vocabulary used by welfare parents when addressing their children.

Another telling statistic about the effect of the family environment is that children fortunate to grow up in professional families, like the one I depicted above, receive on average six encouragements for every reprimand. Children of working class families receive only two encouragements per discouragement, while sadly, children of welfare recipients receive two reprimands for each encouragement. This is very significant because degree of encouragement by parents is associated with intellectual exploration and confidence in children.

There are considerably more examples of environmental aspects I could cite, but my hope is not to convince you that environment is more important than what we call genetic influences or talent, but rather to open your eyes to the possibility that peoples’ successes are a lot more complex than they look to us from the outside.

If you go into anything with the mindset that you have to have “talent” to be successful at it, you will likely give up long before you ever find out how good you could have been. As former NBA all –star Bill Walton points out, “My brother Bruce and I are the only brother combination to have played in a Super Bowl and won an NBA title. And our parents were the most un-athletic people you’ve ever seen. If you’re sitting back and thinking, ‘My parents blew this for me,’ that’s not how it works. It’s on you.”

The one thing most star child actors and singers have in common is not a “gift” for their craft, but rather parents with a dream for them that they pursue relentlessly. Justin Bieber did not pop out of his mother’s womb singing. He was encouraged to sing on camera by his parents from an early age, giving him a head-start and plenty of hours of practice. He probably put in the popularized 10,000 hours of practice (necessary to reach mastery level in any vocation) before most kids realized singing was a potential career option. Put a majority of kids in that same environment, and they likely would have turned into Justin Biebers too, just with different names.

Many point to Tiger Woods as someone who was blessed with natural gifts that predisposed him to be a great golfer. Interestingly, neither Tiger nor his father, have ever suggested that Tiger was born with a gift for playing golf. Tiger’s explanation for his early interest in the game is encapsulated in his own words: “Golf for me was an apparent attempt to emulate the person I looked up to more than anyone; my father.” Both father and son, when asked to account for Tiger’s incredible successes, always gave the same answer: “Hard work… Very, very hard work.”

From the Jackson Five to Andre Agassi to golfer Michelle Wie to endless child actors and actresses, if you look closely, I think you will find that the family environment they came out of had more to do with their successes than any heritability.


You can follow Sam on Twitter: @SuperTaoInc



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