I Don’t Believe in Talent

The field of Computer Science is filled with people who believe there’s some sort of CS or programming gene.  Some people have talent for computing.  Others don’t.  I don’t believe it.  I don’t believe it for CS, and I don’t believe it for anything else one might pursue.  If such a thing existed, if people were born with a talent for say, biology, what would we need schools for?

I believe, as many psychologists, educational researchers, and neuroscientists do, that skill in a field comes from practice and hard work.  I would say I’m pretty good at writing.  I’ve been practicing since I was 8 or 9.  I wrote stories and poems in my spare time.  I read lots of books (which are models for writing), and even now, I still read and write a lot.  I ask for feedback on my writing from others, so I can improve.

I approach teaching and mentoring the same way.  I never look at someone and think, “they can’t do this.”  They may not want to do what I’m asking them to do.  They may not put in the work and practice necessary to get better, but I always believe that if they did, they could get good at anything they wanted.  The hard part is figuring out how to practice effectively and being motivated to do so.  For a teacher, this means putting the right kinds of activities in place that will truly build skills, and it means having activities and incentives that motivate students to put in the work.  While, yes, the student bears responsibility for putting in effort, the teacher needs to figure out how to structure a class such that the student sees the pay off fairly clearly.

When I’m on the learning end of things, I find ways to motivate myself.  Games often work for me.  Or gamification.  Structured work like telling myself I’m going to do something for x amount of time and then have a cup of tea will often get me through things that are challenging.  Applying what I’m learning to real things is also motivating.  If I can take something I learned and use it almost immediately, I’m compelled to learn more.

There are certain things I’ve never been good at because I’ve never tried to be.  But there are lots of things that I’ve gotten a lot better at because I work at them.  We may all have different skills, but it’s not due to natural talent.  It’s due to hard work, and saying it’s talent devalues the work that we all put into building our skills.

One Reply to “I Don’t Believe in Talent”

  1. It is clear that there is no “gene for computer science”. How would it have evolved after all? But it is also not the case that everyone “could get good at anything they wanted”. I have no central vision in my left eye—there is no way I could get good at stereoscopic vision. I am going deaf—there is no way that I could get good at hearing high frequencies. I can compensate to some extent for these problems (using head motion for parallax, for example, or using a hearing-aid), but that is not the same thing as being good at them.

    The same holds true for many cognitive skills. A person with traumatic brain injury may not be able to do certain cognitive actions, though they may, with effort and training compensate for the deficit to some extent.

    Even without injury, there are differences in how people think. Whether these differences come from genetics or early education is immaterial to how we educate them as adults (though it may matter a lot for early education). It has been well established that a growth mindset results in better outcomes than a fixed mindset, so we should certainly be pushing people to believe that they can improve. But that is not the same thing as saying that everyone can get good any anything they want to if they just work hard enough. That just shifts blame to people who don’t succeed—claiming they must not have been working hard enough, when they were working extremely hard but under a serious (and often unrecognized) handicap.

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