No, you cannot. That title is a lie, and, judging by a recent spate of books on the subject, a popular one.
Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success was not, appropriately enough, a bolt of original genius when it appeared in November 2008. Geoffrey Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else had come out a month earlier. The following spring brought Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. …This spring David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong has gotten several raves. Hot on its heels arrives Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, by Matthew Syed, a former Olympic ping-pong player turned journalist.
Gladwell and his followers are rotten statisticians. They look upon their sample of the successful and say, “Hark! These shiny examples have all worked hard; their dedicated efforts brought them to the top. So too can elbow grease alight you on the pinnacle.”
Diligence is key! After reaching a certain level of practice, anybody can reach the height of their professions. Talent is a nicety, not a necessity.
These are obviously false, beliefs based on bad sampling. It is fine to catalog the habits of the successful, but it is a mistake to conclude that those habits are what are solely responsible for achievement. Why? Because this neglects the vastly larger–and hidden—pool of people who have adopted the same habits but who were not successful.
It’s true that mere talent is rarely sufficient to propel one to the top, but without it, one will not go far. Pete Rose had hustle, but he also had talent. Edison was right: genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. The error comes with believing that one-hundred percent perspiration can make up for the lack of one percent inspiration.
We can trace the error back to Enlightenment—particularly Locke and his tabula rasa. If everybody was a blank slate, then all were equal, all could achieve the same. Yet we observe differences; therefore, those differences must have arisen because of disparities in education and culture. Remove the disparities and—voilà!—equality is restored.
This unsound argument—its premises so earnestly desired—was seized by intellectuals, who to this day unquestioningly claim it as an obvious truth. They pet it lovingly; it is their precious. It lies to them. It tells them that they are great, too, but unrecognized. Paradoxically, it tells them that there were no great men, there was only circumstance, prejudice, effort, and luck. Anybody could be a Newton had they only had the proper upbringing.
How did such a ridiculous belief spread? David Stove said, “a twentieth-century professor of history can hardly be a hero himself, and he naturally finds it comfortable to believe that no one else can either.” Well, envy is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins.
Now, I am 6’2″ and 200 pounds, but I will never, no matter my willpower, no matter how many hours I put in, become a successful jockey. Nor will I ever be found on the offense line of the Detroit Lions, sad as that team is. Equally, successful jockeys, even if they expend 20,000 hours of “deliberate” practice, will never become successful NBA players.
These kinds of statements are never (well, rarely) controversial. Because why? Because physical differences are readily observed: even academics can appreciate that short people do not make great basketball players.
But differences in mental ability are not easily observed. The science of phrenology having falling into disrepute, one cannot, at a glance, tell a mundane brain from an excellent one. Therefore, the reasoning goes, since I cannot see a difference, it does not exist.
Our culture suffers dreadfully from the natural corollaries of this specious argument: all can be educated and should go to college, all can learn calculus and evolutionary theory, all are talented and deserve a ribbon, your business will succeed if you press these buttons, it’s what’s inside that matters, learn to love yourself, everybody is good at something, it’s not your fault.
The worst is that if only more money were spent, then circumstances could be fashioned so that all students will be above average. Dollars per-student is ever-increasing, rising faster than inflation, yet performance stagnates. The solution? Spend more.