The Mundanity of Excellence

I had a great time reading The Mundanity of Excellence by Daniel Chambliss. I came across this article in an interview given by a famous researcher, who tried to read a new research paper everyday for more than two years. She said that this was the most influential paper that she’d read, and that it actually changed the way that she approached research.

Perhaps the main takeaway of this paper is that people who demonstrate excellence in a field aren’t necessarily working harder than you. They’re just doing different things. Small things like getting enough sleep, focusing on their work more, etc. And it is the cumulative effect of these “different” but obvious in retrospect, rather mundane things that lets them achieve excellence. There is nothing called “talent”.

It is on this “there is nothing called talent” sentiment where I’d like to disagree with the author.

Talent, the way that I’ve been brought up to believe about it, is the extrapolation of the rate of improvement at any skill. If you’re a trained tennis player who has trained for 10 years to get to your level, and your cousin trained for just a month to become almost as good as you, people will generally say that your cousin is more talented than you. They have the potential to become better than you, given enough time and opportunity. Even if that potential is never realized because, say, your cousin becomes a drunk and ends up homeless, they will still be said to be in possession of considerable (albeit wasted) talent.

When I was in college in India, the people who could do well in academics despite little effort, were glorified tremendously. On the flip side, the academic achievers who did well after considerable effort were almost vilified. It was not enough to do well in college. It was important to demonstrate considerable raw intelligence in the process. Of course this led to some academic achievers to hide all evidence of their hard work, so that they could put up the appearance of having done well despite putting in no effort.

Does this generalize to life in general? Not particularly. If you’re super talented but never amounted to much because you never put in the effort, people might have a kind word to say for you. However, you’ll mostly be displayed as an example for people **not** to emulate. If on the other hand you become successful after putting in a lot of effort, you will be glorified as someone who has earned their place in society. In other words, if you get too comfortable being called talented but never actually convert that into results, societal sympathy for you will decline very fast.

This relates to a recent blogpost I read by Robin Hanson, which says that people respect potential a lot more than actual performance. I am going to use potential and talent interchangeably here. He gives the example of Oscar-nominated movies: when a handful of movies are announced as Oscar-nominated, there is a lot of excitement about watching those movies, and predicting which of them will win. However, when one of them is declared as the winner, the excitement for watching those movies plummets. Now that we know the result already, our judgement and prediction powers are left unused. This is a demonstration of the fact that we are supremely enamored of “talented” people, betting on which ones will succeed.

Is being enamored of talent irrational? Should we only care about actual performance? Well, our understanding of the world rests on a predictive model. And prediction rests on extrapolation. Hence, although it is indeed rational to bet on talented people, we should be suspicious of such bets, because extrapolation is always a risky proposition. A very intelligent student might later, due to underlying mental causes, become a drug addict and drop out of society altogether. We are all aware of at least one such tragic story in our extended social circles. It is also possible that our extrapolation was invalid, and that the talented student would find it almost impossible to pick up the more difficult parts of the skill later. Hence, although it is rational to glorify and be enamored of talented individuals, we should hold off on too much premature extrapolation.

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Graduate student

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