December 21, 2011

Is working hard a talent?

Working hard, or hardly working?
Being the best: is it hard-work or talent...  The topic seems to make internet-blogger-types get all giddy with excitement.  O!  The back and forth; the opinions and convictions.  So dramatic, who is right?

Of course, after all that, some wise-ass chimes-in and states the obvious: "everyone is right!"  Buzz-kill; but, true.

Aha! But I have a new, totally fantastic way of thinking about the issue that is certain to make the "Hard Work is King" crowd cringe.  I raise this question: what if the ability to work hard is a talent?

The problem is that all the talking heads out there look at working-hard as something independent of our brains; like hard work isn't a behavior that happens because our brains/minds make it happen.  Whoa, are we saying that our souls have to get involved now and whip up a frothy batch of free-will so that we can work hard and become a bad-ass?  We aren't becoming dualists here are we?

The ability to work hard is just that, an ability.  Working hard takes a ton of cognitive awesomeness, much of which is influenced by both genetics and our environment.  Let's enumerate some of the metacognitive ninja-skillz necessary to work hard, shall we?

First, we must exert significant impulse control, because we can't be distracted by extraneous information and influences.  Second, we must have the ability to recognize errors as they happen and generate creative solutions.  Third, we must demonstrate resilience and optimism so we can overcome our failures and keep working.  Fourth, we must know when and how to seek out the advice and feedback of others so that we don't fall into repeated patterns of behavior.  Fifth, we must have some motivation to work hard, otherwise, working hard is just dumb.

I'm worried about my genes.
Wow, when I spell it all out like that, the simple dichotomy of hard-work vs. talent breaks down.  Instead, hard-work becomes an ability all it's own that is not easily dissociated from a number of underlying cognitive capacities.  Isn't this fun?  Now we can start to ask more specific questions: is impulse control learned or innate?  Is optimism learned or innate?  Yes, the answer to questions like these will be "both", but at least then we can start to tease out strategies for working with what we have.

Maybe one day the debate will end.  Mr. Science will send me a nice letter indicating that I don't have "that gene" and I should give up science and become a monkey-trainer because, by way of some Gattica-like sorting process, that's what I'm programmed to do.  Until then, I can't change my genes, so worrying about "talent" is a waste of my time.  Instead, I'm going to work as hard as I can to improve my ability to work hard, because that's all I can do.

2 comments:

LLN said...

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/01/the-willpower-trick/

There's a good radio lab that explores this idea too!

I, for one, would love to blame my impatience and general lack of fortitude on genetics, but I suspect I could pick up some tricks...

Vince Panzano said...

Thanks for the sources LLN - I wish all my readers were like you... a.k.a. doing my research for me :)

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