Sorry, Rocky and Einstein — other people matter!

When I was chubby and overweight as a kid, my friends used to call me ‘the buoy’ because I looked like a floating ball when trying to swim. Things started to change when I began practicing karate at the age of 14. Over the next ten years, I lost my excess fat and finally identified so much with the martial arts that I wrote a book about them. It’s not that I was particular talented, I just kept on practicing, even long after other people –many far more talented than me– had dropped out.

Sweat beats talent

Sweat often beats talent. Even in a highly intellectual enterprise like science. I have met several super-smart and talented people who have had a hard time achieving anything, because they were so busy meandering from one brilliant idea to the next that they never worked hard on a single one of them.

And when I started my own group three years ago, I was quite overwhelmed by all the new inter-personal skills that I needed, but that I had never been taught. I took one of the EMBO leadership courses and found that people skills is something you can learn, even when you start as a geeky, introverted comp-sci type. You just need to practice, practice, practice your new skills every day.

Because of these experiences, I can see huge value in experience and practice. Being smart is no excuse for being lazy. Keep on doing what you are doing, and you’ll be an expert in the end. For me, perspiration often beats inspiration.  Call it the ‘Rocky attitude’ – if you practice enough, you’ll be the champ!

And it seems I’m not the only one thinking this way. An article in the New York Times by psychology professors David Z. Hambrick and Elizabeth J. Meinz starts by describing studies in music and the arts proving the importance of practice. So far, so predictable.

‘Sorry, Strivers — talent matters’

Unfortunately, when taken to the extreme, this practice-centered attitude can lead to a complete denial of the importance of talent. There is even a book with the consoling title “Talent Is Overrated.” Hambrick and Meinz write:

Those findings [=importance of practice] have been enthusiastically championed, perhaps because of their meritocratic appeal: what seems to separate the great from the merely good is hard work, not intellectual ability. *

Obviously, if you are plain stupid, you might never get a good job in the first place. But the argument is: as soon as you have a job, experience is more important than IQ. That’s the 10,000-Hour Rule.

But: Hard work is overrated, say Hambrick and Meinz, and titled their article ‘Sorry, Strivers — talent matters‘. Their research indicates:

A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage. *

Smarther people have more success? Only Einsteins change the world-view of physics? How surprising is that? Sigh!

It’s not the first time I am a bit under-whelmed by the claims of pop-science books. As soon as one says ‘Talent is overrated’, someone else counters ‘No, is not!’. I’m very tired of simple-minded dichotomies: Nature or Nurture? Talent or Practice? Isn’t it just common sense that the truth is somewhere in the middle?

Hambrick and Meinz take a fairly sensible approach when they sum up their message in the end:

None of this is to deny the power of practice. Nor is it to say that it’s impossible for a person with an average I.Q. to, say, earn a Ph.D. in physics. It’s just unlikely, relatively speaking.

Fortunate collisions with inspiring people

Harold Varmus: The Art and Politics of Science

Speaking of PhDs … which role plays ingenuity for scientists? Let’s ask an expert!

Nobel laureate, former NIH and current NCI director Harold Varmus writes in the epilogue of his auto-biography ‘The Art and Politics of Science‘:

Although I define myself, here and elsewhere, as a scientist, I have never believed that I was destined, genetically or culturally, to be one.

I happen to possess traits that are useful for a scientist –intellectual aptitude, an attraction to quantitative approaches, a skeptical frame of mind.

But these qualities would also have helped me in other fields: journalism, business, policy studies.

Ok, that means he had a pretty good IQ to start with, but no science-specific ingenuity. He was no science-geek or genius. Also, he didn’t start off with a great scientific vision; he intially trained in literature and needed some time to develop his interest in science:

The tolerance we enjoy in America for delayed career decisions allowed me to explore more possibilities than might have been allowed elsewhere.

Then a few fortunate collisions with inspiring people and ideas oriented me increasingly towards basic research [..].

Tolerance and fortunate collisions? What Varmus talks about here is something missing from the Talent-vs-Practice debate: other people!

What determines success is not only how smart you are and how much you work, but also what kind of people you are surrounded with: Do they offer you opportunities? Do they support you and your ideas? Do you have mentors and advisors you can trust?

If not, get out of there!

Because without the right environment, you’ll shipwreck even if you combined Einstein’s brain with Rocky’s sweat.


Update 2.2.2012: And other people even matter for us CS-types. Ewan Birney (soon Associate Directors at the EBI) writes in his blog today:

But I do want to stress that the people in my career have made all he difference. (…)  It is almost painful to read any profile of my career that does not include all of these names.

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