November 10th, 2020
"Mythologizing Talent lets us Off the Hook"
Dan Chambliss who is a sociologist studied and observed swimmers in order to better understand talent and its effect on success. Angela Duckworth explained what he said about talent: Talent "is perhaps the most pervasive lay explanation we have for athletic success. It is as if talent were some invisible substance behind the surface reality of performance, which finally distinguishes the best among our athletes."
It's as if great athletes are blessed with a special gift that others don't possess.
"If we can't explain how an athlete, musician, or anyone else has done something jaw-droppingly amazing, we're inclined to throw up our hands and say, 'It's a gift! Nobody can teach you that.' In other words, when we can't easily see how experience and training got someone to a level of excellence that is so clearly beyond the norm, we default to labeling that person a 'natural'."
Dan reports that there are many factors that contribute to the success of great swimmers. Some of these include parents who can afford to pay for coaching, access to a pool, thousands of hours of practice year after year, and not to mention having an anatomical advantage. But the main thing is that success comes from many little mundane achievements. If you could see all the thousands of hours that produced excellence, you would see that it is just a culmination and gradual mastery of mundane acts.
There was a time that Dan got to watch Mark Spitz swim laps. "Spitz won several gold medals in the '72 Olympics and was the big thing before Michael Phelps. In '84, twelve years after retirement, Spitz showed up. He's in his mid-thirties. And he gets into the water with Rowdy Gaines, who at that time held the world record in the one hundred free. They did some... little races. Gaines won most of them, but by the time they were halfway through, the entire team was standing around the edge of the pool just to watch Spitz swim." The team kept exclaiming how amazing Spitz was. The same team mates that had been training with Gaines and knew how good he was. They knew Gaines was likely to win the Olympics. "Because of the age gap, nobody had swam with Spitz." Nobody had seen the mundane, day after day practice that made Spitz swim like a fish.
People like to believe in mystery and magic and a swimmer such as Mark Spitz that was born to swim like no other person is much more intriguing than acknowledging the mundane progress from amateur to expert. If we believe in mystery and magic then we "are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking...(and so) there is no need to compete. In other words, mythologizing natural talent lets us all off the hook." (Duckworth, 2016, pp. 37-39)
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