The Myth of the Naturally Gifted Child
Update: After a lot of individual conversations, it seems that most of us agree on two major things: environment is a big factor and we need more resources, not less. I believe this debate is being framed wrong and have some theories why it keeps happening with many of these topics.
I feel like I’ve gone taken so many crazy pills that I’m about to overdose because something insane is going on. Today, we’re going to talk about one of the silliest myths out there that “smart” people can’t stop talking about, and that’s the myth of the naturally gifted child. The New York Times published a piece titled California Tries to Close the Gap in Math, but Sets off a Backlash, and the high-IQ elite just can’t stop complaining about it.
These people who are clearly intelligent, so my best explanation for why this always happens is cognitive dissonance. Maybe this explanation is top of mind because I’m currently re-reading Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), which is the best book around on cognitive dissonance, but it makes perfect sense for what’s going on. Successful people are far less likely to recognize the role of luck in the world because our ego wants to protect our self-image and tell us that we’re “special” or hard work is the answer for our success.
The first tweet I saw about this came from Thomas Chatterton Williams. Thomas is a public intellectual and he’s also biracial, so people love hearing his takes on race because he’s smart and goes against the woke narrative. But, I just finished his book Self-Portrait in Black and White, which is a sort of memoir, and I saw how many advantages and instances of luck he had throughout his life.
Then, I saw an MD who I’m unfamiliar with get some Twitter kudos for his take on the same piece
There have been numerous studies that have debunked the idea of the naturally gifted child. Although it’s more of a pop-psych book, Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers was the first that introduced me to this concept and made me aware of luck and outside influence as a major factor. That book sparked my interest, so I started diving deeper, and that’s when I came across the work of Anders Ericsson who came up with the theory of it taking 10,000 hours to become an expert. The research is well-documented in his excellent book he co-authored with Robert Pool Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Then, there’s Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which also dives into a lot of the research.
I’d never argue that there are 0 biological factors for someone’s skill, but without the right environment or outside factors, that skill would go to waste or never realized.
No matter what successful individual you look at or talented child, you can point to numerous other factors in the child’s life. When it comes to 10,000 hours of practice, just think about it for a moment. So-called child prodigies who are amazing at an instrument couldn’t practice if the instruments weren’t available. Bill Gates famously had access to computers regularly before most of the country when he was growing up so he could practice coding.
Family plays a major role as well. Many children grow up in terrible conditions with abusive or neglectful parents. A child who is constantly anxious or being abused is not going to be able to spend the time needed to practice what they might be “naturally” talented at. And even if the family dynamic is decent, we have a massive issue with poverty, so some parents can’t provide some of these resources for their children. In this Education World article, they highlight how expensive it is just to get a kid playing sports.
As I was writing this, I was talking with another parent about this topic on Twitter, and I started thinking about my own son.
My son is a badass. He has this natural work ethic that blows my mind. He’s 12 years old, but since he was even younger, he’s always prioritized his schoolwork, which is way different than I was as a kid. He’s a gamer kid, but he won’t touch a game until his homework is done without us saying anything. Sometimes, he’ll even say he can’t watch a movie or do something fun with us because he has school work, and I have to teach him about work/life balance already. He was even recently invited and accepted to the National Junior Honor Society.
I would love to sit here and tell you that I just happen to have amazing genes that were passed on to my son, and that’s why he’s awesome, but I have to be honest. My son wouldn’t be where he is right now if it weren’t for numerous factors outside of his control.
The first major factor is that I was a drug addict and alcoholic until he was three years old. In 2012, I had a 10% chance of living. If I died, would he be this successful? If I lived but didn’t overcome my addiction, would he still be doing well? Since getting sober, I’ve worked my ass off provide a stable life for him, and his mom does the same. Because of this, he’s always been in great school districts with good schools and fantastic teachers.
So sure, he may have some great genes running through him, but you slightly tweak a few factors in his life, and he’d be screwed.
The reality is that life sucks for millions of kids around the United States and even more children around the world. Because of this, we need to recognize that “natural” gifts can be useless if we don’t improve the quality of life as much as possible for as many people as possible.
One of the best thought experiments is John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance. If you can’t honestly say that you’d switch places with any kid’s situation out there, we still have things to work on. Equality of opportunity is the ideal, and we’re doing a terrible job of it, and a lot of it has to do with our own ego and belief that we’re special and our natural talent is the primary factor.
Equality of opportunity is a tall order, but it’s something that we can make happen with incremental change. If we can pay families better, provide them with healthcare, and mental healthcare, kids will have a less stressful home environment. If we fun lower-income communities with more resources, kids will have more chances to find something they might be naturally talented at. If teachers aren’t overloaded in their classrooms, they can spend more time with each child and help them find their talents.
But when we sit around thinking that the meritocracy is working for everyone and the best rise to the top, countless children are being left behind. Unfortunately, the cognitive dissonance sets in and we don’t want to admit that each of us either had great luck or avoided bad luck to put us in the situation that we’re currently in. Our ego is the problem, and we need to keep it in check.
I’m also a realist though, and with so much polarization, I don’t see this equality of opportunity happening anytime soon. So, what can you do? I truly believe that more of us need to become mentors and help others where we can. If you’re good at something, help someone else by teaching them what you know. Someone who didn’t have the same opportunities as you could really use it, and that’s something we can do without having a bill passed through the hellscape that is congress.
I’ve been working on organizing all the books I’ve read, and I have multiple lists of books on becoming a better thinker. There are lists for education, social issues, critical thinking, self-deception, and biases. For the rest of the categories, click here.
I’m always open for a conversation and to be shown what I might be missing or where I may be wrong, so feel free to email me at TheRewiredSoul@gmail.com