Sunday, May 07, 2006

There is no such thing as talent

This New York Times article (registration required) says that people who are good at something spend a lot of time practicing and becoming good at it. The conclusion being that when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. There are many interpretations of this, of course, but it accounts for a lot of the difference in performance in Math between Asians and Americans (as seen in how badly American kids do badly when on average). When an Asian kid complains about how hard Math is and how she doesn't like it, her parents are very likely to push her, find a different tutor, anything to make her better. It's not unusual to hear Americans saying "I have no talent for it" instead.

The same thing was described in unlocking the clubhouse, a description of CMU's effort to increase its proportion of female students in Computer Science. In it, there was a section describing how women students from Asia tended to stay in Computer Science rather than the non-Asians. The reason wasn't because the women were mysteriously more talented, it was that they didn't feel that they had a choice --- dropping out would have meant a loss in face or a return to a society they had worked so hard to leave.

So while the general conclusion the New York Times might draw is that you should choose to do what you love, because that way you'll be willing and happy to work hard at it, an Asian parent might, upon seeing these results, conclude that there isn't an excuse for poor results at school --- that simply means you aren't working hard enough. While the former approach might result in happier lives (though I do recall Malcolm Gladwell talking at Google about stellar performers not necessarily leading very happy lives because they're so driven), the latter is what causes Americans to lag behind in Math and Science education. The rest of the world sees in Math and Science an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty, what I'm seeing is that more and more Americans seem to deem Math and Science as a necessary evil, not very highly prized and easily jettisoned whenever it conflicts with religion.

[Thanks to Greg Mankiw for the pointer.]
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