Return Home

Secrets of Success

Monday, July 26, 2010 - 10:15 PM

Dice by rocketship (rocketship/flickr)

Malcolm Gladwell doesn't like Gifted and Talented Education Programs. And he doesn't believe that innate ability can fully explain superstar hockey players or billionaire software giants. In this podcast, we listen in on a conversation between Robert and Malcolm recorded at the 92nd St Y.

Robert asks Malcolm if he's a 'genius denier,' and Malcolm asks Robert if he's uncomfortable with the power of love, as they duke it out over questions of luck, talent, passion, and success.


Malcolm Gladwell


More in:

Comments [68]

Benjamin Z. from framingham MA

I disagree with malcolm. My main point is myself. I am in high school (or going into it in september) and I was in a gifted program beginning in 2cd grade and the thing is that I am one of the youngest in my grade. At 9 I was starting to learning about square roots. everyone else hadn't even learned multiplication. While I am a math geek someone else who was in my sage program (gifted) was able to write better stories when she was nine and I hadn't heard a better story from someone who was nine to come to now. Some people actually are gifted.

Jul. 16 2014 01:30 PM
t47 from FL

I read Gladwell's book Outliers and I found it very interesting. I like his thoughts on what makes a genius. Of course there are going to be people with extreme ability but that does not make a genius. A genius loves what they do and everything they do involves this romance. There needs to be some talent but most of the time, what separates a genius and a successful person from others is their passion.

Apr. 25 2014 02:46 PM
Dale from Nashville

Malcolm misses the point completely. He ignored people who take up a sport later than childhood and do well immediately having never displayed any "love" for the sport nor having had any training in it. I "loved" baseball, but I was slow and had poor eye-hand coordination. The same thing applies to music: great guitar players practice a lot, but they were good when they started practicing. He also has things backwards. Maybe it's "genius" that produces the "love" not the other way around. Wayne Gretsky may have cried at two years when a hockey game ended but how many other two-year olds would even pay attention?

Feb. 13 2014 12:20 AM
Daniel from Brooklyn

I thought Malcolm made an amazing point. I do believe in the notion of 10,000 hours and that it's love for the art form, sport, academia, etc. that enables one to persevere to the level of what others would call "genius". I'm sure that once that status has been bestowed on an individual by society or one's peers, it has the potential to go to their head. But I doubt the adoration they receive, due to their successes, was what they were dreaming of when they started down that path. I think it's love.

My mom tells me I came out of the womb sculpting and I do remember sculpting lots of . . . well dinosaurs and aliens, shocking for a toddler I know. But still I loved it more than anything, and that's when my dad put pencils in my hands and took me to see dinosaur skeletons and I went nuts for it! There's my upper hand that by chance I have a father who nurtured my LOVE for what I was doing, not my talent. He always told me that; to make effective artwork I needed have classical training and discipline to inform the creative decisions I would make. Artistic licence needed to be earned through 10,000 hours(I have adhd btw so this would not have happened if I didn't love making art). Because of this encouragement to do the thing I loved though, I followed it all the way through getting my BFA in Printmaking, my MFA in sculpture, and a decent paying job in the arts that enables me to make the art I love in my down time. If someone likes it and wants to buy it, that's icing, but really I just love making it.

I still make dinosaurs and aliens sometimes =)

Feb. 05 2014 12:13 AM
Dylan Bronstetin from New Jersey

When Malcolm Gladwell asks why are people hostile to the notion that the genius loves what they do rather than that they're talented at what they do I think the answer is that that notion makes us uncomfortable. We all see geniuses whether its in music, sports, or literature and we idolize them because they're able to do things we can only dream of. So in our minds we classify them as the talented individuals who we can never be because they were either born with something else that makes them superior or they've devoted an extraordinary amount of time to a sport, genre of music, etc. However the notion that it is the profound love of something that makes a person a genius is uncomfortable because the vast majority of humanity haven't found that profound love for something. We want to love something so much that without it we couldn't define ourselves, but not everyone can find that and not everyone will. That's why we look up to geniuses. Not necessarily because of they genius, but because they've found something worth loving and we haven't. So it is easier consciously to say that they're geniuses because of talent because then we can tell ourselves that they're different and beyond our reach rather than face the fact that we haven't found what we were meant to love and they have... Anyway I've rambled enough and just want to thank Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich for making thoughts and discussion like this possible.

Aug. 28 2012 11:33 AM
Cory Beutler from Littleton, CO

I think these topics are pretty related to those of drive/motivation discussed in the RSAnimate video on youTube. If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend it:

Jul. 25 2012 11:01 AM
Ivo from Czech Republic

As many other people, I´ve been thinking about a secret of talented people many times back and forth. What is the secret? I would not talk about extraordinary people, the best of the best - Gretzky, Gates, Woods, Lennon....for sure, all these guys have simply escaped from "the normal world" for so many reasons. But there are other extraordinary talented people (I know some of them) who live their lives without being recognized. Even though they´re talented, their priorities make them to live in a very ordinary way, for example. I mean, priorities as for example family, personal convictions etc. Others are talented but not self-confident enough to succeed. So it seems to me, that what we call talent is something like prerequisite or a voucher that we might use or let expire. Something which might hardly lead to success itself. Something we need to develop or sacrifice....depending on so many other circumstances.
Hard working people with no talent (meaning natural disposition) seem to us highly talented very often.

Jun. 19 2012 05:16 PM
Miles West

I've had this exact idea of genius for some time. Nice to see someone else is thinking the same. There's a books written on intelligence and our perception of it. We're in love with our own ideas and get upset when we're challenged. Just ask a 'believer'.

Apr. 22 2012 06:53 PM
Sloppy Boggins from Toronto

It seems so odd to me that people find this idea of "love for what they do" to be so off. These people who love something so much that they sacrifice much, if not most, of their life to that one thing are gonna be good at it even if their physicality, among many other factors, inhibit them.
I personally don't appreciate this desire to worship such "over-specialists" as they often lack much of a personality for obvious reason. But i will not deny that they have a gift that they themselves took on to hone into that "genius" we deem them to have.
Is it more reasonable or logical to say that they "are blessed" or something supernatural?
Sure, there are those who love there thing and failed to achieve greatness at it but perhaps they did have lives. Bills to pay, a sick mother, a bully or a young spouse they loved more. Perhaps they just saw more of the worlds wonder and could not devote themselves as strongly. To them I raise a glass because to me it is they who are closer to genius.

Mar. 31 2012 03:29 AM
Amanda Kiefer

A lot of these comments are greatly troubling me, to the core. A lot of people seem to believe that this guy is a "nit wit"? Well what I have to say is, as someone who loves digital art to the point where others deem it "obsessive" and "unhealthy", a lot of what he is saying is right. I listened to this completely agreeing with almost every point because I can relate to it almost to the core. I spend 12 + hours per day 7 days a week practicing art because I love it and because I want to be the best I can possibly be. I spend most of my time thinking about my next piece, composition, and the response others will get from looking at an image I've created. I think about possibilities that are out there and which ones I can take advantage of to give me an edge in competition. My job is illustration and after Im done I go home, sit by myself, and illustrate more until it is so late at night that I will get an average of 4 hours of sleep and I love it. I've had people scoff and look down on me, I've had people call me talented" and I completely disagree, I am not gifted or talented I just love it.

School really had nothing to do with my obsession either, I think the school system kind of failed me in a way (though I found a lot f subjects interesting) I just feel like it was a waste of time, too easy to be a real challenge, and just kind of distracted me from doing what I really wanted to do which is art. None of my teachers recognized my obsession nor cared much if they did. So, there you go.

Jan. 30 2012 06:51 PM
Craig White from Cambridge, MA

Fully agree!

Now, how do we figure out the problem of telling who those kids are ex ante?


Nov. 20 2011 08:09 PM
Laurie A. Couture from New England

Gifted and talented children need to be kept out of school and allowed to grow and learn as nature intended- Freely! Unschooled children do this everyday. Genius is more common than we realize but public school strangles it out of children. Unschooled children are able to follow their passions and interests fully. Anyone who boxes up a gifted and talented child in public school is doing great harm to them.

May. 12 2011 11:54 AM
Jacqueline K from Denver, Colorado

Okay, I have one of these daughters---and have raised her to her present age of seventeen. I believe the point that Robert and Malcolm are missing is that it requires both the "god gifted talent" along with the "loving passion". That is what makes the genius actually excel into the monumentally amazing thinker, creator, executor, inventor, or whatever. The other important factor is the nurturing well-balanced environment that is necessary to prevent these "truely gifted" persons from going over the deep end or becoming one dimensional as so many have. I don't believe that speculation and discussion can take the place or actually living through the experience of raising a child of this discription. Statistically speaking, and forgive me for the scientific reference, chances of the true experience are one in a million!!!

Jan. 08 2011 12:53 PM
Frances from Alameda, CA

@dan kaplan: Andre Agassi is that rare case of a person who spent "10,000 hours" or whatever not because he loved it but because his father made him. The point is that if you spend 10,000 hours practicing something you will become very very good at it. For most people, they only spend that kind of time doing something that they love, but it isn't the "love" that makes them good. The love makes them spend the time which makes them good.

Dec. 15 2010 03:54 PM

Being gifted does not equal success. It depends on what you are gifted at. If it's something that is hailed by society or society believes it wants, then you can be wildly successful.

As for me, everyone tells me I'm extremely bright, gifted, and think so much different than everyone else. I have a really high IQ and tend to see right between the lines in the world very easily. I was never helped in school and was extremely bored every second of the day. I got an Engineering degree which felt like a piece of cake to get. I still can't find anything that truly interests me enough to do work in this messed up backwards society.

I feel like a great thinker and will someday be known for whatever it is I develop, which I'm already working on thoroughly, but in the meantime, I'm constantly looked down upon because I feel like I'm living in the future and the world hasn't caught up yet. The world fights me everyday, but those who stop to listen find my advice and thoughts to be world changing to themselves and others. I can't tell you how many times someone has told me I literally changed their life from our 5 minute conversation.

But then I am alone again because no one seems to understand me, or want to, and often times the truth is very scary for most people and they run away from me.

Someday I will be great, but gifted people have a double-edged sword to face, and society doesn't really encourage or support them unless they've already created something.

Success either comes from doing an incredible idea which you are able to market correctly, ro doing something over and over and over again until you have become extremely good at it.

Nov. 16 2010 05:48 PM
Belinda Seiger from NJ

Surprisingly, it seems that Mr. Gladwell has narrowly defined "giftedness" himself by overlooking the fact that the "love" he refers to is one of the distinguishing factors of this population along with their curiosity, insatiable urge for immersion and energy; it is those qualities that define the gifted. He should know this as he is one of them it seems!

Oct. 15 2010 10:25 PM
dan kaplan from chelsea

what about Andre Agassi. he hated tennis, yet he excelled to become one of the greatest all time. was this not due to his innate ability? either way, invention comes from a place in the brain so subconscious that it's not love that governs the production of it, it's the innate matter of the brain.

Oct. 15 2010 03:31 PM
Jordan from Brookline, MA

(Sorry, typo...
*They just have these things in their minds...)

Oct. 14 2010 10:21 AM
Jordan Warner from Brookline, MA

No, Robert Krulwich.
Not "the determination to succeed."
I don't think that's what Malcolm Gladwell is talking about when he says "Love." Maybe it could sometimes manifest as "determination to succeed," but that seems more utilitarian and purposeful than Malcolm seems to mean. Young Bill Gates waking up at 1:30am to go covert computer-programming and little two-year-old Wayne Gretzky crying at the end of a hockey game are not "determined to succeed;" rather, they are simply obsessed. They just having these things on their minds, in their bodies, all the time...a infatuation...not an "I'm-going-to-do-this-a-lot-so-I-get-really-good-at-it-and-then-I-will-be-successful-OH-YEAH," but an "I'm-going-to-do-this-a-lot-because-OH-YEAH!"

Oct. 14 2010 10:19 AM
Carol from Vermont

Many of you are arguing at cross-purposes. Every student needs the opportunity to learn in their own way, at their own pace, and to focus on what interests them most - you really will learn best in this way. Rather than having "extra" or separate "gifted and talented" programs, we need to fund programs for ALL students so that they can ALL explore their own potential. It's sort of irrelevant whether some people are smarter or not (of COURSE they are, he wasn't refuting that), he was just saying that for younger children, the AGE curve is outweighing real IQ differences. In other words, when I look at my "smartest" 4th graders, I'm really looking mostly at my oldest ones. Obviously, sometimes there will be a young one who is just brilliant, and they should be allowed to flourish, and not be bored.

Oct. 05 2010 01:02 PM
Berkeley Choate

I don't think that Gladwell really meant that Love somehow makes you the best at your pursuit; rather that talent without inspiration simply won't bring about greatness. I think that some here are missing the point that the Gladwell segment was not a carefully planned treatise, rather a verbal riff on a pet subject.

Speaking of greatness, this wonderfull show is why NPR, for all it's faults, still rises far above the rest of the radio community. Kudos!

Oct. 02 2010 11:05 PM
Rosa from Boulder, CO

I am very disspaointed about this podcast. Obviously your guest didn't know much about "giftedness". It was sad to hear his totally uninformed comments. This type of comments only reinforces myths about giftedness, which at the end hurts children.

Gifted people are not necessarily high achievers or successful.They need special programs at school to succeed. People believe that they can make it on their own if they are smart, which is ABSOLUTELY FALSE. This kids are generally highly intense and sensitive, which makes them vulnerable to depression and other social and emotional problems.

The point of the podcast was that effort and practice result in expertise, which most people agree with, but please don't spread false ideas about gifted programs at schools, which are totally under-funded mainly because most people don't know what gifted children are like.

I love your programs, but sometimes you miss the science, and asking people to talk about things they don't know about is not only a waste of time for the listeners but a disservice to the people who struggle to receive appropriate services at school.

Sep. 25 2010 12:06 AM
Rosa Medina

I am very disspaointed about this podcast. Obviously your guest didn't know much about "giftedness". It was sad to hear his totally uninformed comments. This type of comments only reinforces myths about giftedness, which at the end hurts children.

Gifted people are not necessarily high achievers or successful.They need special programs at school to succeed. People believe that they can make it on their own if they are smart, which is ABSOLUTELY FALSE. This kids are generally highly intense and sensitive, which makes them vulnerable to depression and other social and emotional problems.

The point of the podcast was that effort and practice result in expertise, which most people agree with, but please don't spread false ideas about gifted programs at schools, which are totally under-funded mainly because most people don't know what gifted children are like.

I love your programs, but sometimes you miss the science, and asking people to talk about things they don't know about is not only a waste of time for the listeners but a disservice to the people who struggle to receive appropriate services at school.

Sep. 24 2010 09:46 PM
Molly Huang from South Euclid, OH

I read a book last year that is basically a metta analysis on the topic of greatness. It determines that in everything from business and sports to music and writing it is simply how much you practice and what kind of practice you are doing that decides greatness. I highly recommend it. I would say to the one post above about high school athletes, that there are very few genius high school athletes and having a certain amount of innate athleticism is not what this pod cast was about. Genius is another level. I highly recommend the book “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoffrey Colvin” if you are interested in reading the science behind many of the claims made in this pod cast. And yes, love can be obsession, or even desperation. Anything that compels a person to dedicate themselves to 10’s of thousands of intense hours of study and practice.

Sep. 11 2010 05:33 PM

I also disagree that "love" creates Genius, I think it's a nice idea for people who want to believe that mere dedication = greatness as opposed to ignoring innate ability.

I didn't come to track & field "loving it", I was just bored with Baseball and I was terrible at Basketball the sport I loved at the time. Hours and hours of work and I just wasn't very good.

I was decent at track when I first started out, worked an average amount and got very good. Then I fell in love and worked like crazy to get well, great for a small D-I college - lol.

Point is success breeds love with sports at least.

As for gifted programs - for various reasons I was often held out of them, so I slept through regular classes and got A's. So when my parents raised a stink, I got put in the harder classes and had to at least stay awake. It was much better for me though.

The right programs do have a purpose.

Sep. 07 2010 02:18 PM

In the end the answer is that the success of the greats in any field is always going to be a function of innate talent and how much work they put into it.

This "should" be obvious to anyone who has played competitive sports at a high-level in HS and especially at the college level.

Some people just have great talent and are able to excel despite putting in a 1/2 effort work wise.

Some people have average talent and even though they work harder than anyone, are just "good" but will never be great.

The true greats are those who work like they have no talent + have the great talent too.

No one wants to admit it, but you just can't ignore the fact that if you don't have the innate talent no amount of hard work or passion is going to help you out-achieve someone with more talent than even if they only work almost as hard as you.

Sep. 07 2010 02:12 PM

I think it's clear that natural ability and devotion (love and discipline) are both factors in determining success at a particular skill or endeavor. Not so easy to tease out how much to attribute to each. But I don't trust Gladwell's judgment, because of some of the silly comments he makes: You can either read or you can't? Really? So it doesn't matter how large your vocabulary is, whether you are reading basic Doctor Seuss books or Crime and Punishment?
Also at one point Gladwell says that he can't remember whether he thinks that love is a necessary or sufficient condition, just that it's only one and not the other. The only thing that makes sense is that it's a necessary condition but not sufficient. But that's the whole point -- it's not sufficient, because at least one other necessary condition is natural talent. So we're back where we started -- how much natural talent vs. devotion? I don't know, but I wouldn't look to Gladwell for the answer.

Aug. 13 2010 03:08 PM

@Knightly Q. Blowguns ...hear hear, especially concerning the latter part of your comment. The irony here is that the people Mr. Gladwell anecdotatally references in his discussion are indeed "outliers" with respect to the way in which they achieved greatness. He might as well have talked about savants! The reality is that most of us have abilities that reflect our location on the bell curve, and there's not much of a way to pretty up that fact.

Aug. 10 2010 04:22 PM

I think you guys missed a very important point converse to Malcolm Gladwell's assertion that love of the activity breeds genius at said activity (e.g. Wayne Gretzky was genius at hockey because he loved hockey). Isn't it as likely that the reason people who are 'genius' at something LOVE it because they are genius at it; rather than they become genius at it because they love it?

Aug. 08 2010 09:36 PM

I had an experience recently that involved swimming, and my "being good" at it. I received several compliments from folks who were in the pool at the same time I was, in my mind, slogging out some laps. I learned to swim ~9 years ago. I am in my mid-forties and female. Upon exiting the pool, two people said I had a really nice stroke. One of them asked how I got so good at swimming (or something to that effect). My answer was "~2000 hours". He laughed and then swore it MUST have been in my kick (which, in reality, is not propulsive in the freestyle stroke). At that moment, I had to agree with Mr. Gladwell, that folks WANT there to be a "simply good at it" quality. When I insisted that I had just swam, regardless of how good or bad I was, he didn't believe me. I think the willingness to work takes effort, and there have been times when I wished I were simply good at something, so I would not have to work so hard at something. It was a fascinating interview. Thanks for the good work, RL!

Aug. 07 2010 07:13 PM

I work with some people who are called geniuses often enough that debating the definition of "genius" has become a regular topic of conversation for me. As my own two cents, I'd like to put one ballot in Gladwell's box and then secretly another in the traditional definition box too. The people I know fit Gladwell's definition - underwent rigorous training, abhor sleep, passionate, etc.., What I find accurate about his definition is that he describes genius as a physical thing, of work, sweat, and punching the clock. But he describes it like a businessman, conflating "genius" with "success" and focusing on proper investment and efficient use of time, which while obviously important is the requirement not the essence of genius. The "successful genius" is but one kind of genius. The failed one is another. The things that make you a genius in music may not make you wealthy from it.

I agree with his argument that geniuses must be passionate about their work. But I hesitate to be so sentimental as to call it "love" for two reasons. One, I don't think it's accurate. I would more likely describe it as a physical, sexual, or instinctual interest, as in my observations when such a person is completely absorbed in his work, his/her reactions verge on physical attraction or disgust. In some cases, you can imagine they would be happier if they could give up that passion/obsession. Conversely, I know many people who slavishly love film or music, yet never rise above the leave of fanboys.

Secondly, because contrary to what some people have written here, psychologically the old definition is more palatable for non-geniuses. If a "genius" loves what he does, that by implication means we regular folk don't love it enough. In the case of a sports or business geniuses, like Wayne Gretzky or Bill Gates, their genius makes them almost superhuman. We can easily admit defeat on the sports field or the stock market. But for the Beatles or artistic geniuses, the feeling they give us is that they are MORE than human. They open up emotions we did not know we had. It is easier to believe in a Romantic idea of an ethereal, god-blessed "genius" than to admit that these artistic geniuses have beat us at being human.

Aug. 07 2010 02:14 AM

Gladwell's thesis runs directly counter to my own experience. This does not, of course, conclusively refute him but it does make me wonder about his methodology.

I am one of those kids who was put into a Talented and Gifted program at the age of six. I put in no effort at all at school and made good grades. I was bored in all of my classes, even the ones that were supposed to be challenging. I had finished the high school curriculum at the age of sixteen. After school, I devotedly and determinedly studied dance. I read about it, spent hours practising daily, learned how to teach it and thought about little else for years. I certainly put in well over 10,000 hours between the age of 12 and 21, when I finally gave it up. I gave it up because I never got good at it. I was passable, adequate but not good enough.

Now I'm doing a graduate degree at one of those elite Russel Group universities and I'm bored out of my mind at how slow the pace is. I put in less work than anyone else in the programme and get distinctions. I use up my spare time studying other languages and reading novels and writing. It comes without any effort at all. I do love what I'm studying but I don't work at it much - I don't seem to need to.

Again, this is a gravely insufficient counter-example to Gladwell's thesis but I do wonder how he would be able to explain my experience within the bounds of his own theory whilst keeping his theory internally consistent. Unless, perhaps, as with many sociological theories cobbled together from various studies utilising divers research methodologies in pursuit of ill-defined entities, his theory cannot be negated and is not formulated fully in accord with scientific method?

Aug. 06 2010 12:01 PM

This show was awesome, because it validates what I've been saying about genius for the past year.

Aug. 05 2010 05:07 PM

hey gladwell, how dare you rip on hamburg!

Aug. 05 2010 09:43 AM

Instead of showcasing the research and thoughts of obvious nitwits, Robert Krulwich should consider hosting a show devoted exclusively to his scientific commentary... To have an opinion of experts does not make it an expert opinion.

Aug. 05 2010 12:36 AM

this was fascinating. my husband and i also discussed the role of parents encouraging what they see their children interested in, rather than what the parent wants for that child, ie- children being what the parent wasn't. loved the program!

Aug. 04 2010 06:06 PM

Wow, this is certainly one of those topics that gets people riled up. I would guess that every case of genius is due to a mixture of innate potential, hard work, motivation ('love?'), and good luck.

Speaking from my own (non-genius) experience as a composer and decent amateur pianist, I'm often frustrated by the common assumption that musical ability is an ephemeral Gift, and by the related assumptions that music is easy for those with The Gift and that no-one without The Gift could ever hope to be proficient. My non-musician relatives don't seem to understand that it takes hours of work to learn a piece at the piano, or that I can't keep up my technique without playing regularly. A friend of mine in music ed tells me of confrontations with people who don't believe that singing can be taught.

As for G&T-type programs, I was in one as a youngster, and the only thing I remember it really accomplishing was to let everyone know that I was one of the smart kids. Ideally, every kid ought to have instruction tailored to their specific needs, but I hope we can find a way to do this that doesn't involve assigning labels that have such self-fulfilling-prophecy potential.

Aug. 03 2010 02:17 PM

I don't see why Malcolm dips and dodges questions about ability or talent. Yes, it's a lovely idea that genius requires great passion, but lots of people have a great passion for hockey/programming/music, and not every one of them are as great as the outliers discussed.

He commits shameless selection bias by assuming that any trait that Wayne Gretzky has made him great while ignoring the people with comparable passion who didn't make it. I know it's out of fashion to claim that there are differences between people that they can't help, but sometimes you have to face it.

Aug. 03 2010 12:44 PM

Right at the end the Robert defines love as "desire to succeed". That explains his inability to understand Malcolm. Love is the mean, the journey, the process, not the end Robert.

Aug. 03 2010 05:18 AM

As I sit here policing my son to do all the homework his teachers loaded onto the kids -- and their parents -- during summer "vacation," Malcolm Gladwell makes me thing that I should tear him away from the bondage of workbooks to go outside and chase fireflies instead. But then what if he enters 4th grade "unprepared" and soon after that starts to hold up convenience stores?

Aug. 02 2010 08:56 PM

Listening to this story, I couldn't help but think of my father's field: mathematics. It's filled with quirky characters who genuinely "lurve" math - and 10,000 hours of practice seems to boil down to about 5 years of doing something full-time: in other words, the length of a standard PhD.

But some mathematicians are clearly more brilliant than others. Even worse for Mr. Gladwell's theory, it's pretty commonly accepted that mathematicians do their best work early and not late in their careers - in other words, if you haven't had your big aha! moment by the end of your early 20s, you aren't going to have it.

This is in contrast, I guess, to other kinds of work - such as writing - where it's common to call someone "young" when they're already in their 40s, and to expect that someone's best work may come "after they've hit their stride".

Maybe the relative importance of different factors (innate ability vs. dedication) depends on the field you are in?

Aug. 02 2010 03:19 AM

I don't think this is an "either, or" question. Natural talent and intellect do exist. Nurturing them does make a difference. I think the outstanding, transformative genius' in our society are a rare convergence of both natural ability and passion. I think there is a strong case for gifted programmes. Gifted children suffer from extreme boredom and ongoing underachievement when they are not challenged in school. My high school experience was so numbing I would have been better off locked in the library everyday and left to my own reading and research.

As a society we benefit greatly by encouraging excellence and nurturing talent and passion wherever we find it.

Aug. 01 2010 10:27 AM

The piece that's missing from this podcast that's a BIG part of the book is about how social class impacts all of the things discussed in this podcast.

Bill Gates only got access to a fancy computer because of his social class. The same dedicated kid who lived on the north side in Minneapolis or the south side of Chicago or in Harlem, whose mom works two jobs to stay afloat, that kid never got a computer, nor had ever seen a computer except in science fiction television shows from the 1960s.

There's real and verifiable social science that shows how social class is a much bigger influence on "success" than IQ or school or so many other factors you'd like to imagine.

I also don't think Gladwell is saying "get rid of gifted and talented" programs. He is saying, look at the social science (rather than one individual child) and see what would happen if those "gifted and talented" kids got a regular class, and those who aren't so "gifted and talented" got extra attention. I think you'd be surprised (and I think we'd be seeing a lot more competition to get into those fancy colleges, and a lot less waste of human talent and human resources).

Jul. 30 2010 10:38 PM
Jacqueline Wells

Wonderful show, as always! I recently read Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, and then read it again, and again. It was absolutely confirmed so much of what I had struggled with, and suspected growing up. We are not all given equal chance in life.

One thing that was specifically mentioned in this interview, was how it is the "love" of something that makes you a genius, or the best in your field. I wholeheartedly agree. I can not recall a time in my life when I did not love to analyze people and why they make certain decisions. I study people, writing, movies, etc. It is a passion of mine! Consequently, giving in-depth advise on relationships, and life-changing decisions is quite easy for me. When you spend all of your free time and energy pondering a topic, or practicing an activity- you naturally become the best! Others will think you are a genius, but really it is the behind the scenes "love" that made you so great!

Jul. 30 2010 01:30 PM

Gladwell completely misses the point of gifted and talented programs. With the child I know who went through such a program, she learned to read before school ever started, so when kindergarten came around, she was bored out of her mind when much of the class was focused on learning how to read. Similarly, she was able to learn and use math concepts very quickly, and was once again bored out of her mind when the rest of her class was limited to repeating the basic concepts of addition and subtraction over and over again so that no one in the class got left behind.

More than any other problem that plagues schools, the boredom of the students is the most dangerous one, and the mostly likely to foster apathy. Maybe gifted and talented programs aren't the best solution, but until an education program can be tailored to match each individual student's skill set and method of learning, it's the best that can be done for kids who learn a bit faster than the rest of their peers.

Jul. 30 2010 10:35 AM

As always it's never black and white and a combination or passion, practice and well, simply natural talent is probably the closest answer.

Yeah I think we can still blame geniuses for being gifted ;) Some people do put in the 10.000 hours and the love into it and still see their achievement being mediocre.

But I would really like to hear more about that love/passion/obsession. I don't think this is something we control either. That football player didn't decide at 2 that he was going to love football.

There is something physical, almost chemical to that love. The brain produces happiness when one is doing whatever one loves. And I wonder what is that connection. What makes some people react that way with certain things or activities and other react the same to something else. Or yet, some people feel like they don't react at all, like they have no passion, therefore no particular skill.

Thinking about it that way reminds me of another Radio Lab podcast about tumors. Particularly about this nun who felt the love of God because of her tumor...

It would be nice to explore that topic even deeper.

Jul. 29 2010 06:53 PM

This is a variant on the nature/nurture debate. Clearly we humans have have a variety and range of inborn gifts and, as Gladwell's story about Wayne Gretzky makes clear, _passion itself can be one of those gifts._

I have twin daughters--one has, from the time she was two, daily gotten out her art supplies and faithfully practiced her drawing. I have never commanded, requested, or even suggested that she do so. At sixteen, her drawings are head and shoulders above most artists her age.

I have no way of knowing what kind of innate artistic ability she was born with (a fair amount, I suspect), but she was definitely born with that passion/discipline.

In my experience, one has to have some level of gift and also the discipline to develop it. Having a particularly strong gift or commitment can balance out a lack on the other side, but only to some extent.

Reminds me of the Calvin Coolidge quote: "Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent."

Jul. 29 2010 03:58 PM

I believe Gladwell was saying that undying passion is a necessary condition for someone to be a genius. Passion is not a sufficient condition though, this point wasn't annunciated on the bit here, but I have a feeling he'd agree based on everything that was argued.

There is still a spectrum of ability, but the most important ingredient is that passion...many facets of the world are in tune to this. We are all told to do what we love and for a good reason.

Jul. 29 2010 02:24 PM

I absolutely agree with Gladwell on all of his points. We have this tendency to define our existence in very black and white terms, it was this or it was that. You are or you aren't, but that is definately not the whole story. Particularly this notion that people who don't succeed somehow are always at fault or to blame. They are dumb or make bad choices. I have to say that I LOVE science, but none of my high school teachers were Ph.D's and in fact couldn't be bothered to explain the process of anything beyond what was written in the textbook, same for math. That definately limited my performance and also interest in those subjects. Not that teachers don't have it rough, most of them do. Not that I am not now responsible for my own education in those arenas, I am. But I see so often a comparison between those "gifted" individuals who are given every opportunity with people who are not and wonder how we think we can even compare the two.

Jul. 29 2010 11:47 AM

Listening to the podcast i heard an echo of Rainer Maria Rilke, the German poet, in the final sentiments about love being the ultimate factor in genius. In "Letters to a Young Poet" Rilke gives this advice: "Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all--ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must i write?"

I've found that my favorite writers were not the kind to sit and wait for inspiration. For instance, William Carlos Williams was a physician who wrote obsessively, even between patients during his very long days. I'm sure he logged his 10,000 behind the typewriter early on.

Jul. 28 2010 09:44 PM
Lassi Eronen

There is a fantastic and thoroughly documented book called "Talent is overrated" by Geoff Colvin. This book is VERY persuasive and thorough on the fact that any true talent - that is someone would be truly gifted beyond regular people - is extremely hard to find. In his research he comes to the same conclusion: It's hard practice that counts.

The interesting thing is whenever I talk about the topic I get a very hostile response - a little bit like Malcolm in this podcast. People have such hard time accepting that the geniuses we know might simply be results of just practice.

Jul. 28 2010 05:33 PM
Phillip Wolf

Just finished listening about the math teacher who used to create a cloud of chalk dust with enthusiasm at the blackboard. I have to remember Mr. Glansman, my 8th grade algebra teacher of forty years ago.

A compact, jockey-sized, middle-aged Hungarian, he was an impeccable dresser given to subtle pinstriped three piece suits which fit him like a magazine advertisement. He was treated with great deference and respect, for at least as much his serious demeanor as for the improbable enthusiasm he demonstrated for such dry topics. He would pause often, hazy in a cloud of dust as he turned to class to exclaim: "Don't you SEE? Isn't that INCREDIBLE?"

One day walking behind him down the hall between classes, my mates and I spotted a faint but clearly outlined footprint square on the seat of Mr. Glansman's immaculate pinstriped pants. Oh, jeez we wondered ... who on earth would have the nerve to KICK MR. GLANSMAN?

Took us another week or two to figure it out. From time to time, pausing in the middle of a proof to drive home a point, Mr. Glansman would walk over to his desk, tracking through the littered floor, place an elbow on his knee, and jab the air with the point of a broken piece of chalk.

With his foot placed squarely in the middle of his own chair.

Ergo QED

Jul. 28 2010 02:20 PM
Ryn Shane-Armstrong

Mr. Krulwich and Mr. Abumrad really did their listeners a tremendous disservice by emphasizing the affect of personal "love" over external circumstance. Mr. Gladwell clearly indicates in his book, Outliers, as well as in this audio interview, that context matters. Sure, Bill Gates loved coding; but he's also really damn lucky to have been born in a place (Seattle) and time (late 1960s) that had extra-ordinary opportunities for young computer aficionados.

To downplay Gladwell's perspective on the impact of circumstance in the development of outlier behavior is utterly ridiculous. Hell, I might even go so far as to call it bad journalism. You really missed the boat on this one, Radiolab.

Jul. 28 2010 11:42 AM
Knightly Q. Blowguns

There's also a darker implication to this theory. It implies that people who AREN'T "geniuses" or AREN'T successful either lack love or haven't put in the effort.

Ultimately, it sounds like the contortions of a man who has spent his life trying to convince himself that there's nothing special about people who are smarter than he.

It is a fact, objective and observable, that some people are just kind of stupid and not very good at anything at all. Even the things they really love.

Jul. 28 2010 10:21 AM
Knightly Q. Blowguns

It's a pretty thought, but doesn't even begin to account for the fact that people tend to love doing things they're good at. Mozart didn't write wonderful music because he loved it, he loved it because it flowed from him as naturally as speech.

Jul. 28 2010 10:17 AM

I agree with Mr. Gladwell that we shouldn't have Gifted and Talented programs with entrance tests. We should just let kids decide if they're interested in more academic rigor. Unfortunately, some parents are not going to let that happen: my little Jimmy is going to get in the top class whether he wants to or not.

So given pushy parents, how can we identify which students "love" academics? Well, if Mr. Gladwell is right, then people excel in fields that interest them. So if we measure which students excel in academics, we will have found those students for who love academics.

My daughter, born in June, was the top student in her school because she loves learning. From the time she was a toddler, she just loved absorbing information more than anything. Maybe some of her academic talent is innate, but mostly it's just that it's what she loves.

The testing for G&T programs doesn't find ability, it finds love.

Jul. 28 2010 07:35 AM

Based on both actual studies and anecdotal evidence, it seems clear that some people are born with more ability in what we often think of as "academic" areas, just as some people are born with more ability in athletics. Sometimes, they are even the same people, though that seems somehow unfair to many.

In either case, if that innate talent is not nurtured, the person may not achieve much. Few people expect a natural athlete to develop their talent properly on their own; most would agree that even natural athletes need proper coaching and a good deal of practice in order to develop that ability to its fullest potential. A child who has a chance to develop their talent properly, with appropriate coaching and resources, is far more likely to develop a passion for their sport, and thus more likely to put in the needed time and energy to get really good at it. Few people would argue that a really talented athlete should have to play with other children their age, because of the accident of their birthdate.

Similarly, the academically gifted child needs proper teaching and a good deal of practice to develop their ability to its fullest potential. A gifted child who is given the opportunity to participate in a well-designed gifted program has a far greater chance of reaching their full potential. Like the talented athlete, the talented student is more likely to develop a passion for learning when taught properly, at their own level. They shouldn't be stuck in a classroom covering material they've mastered years ago, simply because of the accident of their birthdate.

Talented athletes need tough competition, and coaches who can help them refine their skills, not repetitive work on the basic aspects of the game that they have already mastered. Talented students need a tough curriculum to challenge them, and teachers who can help them refine their thinking skills, not repetitive work on basic skills that they have already mastered.

Jul. 27 2010 06:06 PM
Christine Sotmary

The movie "A Man Named Pearl" demonstrates that scholarships should be given to the botton 1/3 of the class rather than the "geniuses". This man had about a 1/2 hour lesson on how to prune and now keeps 3 acres of the the most beautiful topiaries you can imagine. And yes I would say he's in love with what he does......

Jul. 27 2010 04:28 PM

Either way you look at it these people possess a quality that most others don't; incredible intellect or incredible passion.

Jul. 27 2010 04:01 PM

Firstly, I'm a June. =)

Secondly, I came into this podcast thinking I would totally agree with Gladwell. I just hate it when I hear about kids going off to... I don't know... MIT at the age of 12. It peeves me beyond measure.

I came out of this podcast agreeing with Gladwell, but only reluctantly. I cite high school mathematics:

I consider myself fairly talented in the maths, and I haven't really put much time into it. I know a person who put in many hours into getting tutored and spends much more time actually practicing math, but he still isn't catching on to the concepts very well.

With that evidence, I believe there is somewhat of a predisposition to being more of a genius in a certain area in one's life, regardless of practice.

And lastly, in my state of Minnesota, I don't know even one kid who was given an IQ test. Maybe we just don't do that here...

So, while passion does play a role in being a genius, I believe that people also have a predisposition to being more talented in certain fields.

Jul. 27 2010 03:58 PM

As a December child measured north of 160 in 3rd grade and thankfully put in a GT program, i'm biased; that being said, it seems starkly apparent that even modern societies which put much more money into their education system than the US does still do not have the resources to nurture all students equally, turning a blind eye to (workable-but-clearly-not-perfect) predictive indicators like IQ tests. With that in evidence, what better, realistic, approach could we take here in the US?

Although i'm a fervent believer in passion as a talent multiplier, boo-hiss to Gladwell on this one for down-playing early life indicators.

Jul. 27 2010 03:41 PM

It's called Passion.

Jul. 27 2010 02:46 PM
Jonathan Warner

The question around 20:00 minutes in, when he asks, "Why are we so hostile to the idea ... that the genius loves more than we do?" has a simple answer. That is: by implication if you are not a genius at something you are not passionate about anything. It's also worth noting that there's an embedded assumption that it is a desirable end-state to be a genius, and that being a genius is an end-state rather than a continuum.

If you couch genius into natural ability outside your control you can feel good about not registering as genius-level at things. If it depends on my passion or my will, then when I compare myself against The Progress Of Humanity, it's entirely my fault.

That's why people are so hostile.

Jul. 27 2010 01:04 PM

Django Reinhardt had something go wrong that should have destroyed his "talent". His left fretting hand was permanently mangled in a fire. He relearned how to play using primarily two fingers for his solo work. Yet he became famous for his guitar playing talent long after the injury. That was a man in love with his chosen passion, in spite of "God" stealing away his faculties to perform it.

Jul. 27 2010 12:36 PM

I may need to go back and listen to this again. But the final point made, that love is the main driving force for achievement, seems short-sighted. What about obsession? Not obsession fueled by love, but obsession in the OCD sense. What about the potential for what would be considered in many realms a "disorder" being the main cause for high achievement in one's field of expertise?

Jul. 27 2010 11:34 AM

Excellent! I wholeheartedly agree. When I was 10, I was given an IQ test to determine if I could get into a "Gifted" program. I scored in the 80's (20 points below average intelligence) and did not get into the program. But other kids I did know got in- and I hated the injustice of that. As a kid this so infuriated me that some number from a test determined if I was gifted that I worked my butt off for the rest of my academic career. I now have a doctorate.

P.S.: I had my IQ retested in college and I scored 132. Not sure if my "IQ" went up with my hard work (the psychologist who gave me the test said that, that big of an increase is impossible...) Or if it was fate that scored that first test incorrectly (as it was not a complete IQ test- at least not when compared to the second one I took)- I truly believe if I had entered that gifted program I would not be where I am today. Sure, I'd think I was smart- but I would never have had the fire to fight for my education and be where I am today.

Jul. 27 2010 07:07 AM

I thin-sliced it

Jul. 27 2010 01:52 AM
Wes B

Very nice show, especially since it confirms what I'd like to believe about genius. :)

Jul. 27 2010 01:05 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by