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The Tyranny of Talent

For the past several months I’ve been working on a book called Screw Loose, Shit Together: A Theory of Athletic Greatness. In it, I propose that there are two kinds of talent, physical and mental. Physical talent, loosely speaking, is what makes some athletes better than others at a given sport as untrained beginners. Mental talent is what enables some athletes to get the most out of their physical talent, whereas others—most, in fact—don’t. The influence of mental talent on athletic development explains why the world’s best youth athletes seldom go on to become the world’s best adult athletes. I’m oversimplifying for concision’s sake, but that’s the basic idea.

Despite the provocative title I’ve chosen, I want the theory I propound to be well-grounded in science. That’s why I was among the first readers to download Joe Baker’s new book The Tyranny of Talent: How It Compels and Limits Athletic Achievement . . . and Why You Should Ignore It. It’s the product of years of research on talent and talent development he’s conducted as a sports scientist at York University.

You might expect a book of this sort to explain what talent is—I certainly did—but instead Baker focuses on telling us what talent is not. That’s because scientists still know rather little about what talent is. Or, more accurately, scientists used to think they had a pretty good idea what talent is, but the more they learn, the clearer it becomes that talent is far more complex and mysterious than was originally believed.

Popular conceptions of talent regard it as innate and stable. You either have it or you don’t, and if you have it, you never lose it. But if this were true in sports, which are Baker’s main interest, then the best youth athletes would almost always go on to become the best adult athletes, and they don’t. As he puts it, the “relationship between early performance and long-term success is not supported by available evidence.”

The belief that talent is congenital and fixed leads to a host of negative consequences, according to Baker. Those labelled untalented are excluded from opportunities to develop and often become demoralized. On the other side, those labelled talented sometimes start to coast, seeing success as a birthright rather than something they need to work for. This phenomenon may also partly explain why the best youth athletes seldom go on to become the best adult athletes.

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Other popular beliefs related to talent and talent development, including the vogue notion that early specialization in a single sport negatively affects athletes’ prospects for future success, are subjected to the same skeptical treatment. Indeed, the thing I like best about the Tyranny of Talent is the rigor of Baker’s approach to his subject matter. Previously in this space I’ve made the point that the scientific method to truth-seeking runs counter to human nature. By nature, we’d rather draw a conclusion now than wait for more data, and we’d just as soon be agreed with than right, and we’d rather not change our mind once we’ve made it up. As human as the rest of us, scientists must resist these tendencies to maintain the objectivity, circumspection, and open-mindedness that science demands. Too often, they fail, and perhaps none are more likely to have failed than those who write mass-market books on hot-button topics like sports talent.

In the introduction to his mass-market book on the hot-button topic of talent, Baker expresses a degree of embarrassment about what he’s gone and done, writing, “Scientific perspectives should always have an element of ‘fence-sitting,’ not wanting to commit to a conclusion that might not bear the scrutiny of replication or the emergence of new data. . . . That made the topic of this book—what we can conclude about talent and its role in understanding exceptional sporting accomplishments—difficult since I’m uncomfortable getting off the fence.” The irony is that, only a scientist who’s really trying in good faith to maintain methodological purity would make such a confession!

In any case, it turns out you can write a compelling and useful book that focuses on what we don’t know about talent and teases it apart from the little we do know. The two main certainties in this area, Baker stresses, are that individual talent development trajectories are unpredictable, but that in all cases talent requires extensive development to become fully realized. In light of these certainties, the current developmental system in sports, which emphasizes early identification of talent and unequal distribution of resources and opportunities, with athletes showing early promise getting the best of everything and everyone else getting scraps.

The Tyranny of Talent culminates in an impassioned plea for an overhaul of this system. Baker would like to see a more reasonable and equitable developmental pipeline that gives every athlete equal opportunity to reach their potential. But even here Baker shows circumspection, acknowledging that because athletes aren’t all the same, the appropriate developmental system might not be the same for all. So, what we really need is to learn more about sports talent and its development so we can eventually give each athlete the developmental environment best suited to them.

I asked Joe Baker a whole list of questions when Hanna and I interviewed him for Season 2 of the 80/20 Endurance podcast. A few of them directly challenge statements he makes in his book. Model scientist that he is, I expect Baker to welcome and enjoy these questions. In the meantime, grab a copy of The Tyranny of Talent. I think you’ll find it as mind-expanding and impressive as I did.