On Hidden Potential

One of the Substacks I never fail to read is Range Widely by David Epstein, author of Range (my notes on his interview about the book) and The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

David is a journalist by trade. His writing is well-researched. Social science research, especially the kind of pop-sci stuff that climbs the heap to find itself in airport bookstores, should require a “grain of salt” rating (G: “germane”, PG: “possibly garbage”, R: “rumored at best“). David’s process and intellectual demeanor indicate care — he resists the temptation to oversell conclusions.

Personally, I rarely read social science books — I’ll just listen to a podcast with the author if I care. The insights in such books feel like they have an asymmetrical yield — if they confirm what you already thought then the opportunity cost of reading that book is high (I’ll be lucky if I read 500 more books before I’m dead) and if the book has a ground-breaking insight it’ll almost certainly be out of fashion within a decade (“the game theory of getting published in social science” is a comically fractal idea. If you google that phrase, you’ll see why).

Anyway, David’s history of intellectual care makes him an ideal candidate to interview other social science authors about their books — critical enough to ask good questions but friendly enough that he can get the interviews in the first place.

Enough preamble…some excerpts I enjoyed from David’s Q&A with psychologist Adam Grant on his new book Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Thing (emphasis mine):

  • Many people believe that if you’re not precocious, it’s a sign that you lack potential. But potential is not about where you start — it’s a matter of how far you’ll travel. And the latest science reveals that we shouldn’t mistake speed for aptitude. Our rate of learning is driven by motivation and opportunity, not just ability. Think of all the late bloomers who weren’t lucky enough to stumble on a passion, or to have a parent, teacher, or coach early on who recognized and developed their hidden potential.
    This doesn’t mean we should ignore “gifted” students. We need to think differently about how we nurture their potential too. Empirically, the rate of child prodigies becoming adult geniuses is surprisingly lowI suspect one of the reasons is that they learn to excel at other people’s crafts but not to develop their own. Mastering Mozart’s melodies doesn’t prepare you to write your own original symphonies. [Kris: this is exactly the point Trent Reznor made to Rick Rubin as he wrestled with his own potential]. Memorizing thousands of digits of pi does little to train your mind to come up with your own Pythagorean theorem. And the easier a new skill comes to you, the less experience you have with facing failure. This is a lesson that chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley drove home for me: the people who struggle early often build the character skills to excel later. We need to start investing in character skills sooner.
  • Because Glennie is deaf, she had to find nontraditional ways to learn, like using different parts of her body to feel vibrations that correspond to different pitches. She and her teacher were constantly trying different ways to do that, and different ways to do everything, really. As you write: “Continually varying the task and raising the bar made learning a joy.” I’ve long been fascinated by this issue of variable practice. Mixing things up constantly might seem counterintuitive, but it turns out to be better for learning.
  • You note that concert pianists who reach international acclaim by age 40 typically were not obsessed early on, and that they usually had a slow but steady increase in their commitment to music. It just made me think of the first page of Battle Hymn — in which the author promises the secrets to raising stereotypically successful children, and recounts assigning her daughter violin and soon she’s supervising five hours of deliberate practice a day. That part was excerpted in the Wall St. Journal, and it was the Journal’s most commented upon article ever! It really seeped into the public consciousness, I think. What didn’t make as much of an impression was the part later in the book where the author (to her credit) recounts her daughter turning to her and saying: “You picked it, not me,” and more or less quits. [Kris: I’m very careful riding our kids in areas that they are naturally drawn to because of such “reactance”. I don’t want to turn “their thing” into “my thing”. You have an extra gear to give for those things that you discover independently.]
  • The issue of “learning styles.” This is the very popular idea that some people learn best by listening, others by reading, others by looking, etc. Maybe someone prefers podcasts to books because they style themself an “auditory learner.” Trouble is, a mountain of research has failed to back this idea up [Kris: Veritasium calls this “the biggest myth in education”. Although I suspect the testing design for experiments that dismiss the idea might be strawmanning the contention or interpreting it too narrowly].People may indeed have a style of learning that feels most comfortable, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually learning more that way. In fact, to use a line from Range, in many cases, difficulty is not a sign that you aren’t learning, but ease is [Kris: I’ve found that many teachers I respect agree with this so it’s not as bold a statement as it might appear even if this is the first time you’ve heard that. I remind my kids — if it’s easy it’s just review, not learning. Non-superficial learning hurts. I might even go as far to say that learning and pain are nearly synonyms. To be clear, such a statement is more useful as a reminder than a universal truth. Experiential learning is an easy counterexample]. As you write: “Sometimes you even learn better in the mode that makes you the most uncomfortable, because you have to work harder at it.” I was just reading a study (“Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning”) which showed that Harvard physics students preferred lectures from highly-rated instructors to active learning exercises. But they learned more from the latter. The main difference in the active group was that students had to try to solve problems in groups before they really knew what they were doing, and so they would discuss, generate questions, and hit dead-ends, all before seeing correct solutions. We know that forcing learners to try to generate solutions before seeing them enhances learning (the so-called “generation effect”), but it doesn’t feel great, so we may avoid it.
  • Back in December, you helped me get in touch with RA Dickey, and he was every bit as stellar of an interview as you promised. His story helps to illuminate why so many people fail to try new methods when we get stuck. It’s not so much that we’re stubborn or resistant to change. We hate the thought of giving up the gains we’ve already made. We forget that sometimes, the best way to move forward is to go back to the drawing board. [Kris: Feeling seen] If your fastball is slowing down and your career is stalling, you have nothing to lose by tinkering with the knuckleball. We shouldn’t be so afraid of failing that we fail to try.

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