In the nineteenth century, it was possible to start playing chess at seventeen and still become a grand master. Among players born in the twentieth century, though, no one who started playing after the age of fourteen became a grand master. By the end of the twentieth century, Ericsson found, those who went on to become chess masters had started playing chess at an average age of ten and a half, and the typical grand master had started playing at seven (p. 132).
Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals (p. 332).
Notice this definition of intelligence does not have the side effect of labeling students as innately gifted or not. It simply looks at congruence; are people acting in a manner that is congruent with their stated goals?
This ties-in right on the heels of the first point of exposure to a variety of experiences. As stated above, it seems foolish to stop exploring once you have found one thing you're relatively good at it. However, taking the definition to heart also means pursuing those things you have deemed interesting and applying your full engagement and abilities to the goal.
This means following up with anything that sparks an interest and finding out exactly what is needed to break into the field. For example, learning what actuaries are from a trip to an insurance company could lead you to investigate what is needed to become one (hint: about ten years of strenuous math exams you self-study for while working a full-time job).
Knowing what you're up against can drastically improve your odds by increasing your motivation. I have found that I am never motivated when goals are vague and the end point is not clear. By being engaged in the interest, I am able to figure out exactly what needs to be done by learning where to start and what an end point looks like.
Gaining a comparative advantage
Once a student has intelligently pursued her interests by exploring different experiences and investigating what it takes to succeed, it's time to gain a comparative advantage. This is one of the most important terms within the field of economics and essentially means being relatively better at producing some product than your competitors (usually in reference to different countries engaging in international trade).
There is a lot to say about this idea. Suffice to say that as the concept relates to most service or knowledge fields (the end result of most highly educated fields), a comparative advantage is going to depend on gaining expertise in your chosen field. Expertise is popularly thought of as taking 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach thanks to the research of Anders Ericsson and pop-nonfiction writer Malcolm Gladwell.
However, looking at a quote from How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, which discussed the average age a grand master started playing chess over the last century, quickly illustrates the fact that gaining expertise in a field is relative to how many hours your competitors have spent as well.
I have been teaching for a few months now at an international K-12 school in Singapore. The students are all good kids from nice families with supportive, albeit often very busy, parents who travel frequently. Many are very bright and the majority have privileges that 99% of the world would die to have.
This new experience has made me reflect on what it is we as teachers, schools, and societies want from our students and what success even means. While reflecting on the causal factors of success, three ideas have constantly stood out as related and necessary:
Of course, I do not think these are sufficient. Luck goes a long way to explaining any type of success in life, as does the nurturing of contentment and gratitude. However, leaving aside luck, which we have no control over and the idea of enlightened equanimity through some sort of ascetic meditation, the three ideas above seem to offer a strong explanation for much of a person's success.
Exposure to many and varied experiences
Being that we are embodied beings, experience is how we learn and adapt in the world. The mixture of our interaction with the environment and our genes is responsible for what we are good at and what we take an interest in. It is my belief that many people, myself included, simply never get the exposure needed to decide what opportunities in the world are deemed interesting or worthwhile to them.
As an example, I have developed a huge interest in health and well-being as I've gotten older and now often think it would be wonderful to be a medical doctor. However, this path never occurred to me as a child or student for a number of different reasons. Had I spent some time in and around hospitals, speaking with interesting practitioners, that interest most likely would have developed much earlier.
The main point is that students of all backgrounds need to spend time doing different activities, even ones they may not think will be interesting. Far too often, our youth get tracked into one sport or one activity that they seem to perform relatively good at and then stop exploring. This is awful and limits the field of vision that they can develop for the possibilities of their life. It is very difficult to imagine how your life as an actuary might be if you have never even heard of the profession.
The Theory of Personal Intelligence
Intelligence is a rather controversial field of research. Is there such a thing as g - general intelligence?How about multiple intelligences? How many? Is is fixed at birth? Developed over your lifetime? When it comes to intelligence, I strongly agree with Scott Barry Kaufmann, author of the book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, and what he has labeled the Theory of Personal Intelligence.
The author then goes on to discuss how one chess player practiced fourteen hours a day growing up and that his likely total hours of practice had exceeded twenty-five thousand hours, absolutely shattering the "ten thousand hour rule".
This understanding is highly important, as dedication to a profession will likely entail thousands of hours spent studying it. Realizing those numbers early on is a huge advantage. If a typical teacher spends only a few thousand hours deliberately practicing her craft in graduate school and then goes on to teach via autopilot for 20 years, one could theoretically pass and gain a comparative advantage over her relatively quickly by devoting four or five thousand hours of deliberate practice in the field of teaching. Understanding what the requirements for your chosen field are makes the path easier to follow when things get difficult.
Conclusion and Implications
The three factors discussed here attempt to draw the conclusion that individual success in a professional and economic sense can be traced back to gaining a comparative advantage that is developed through intelligent behavior after having spent enough time to develop real interests and gain exposure to the variety of opportunities available to young people.
If you have followed me so far, the implication of this actually goes much further than any musings on individual success. It implies that the basic structure of our schools and societies have missed how progress is made. Progress is often driven by our experts. Rarely are amateurs or dilettantes responsible for scientific breakthroughs or artistic masterpieces. This expertise and resultant progress can be leveraged to achieve whatever personal dreams of success a person might have - higher pay, less working hours, more vacation, etc. - as they are actually rare and valuable, i.e. scarce in the workforce and capable of demanding what they want.
This demands societal priorities. If the average grand master is now beginning to study chess and spend 25,000 hours practicing before reaching their early twenties, then in a very real sense, they are "more of an expert" than any medical doctor today. I would imagine this holds true for other fields like music and drama, where children are allowed to start early in their development. The competition is so high, that one must start while only three to seven years old in order to have any kind of advantage.
What would happen in our worlds of medicine, technology, and science if we had children gaining this kind of experience at a similarly young age. I can only imagine the breakthroughs that would result from a person who had already spent 20 years in medicine by the time most of us graduate from college.
I know there are plenty of ethical and legal issues with this conclusion.
Let me end with asking what the vision of our future is when we take chess and violin more seriously than medicine and technology as fields of expertise?