My wife earlier posted an article about intrinsic and extrinsic ability (genetics vs. environment) and how the understanding of the two different factors influence child-rearing methodologies. If you favor the intrinsic/genetic effects, your methodology will be more laid back and prone to assisting a child reach his full potential, while making sure you don’t commit any gross actions that destroy or impair his natural ability. If you favor the extrinsic/environmental model, then you’re more inclined to take an active (very active bordering on dominating) role in your child’s life dictating the correct course of actions to help them be successful. As my wife and I are very compatible, I’m sure everyone already knows what I’m inclined to favor. Instead of spouting more (personal) feelings on the subject, I’ve decided to talk about potential options for development in children; whether a parent should focus on developing their children’s skills or talents.
In my mind, I tend to think of the final result in any pursuit as ability, with skill and talent helping to shape the end result. If you were to look at world class basketball players and rate how well each player is at the game, you would be judging the basketball players on their ability to play basketball. Their ability would largely be determined by the input of two different variables – skill and talent. Skill is basically how much time they’ve spent training and developing a deep understanding of basketball. Talent would be how well their inherent strengths help them achieve a high level of basketball ability. A “talent” for basketball may include such factors as being tall, weight-lifting, cardiovascular development, and exceptional balance. All of these traits help the basketball player be a better basketball player, but they don’t involve specific training in basketball playing. If these talents are developed (or strengthened) they can be applied to a variety of options, just not basketball. A strong cardiovascular system is a benefit in swimming, cycling, and track, while being tall is also an advantage in football and management careers!
The point of differentiating options into skill and talent is that when one considers what to do, one needs to understand whether the end result will help develop skill or help develop talent. Let’s take math as an example. (I’m picking math for two reasons; firstly I’m fairly good at it and I’ve been doing it a very long time so I have a lot of experience in options for mathematically inclined people. Secondly, the diversity of options you can take make math a natural example for talents).
We can consider math as not only a skill or a talent, but also as a career. Being a mathematician is a very viable career opportunity. Yet one can also apply math to a number of other career options from engineering to business so it is definitely also a talent. Learning a specific form of math, like calculus or quantum electronics, takes time and one can classify it also as a skill. So what exactly is math? And what do you want to get from it? Math is an example of a subject that is all of the above, but most importantly being good at math is a very strong long-term talent. As a parent who is talented at math, this is a strong area of expertise I hope to pass onto my son. I’m not particularly concerned with what area or type of math he learns, just so long as he develops a talent for math. Whether he wants to be a physicist, an engineer, a businessman, or an investor, math will be valuable in any of those career options. Being comfortable with math and being good at general math is much more important than being very good at any specific form or type of math.
In fact, I’m quite happy if he isn’t good at any one specific type of math; just so long as he is comfortable in dealing with math in its many forms. I’m not interested in how skillful he is in calculus or convex optimization; rather I’m more interested in my son being able to be comfortable in picking up an introductory textbook on a mathematical subject and teach himself. I feel that being talented at math allows a person to retrain themselves in different mathematical pursuits whenever it’s necessary. That makes being talented at math more important than being skillful at math. Just as certain athletes can easily retrain themselves for different sports (like Herschel Walker in Football/MMA, or Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders in Baseball/Football) by being talented in sports, so to can humans be talented enough in subjects that they can pursue different careers. While I tend to focus on math and opportunities for people for mathematical talent, that doesn’t mean that is the only possible area of developing a talent.
As a parent I will focus my effort on developing my child’s talents not specific skills. What will you choose?