Friday, May 1, 2009

David Brooks, Genes, Genius, Talent, Mozart and a muddle of practice makes perfect

Some times David Brooks is so willfully perverse that he provides rich amusement and bemusement.

So it is with his study of Genius: The Modern View, which it should be acknowledged at the start, owes a lot to a couple of books, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, and Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin.

Let's count the ways David Brooks gets things muddled, and pray that Coyle and Colvin do it better.

Some people live in romantic ages. They tend to believe that genius is the product of a divine spark. They believe that there have been, throughout the ages, certain paragons of greatness — Dante, Mozart, Einstein — whose talents far exceeded normal comprehension, who had an other-worldly access to transcendent truth, and who are best approached with reverential awe.

How many straw men in a row? Well actually there have been certain paragons of greatness in the past, but their talents don't far exceed normal comprehension. It's just that they had the talent, the skill, the genius, call it what you will, to go places that others couldn't manage, and to take us along with them. This isn't some other worldly access to transcendent truth, and it's not best approached with reverential awe, but if you want a quick study on this, trying listening to the music of Antonio Salieri and then re-visit Mozart.

We, of course, live in a scientific age, and modern research pierces hocus-pocus. In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart’s early abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people’s work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today’s top child-performers.

More gabble. Where did this view that Mozart's early compositions were nothing special come from? They were at least better than the works of his father Leopold, and not too shabby up against his contemporaries. Would he not stand out among today's top child-performers? As featured on American Idol?

Sure being a child prodigy can be over-rated, but the real test is whether a child prodigy can go on with it, and Mozart went on with a vengeance. But let's just confuse aesthetic judgments with science, and go from there. You see, it's all just a matter of practice, focus:

What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had — the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there.

The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.

Which I guess explains why all those pro golfers out there who spend just as many hours as Tiger Woods (maybe even more) do just as well as him at winning tournaments. Oh you mean they don't? But that'd suggest there's something more than deliberate practice at work.

In the same way as the arrogant, clever genius of Orson Welles turned up at a sound stage to do Citizen Kane, and without a jot or whit of practice in film direction (which isn't the same craft as stage direction) turned in a masterpiece that transformed film-making.

Never mind, just spend your life in hard, focussed practice. Never mind the talent, because that's too hard to categorize.

Funnily enough, it's usually the socialists that go on about reductionist attacks on people who are different, and somehow imagine themselves to be better than common folk, though the geniuses I've met - only a few - manage to be humble as well as insightful, if completely incoherent when asked to explain how they do what they do. 

But then it's hard to be blessed with an often intuitive capacity to do things in ways that others can't understand (until they see the finished work), or attacked as romantics because they insist on doing things their own eccentric way. 

Van Gogh is an interesting parable here, dismissed for being mad, and dismissed for being unskilled (which he was in terms of the Academy throughout his life), arguing with everybody around him at one time or another, but surely not painting as he did because he was either mad or didn't practice enough. 

Still you can't keep tall poppy syndrome down wherever you go, and Brooks and his mentors have a goodly dose of it. No doubt all the writers stationed at universities across the USA churning out tedious first novels as part of an MA will be reassured that they're about to strike it big, provided they just follow orders and practise hard.

Come to think of it, there's a book in this. Practice for Dummies, or maybe it should be Dummies Practice Hard.

This contact would give the girl a vision of her future self. It would, Coyle emphasizes, give her a glimpse of an enchanted circle she might someday join. It would also help if one of her parents died when she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and fueling a desperate need for success.

Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary biographies without end. This would give her a core knowledge of her field. She’d be able to chunk Victorian novelists into one group, Magical Realists in another group and Renaissance poets into another. This ability to place information into patterns, or chunks, vastly improves memory skills. She’d be able to see new writing in deeper ways and quickly perceive its inner workings.

Yes you too can be a genius. Just hang around with the right crowd, gain a core knowledge of your field (we recommend Victorian novelists 101 and Magical Realists 202, though the best students also do Renaissance poets 303), improve your memory skills, scribble a lot, preferably kill off your parents somehow, and next thing you know you're a genius.

Oh you ended up in state prison? Sorry, the recipe's not exact yet, we're still working on it, but there's no doubt success is just around the corner, and soon anyone bright eyed bushy tailed possum will become a genius and produce the secret of eternal youth.

For a start, remember that art and sport are exactly the same. Perfecting a golf swing is just like sharpening up the old pen to write a best selling novel (now automated for smoother genuine signs of genuis in our AutoNovel program 2.0.5, still in beta but getting close to churning out a new Ayn Rand masterpiece). 

Coyle describes a tennis academy in Russia where they enact rallies without a ball. The aim is to focus meticulously on technique. (Try to slow down your golf swing so it takes 90 seconds to finish. See how many errors you detect.)

By practicing in this way, performers delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.

Hold on, so composing and performing are one and the same thing? I just keep typing away, and it'll all somehow get magically better, just like improving my serve? And if I do a Pittman's course in typing so I can get up to 120 wpm I too can become Tolstoy (well, length won't be an issue, with my mega fast touch typing, so likely I'll manage War and Peace the sequel in under a thousand pages).

Then our young writer would find a mentor who would provide a constant stream of feedback, viewing her performance from the outside, correcting the smallest errors, pushing her to take on tougher challenges. By now she is redoing problems — how do I get characters into a room — dozens and dozens of times. She is ingraining habits of thought she can call upon in order to understand or solve future problems.

The primary trait she possesses is not some mysterious genius. It’s the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.

The lord knows that typing away religiously can be a boring experience, but unless a spark of something hits you, chances are you'll end up writing a piece of nonsense for The New York Times, utterly devoid of understanding of the creative process (let's leave the sporting process to those who can play sport).

There's no need to fall for the romantic genius syndrome to think Brooks and his mentors are writing codswallop, which fails in a most singular fashion to understand why Beethoven is different from and more interesting than a dozen of the top contemporaries trying to do exactly the same things as him in the world of music.

Sure the best start out slow, and when they're young they do works which aren't as good as they manage in maturity, but when you come to Beethoven's Ninth, don't tell me it was all just a matter of ingraining habits of thought to understand and solve future problems. As well as the technical expertise required, and the sheer professionalism to carry it off, there has to be a little flash, the odd spark. Dare we even say a touch of genius, in the sense that the ineluctable actually needs a word, cliched though it might be.

Coyle and Colvin describe dozens of experiments fleshing out this process. This research takes some of the magic out of great achievement. But it underlines a fact that is often neglected. Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re “hard-wired” to do. And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

Well yes but I'd dearly love to see some of the products of these wonderful Coyle and Colvin experiments, some of the mindblowing examples of how wonderful works were produced by focus, hard work and practise.

You need all that, but you also need a little bit more, and that's the difference - at a performance level - between being good enough to sit in a symphony orchestra, as opposed to being out front battling it out as a virtuoso in a concerto. It's the difference between being good enough to splash around the paint, and being driven to astonishing places in terms of seeing, like Monet. And it's the difference between being an interesting composer, and one who knocks a generation for six with the force of his vision.

What Brooks, and Coyle and Colvin are doing is the kind of reductionism that makes us all feel a little more comfortable. We can become whatever we like, and so live out the American dream. Someone should tell anyone who reads them that you're perfectly entitled to follow your dream, but don't always expect a peachy pie outcome, and under no circumstances imagine that endless practice will bless you with genius. That's the teeny weeny bit of magic you can't replicate just when you need it to do something inventive and magical, and thereby imagine the world or see it in a way it's never been seen before.

Every so often we have an outbreak of behaviorism and Skinnerism and and behavior analysis,and of course practice makes perfect syndrome, which never quite explains why many practice but not everybody manages perfection (as for Geoff Colvin on talent, if you want to read his original pitch, go to Fortune and Why talent is overrated  to see how you can garble together creation, performance, business, Bill Gates, elite runners, Steve Ballmer, Yo-Yo Ma, Eli Manning, and Nathan Milstein, and to see why a little larnin' can be a dangerous thing).

Americans are suckers for this kind of pitch, especially as there's not many safety nets in that country, so you'd better turn yourself into a genius pretty quick if you want to avoid hard times. You too can be a genius is the sub-text, just buy my book and study my suggestions, but if you fall for the pitch, you'll soon learn why genius can actually be a tad hard to find on the ground.

Thank the lord the arts will never be understood by scientists, and if Tiger Woods is an artist in his own way, I imagine it will be likely we won't be seeing his like anytime soon, no matter how many Russian academies his rivals attend.

Let's leave the last word to Arthur Schopenhauer:

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I HAVE listened to Salieri's music and I must say I prefer it to Mozart's. Ahhh Mozart....cotton candy for the ears.....