What is talent? If you ask the average grade school teacher to identify her most talented student, she is likely to reject the question: "All my students are equally talented." But of course, this answer is rubbish. Anyone who has worked with numerous young people over the years knows that some catch on quickly, almost instantly, to new skills or understandings, while others must go through the same drill, with little depressingly little improvement over time.
As wrongheaded as the teacher's response is the viewpoint put forward by some psychological researchers, and most recently popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. This is notion that there is nothing mysterious about talent, no need to crack open the lockbox: anyone who works hard enough over a long period of time can end up at the top of her field. Anyone who has the opportunity to observe or read about a prodigy—be it Mozart or Yo-Yo Ma in music, Tiger Woods in golf, John von Neumann in mathematics—knows that achievement is not just hard work: the differences between performance at time 1 and successive performances at times 2, 3, and 4 are vast, not simply the result of additional sweat. It is said that if algebra had not already existed,, precocious Saul Kripke would have invented it in elementary school: such a characterization would be ludicrous if applied to most individuals.
For the first time, it should be possible to delineate the nature of talent. This breakthrough will come about through a combination of findings from genetics (do highly talented individuals have a distinctive, recognizable genetic profile?); neuroscience (are there structural or functional neural signatures, and, importantly, can these be recognized early in life?); cognitive psychology (are the mental representations of talented individuals distinctive when contrasted to those of hard workers); and the psychology of motivation (why are talented individuals often characterized as having 'a rage to learn, a passion to master?)
This interdisciplinary scientific breakthrough will allow us to understand what is special about Picasso, Gauss, J.S. Mill. Importantly, it will illuminate whether a talented person could have achieved equally in different domains (could Mozart have been a great physicist? Could Newton have been a great musician?) Note, however, that will not illuminate two other issues:
1. What makes someone original, creative? Talent, expertise,
are necessary but not sufficient.
2. What determines whether talents are applied to constructive
or destructive ends?
These answers are likely to come from historical or cultural case studies, rather than from biological or psychological science. Part of the maturity of the sciences is an appreciation of which questions are best left to other disciplinary approaches.