Galoping Leopards and their Spots

Posted: July 13, 2011 in Uncategorized
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As we say in French, plus çà change, plus c’est la même chose. We also say la nature revient vite au galop. Loosely translated, that means that nature always comes galoping back. Another way of saying a leopard can’t change it’s spots.

All these aphorisms convey the folk wisdom that people are basically the way they are, and that not much can change them. I know, that sounds so final, but I’ve been doing a ton of reading on the topic of personality, intelligence, performance and other life outcomes. Basically, what the research shows is that our personalities and talents are about 50% heritable on average. In other words, about half of who we are is directly attributable to our genetic makeup. The other half represents environmental influences, but even then, it appears that these can be strongly mediated by inherited traits and dispositions.

It seems we just can’t deny the fact that the old nature vs nurture debate is coming out strongly in favour of nature. Consider the following:

  • By the time of adulthood, about 80 % of the average person’s IQ is attributable to genetics. In other words, you inherit most of your cognitive abilities.
  • Families affect personality and cognition while a person is growing up in that family, but once they are out of the nest, individuals tend pretty much to revert to their natural disposition. They make choices and behave in a manner that corresponds to their personality, character, and intelligence.
  • Training has a limited impact on native intellectual capacity. Individuals can learn task-specific skills, but they don’t get translated to other domains unless they have sufficient intelligence to allow this to occur.
  • The overarching general factor of intelligence, known as g and measured in scholastic achievement tests and various IQ metrics, is the most consistent and predictive dispositional trait of all.
  • General intelligence is not domain-specific. It can be applied to good effect across all domains, though with varying degrees of success and performance. I also estimate that it interacts with more domain-specific skills to create occasionally outstanding results. For instance, an individual with high cognitive capacity who also happens to have outstanding athletic talents and a temperament and energy-level suited to the sacrifices and singleness of purpose required to excel in a sporting activity may actually reach very high levels of competency in that sport, maybe even world-class level.
  • The greatest predictor of job performance is this same general factor of intelligence. The greatest correlation between IQ scores and job performance is for high-intellectual content work, such as senior executives, lawyers, doctors, etc., especially occupations requiring independence, decision-making, leadership, communication, and the ability to assimilitate large quantities of information and to learn quickly and consistently.
  • The second most important predictor of job performance is the personality trait known as conscientiousness. When you think of that, it makes perfect sense. For people to be effective in complex work, they need above average intelligence and must be conscientious enough to take their responsibilities and to fit into the organizational environment.

There has been a lot of information in recent years about the so called 10,000 hour rule. This states that it takes about 10,000 hours of hard practice (or 10 years) to achieve outstanding mastery of a domain. Books by Gladwell (Outliers) and Colvin (Talent Is Overrated) have been extremely popular, perhaps because they convey the idea that truly exceptional achievement is largely a question of perfecting one’s skills. It touches our egalitarian hearts to think that just about anyone can achieve just about anything if they set their minds to it. Unfortunately, I think that belief is almost completely erroneous.

In fact, I think we all can achieve something within the constraints of our talent set. However, to think someone with a, say, strong intellectual bent like me could have been an exceptional athlete or musician without the dispositions and talents to do so simply strains credibility. Given my particular talents, it is realistic that I can attain high performance and professional achievement in other areas more suited to that. As luck would have it, my temperament and personality are largely congruent with my taltents. What’s more, I think our motivations provide a strong indicator of where our true talents lie. So I have intellectual talents, but I’ve also been blessed with the disposition and motivation to develop these talents.

If I had had strong athletic abilities as a youth, other than being below average in that regard (even though I was quite fit), I probably would have been drawn to participate more in sports and to work towards excelling. Instead, I had intellectual talents and a strong sense of curiosity, which motivated me to focus on intellectual pursuits.

Those that have unusual talents and extremely high levels of persistence and motivation are usually the ones that end up as outstanding achievers in their chosen domain. The bottom line is that it’s important to know what your talents are and to strive to exploit them.

© 2011 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted for non-commercial purposes with full and proper attribution.

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