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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 4

Roundup: Nature versus Nurture

Three books tackle whether talents are innate or cultivated



THINKSTOCK

While watching the Winter Olympics this year, you may have pondered whether top athletes are born with incredible endurance and speed or whether such skills can be developed through years of intense training. According to sports psychologist Jim Afremow, raw talent isn't everything.

In The Champion's Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive (Rodale Books, 2014), Afremow argues that getting an edge over the competition can boil down to mental preparation. He provides advice for how to thrive in high-pressured situations, such as avoiding comparing yourself with others and visualizing success (picture yourself at the finish line!).

Although the right mental and physical preparation does help, it is also clear that success depends heavily on our genes. In The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance (Current Hardcover, 2013), Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein combs through the scientific literature to explain the complexities of the nature versus nurture debate. “Even at the most basic level, it's always a hardware and software story,” he writes. But for some, no amount of dedicated training will do the trick. One study revealed that a chess player reached the master level after only 3,000 hours of training, whereas others had not progressed to that level after 25,000 hours.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, however, we often underestimate people because “we have a definition in our heads of what an advantage is—and the definition isn't right.” In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Little, Brown, 2013), Gladwell proposes that traits that seem valuable may not always work in our favor, and vice versa. He bolsters this claim with scientific research and real-life examples. For instance, he explains how a basketball team with little technical skill made the finals by playing to their one strength—defense. Although Gladwell sometimes cherry-picks data or suggests causation when none exists, he always offers a compelling way of understanding ourselves and our capabilities.

This article was originally published with the title "Roundup: Nature vs. Nurture."

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