Talent in Sport and Science

Back in September, I tackled my greatest challenge since first sitting in a kayak a couple of years ago: the River Washburn in North Yorkshire. OK, I realise it’s probably pretty tame for a hardcore paddler, but for a relative novice like me its grade 2/3 water was sufficient to get the adrenaline flowing freely. There were moments, as I bombed along at unfeasible speeds, when I found myself thinking ‘Hey, I can do this! And it’s fun!!’ But for the most part, thinking was the last thing on my mind, and I was simply reacting to whatever happened (usually a few seconds too late…)
The big weir at Washburn. My descent (about 1.55 in) was not one of those thoughtful moments.

This got me reflecting on one of my major regrets: I’ve never been very good at sport. No false modesty here: the emphasis in the previous sentence is on the very. I’ve always been pretty good – I was just about a county standard cricketer as a teenager, and played reasonable club rugby well into my 20s. Basically, anything that involves balls and/or running, I’ll probably do ok, and certainly won’t embarrass myself. But I played sport at a high enough level to play with and against some guys who were really good, and the difference was striking. And what they had, clichéd though it may be, was time.

A handful of times on the rugby field, on receiving the ball I sensed not the 29 big guys in close proximity, but the space in between them. I had the time to assess the options, and take the right one. Although I haven’t played for over 10 years now, I can still remember each of those near mystical occasions. I imagine that’s how sport is all the time for the really talented. Rather than my usual instant kick/pass/run without any concept that options may even exist.

Which set me musing about the role of talent in science. Clearly, some degree of aptitude is necessary to have any success. But is science like sport where if you’re me – an able and enthusiastic trier – your achievements will always be limited by lack of that special talent?

This is interesting because I’ve often sold science to students as the way to a really creative career through hard work and application, rather than sheer talent. How many good arts graduates, I ask them, have as much creative freedom as I get in my job? To make it in the creative arts, as in sport, you need to stand out from the crowd. In science, you can do well as part of the crowd (talent-wise), as long as you put in the hours.

So, I leave you with my putative taxonomy of scientists, based on position on the talent / work ethic axes. (Incidentally, I stand by my view that the ability to work hard is no less of a ‘talent’ than any other ability, so I’m using ‘talent’ here as a shorthand for ‘scientific aptitude’, and ‘work ethic’ as shorthand for ‘ability to work hard’.) I know where I’d place myself. But I also suspect that most of us probably overrate our talent, and underrate our work ethic. (And if any of my senior managers should read this, the top left cell is obviously a joke.)