Ability and Performance


Something that's bothered me for a while now is the possibility that people who are "naturally" good at something might be more likely to draw the wrong lessons about how to get better at it. (Does natural ability really exist, or is basically-all performance actually down to practice? Fair question, but let's shelve it for now). The rough way to think about this is "if you have high natural ability at something you can develop really bad learning habits and still be ahead of your peers for quite a long time, leaving you to wrongly think that your learning techniques are good (for you)." The detailed way to think about this is.... well, see below.

Imagine there's some kind of performance we're interested in: to keep things concrete, let's say ability at juggling. Suppose that some people are born with high natural juggling ability and some people with low natural juggling ability. Suppose that, on average, both types of people get better at juggling over time & with practice.

However, that mild average increase masks the fact that some people improve more than the baseline and some people improve less. Specifically, some people have good learning technique and some people have bad learning technique.

Now, this is true of both people with high ability and people with low ability. What do we notice? That, over time, the people with low natural ability but good learning technique can overtake the people with high natural ability but bad learning technique.

Ok, now, suppose that at some point we take everyone above a certain threshold of proven juggling performance and whisk them off to a special elite circus academy.

The diagram above is a little bit misleading because it kind of implies that there are an equal number of high ability and low ability jugglers in our original population (and as a result that there are more high ability people in the post-filter sample); in fact, probably there would be many low ability jugglers for every high ability juggler (where by "low ability" I really mean "middling ability"). But ignoring that for a second: The really interesting thing going on here, I think, is that – conditional on crossing the threshold to get accepted into elite juggling academy – the people with high natural ability are less likely to have good learning techniques.

Among the low natural ability people, the only ones who cross the threshold to get accepted to the elite academy are the ones who developed good learning techniques over the previous few decades. Among the high natural ability people, though, it's possible to get accepted even with bad learning technique.

In a weird way, the people with high natural ability at something are "disadvantaged" at this thing in the long run. Of course, at some point the people with high ability + bad learning techniques will realise that they're falling behind and possibly change to better learning techniques (for them). But that might take a while.

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