In the first of a new series on this blog, I talk to the American writer David Epstein about his book “The Sports Gene: What Makes the Perfect Athlete”. “The Sports Gene” has been seen as a riposte to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”, which popularised the view that the key to success, in sport as well as in other fields of endeavour, is not native talent but assiduous practice (Gladwell repeatedly invoked the so-called “10,000 hours rule” in this connection).
Did you conceive the book as a salvo in what one might call the “talent wars”?
That’s an interesting question. I think so. There was nothing in my book proposal about these other books, like Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated or Outliers. But as I began to investigate these questions of nature vs nurture, I realised that the popular writing narrative was all on one side of the issue. And that was where the public discussion was. It didn’t make much sense for me to discuss genes if the prevailing idea was that they didn’t matter at all. So that’s how I got into assessing the “10,000 hours rule” in the first place.
Why do you think the discussion in the wider culture had taken that turn, why had talent become a dirty word? Why did we become much more interested in practice, hard work and doing the “hard yards”, the 10,000 hours?
I think that genetics has suffered from unfair media coverage in the sense that every time something is reported about a gene, it’s as if it’ s destiny, this single gene. That’s not only not usually correct, but not a very nice idea to think about—because we all work hard, and we all want our work to matter (and I think it does matter). So, I think there was a perception problem created by a lot of reporting around genes. Gladwell wrote a very compelling and interesting book [Outliers]. That said, I think that the way we can all get to the best outcome is by finding the best individualised path, instead of assuming we can all do the same kind of practice and end up in the same place.
I wonder, then, whether the title of your book is potentially slightly misleading, since it might be thought to suggest that there are “genes for sport”, as it were, in that uncomplicated sense that you just referred to.