Perseverance is greater than talent

Recently, I finished a fascinating book called, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature
by Geoffrey Miller. In it, Miller makes the case that many of the things that make us human are the result of sexual selection, not natural selection. Our capacity for language, music, art, kindness, intelligence and charity are all traits or abilities that made us more attractive to the opposite sex. They did not evolve because they helped us survive better, instead they evolved because they are ways for us to display how fit our genes are. Our minds evolved to be an entertainment center for potential mates. The better we could sing, or tell stories, or make other people laugh, the more attractive we were. This meant we could attract fitter mates and especially in the case of men, have more offspring, ensuring that the next generation would be even better at singing, telling stories and making other people laugh.

It’s an interesting idea. If you are like me and interested in evolution, but haven’t read much about Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, you should take a look. But I’ll leave it Miller to actually lay out the argument. He does a much better job than I could.

Near the end of the book came the following passage. As an artist, this passage jumped off the page.

Among competent professionals in any field, there appears to be a fairly constant probability of success in any given endeavor. (Psychologist Dean Keith) Simonton’s data show that excellent composers do not produce a higher proportion of excellent music than good composers—they simply produce a higher total number of works. People who achieve extreme success in any creative field are almost always extremely prolific. Hans Eysenck became a famous psychologist not because all of his papers were excellent, but because he wrote over a hundred books and a thousand papers, and some of them happened to be excellent. Those who write only ten papers are much less likely to strike gold with any of them. Likewise with Picasso: if you paint 14,000 paintings in your lifetime, some of them are likely to be pretty good, even if most are mediocre. Simonton’s results are surprising. The constant probability of success idea sounds counterintuitive and of course there are exceptions to this generalization. Yet Simonton’s data on creative achievement are the most comprehensive ever collected and in every domain that he studied, creative achievement was a good indicator of the energy, time, and motivation invested in creative activity.

Let that sink in a little bit. No really. Let that sink in. Ponder it for a little bit before you read on.

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