The Rage to Master

I first came upon this, from Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code:

That’s not to say that a minuscule percentage of people don’t possess an innate, obsessive desire to improve—what psychologist Ellen Winner calls “the rage to master.”

Rage to master? Interest piqued. So I googled and found Ellen’s original paper, “The Rage to Master: The Decisive Role of Talent in the Visual Arts”.

From the first paragraph:

We argue for the decisive role of talent in achieving expertise in the visual arts. By talent, we refer to an innate ability or proclivity to learn in a particular domain. We argue that individual differences in innate ability exist, and that high levels of ability include a motivational component: a strong interest in a particular domain, along with a strong drive to master that domain.

It’s important to note that Ellen defines talent as including #1 innate ability OR #2 proclivity to learn. Most people – myself included – would not include #2 in a dinner-table conversation about “talent”. To us, talent in its purest expression is Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. A gift that comes naturally, often with apathy or even active resistance.

I’d like to think I have a “rage to master” (who wouldn’t, right?). So I found the paper interesting and wanted to share some highlights:

Capacity for endurance, concentration, and commitment to hard work…

Reminds me of deliberate practice.

…including a long and intensive period of training, first from loving and warm teachers, and then from demanding and rigorous master teachers.

Another theme in skill-development literature: younger students need teachers who foster JOY; older students need teachers who build SKILL.

They are intrinsically motivated to acquire skill in the domain (because of the ease with which learning occurs). We call this having a rage to master.

Fascinating – interest comes from ease. Conflicts with deliberate practice, but very intuitive.

Case in point: my struggles with multi-variable calculus homework (Math 51, folks?) while one fellow student clearly GOT IT…and could explain concepts better than our TA.

They make discoveries in the domain without much explicit adult scaffolding. A great deal of the work is done through self-teaching

…often do things in the domain that ordinary hard workers never do-inventing new solutions, thinking, seeing, or hearing in a qualitatively different way.

Not to be overlooked – self-teaching and self-invention are key for enduring breakthroughs (think Picasso and cubism, Beethoven and Romanticism).

A disproportionate number of adult artists and children who draw precociously are non-right-handed

Researchers (and pop culture) make a big deal of left-handedness. Not sure how much of that is connecting the dots backward.

I’m fascinated by everything talent and skill and genius. So if you have recommended books, research papers, blog posts…please share!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.