Ray Allen Scores in the Nature-Nurture Debate

We can learn from Ray Allen, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, even if we can never hope to beat them on the court.
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Michael Jordan is the greatest player in NBA history. You see his image everywhere, eight years after he retired. He even graces the pages of the introductory psychology textbook that I use — but not because of his outlandish skills. Midway through his career, Jordan decided to switch sports and try his hand at major league baseball. Although he clearly had substantial baseball skills, he wasn't ready for the big leagues, so his foray was considered a failure. Then he switched back and resumed his reign as the king of basketball.

The lesson of Jordan's career in sports is that talent isn't enough. Physical talent does not a star make. Jordan must have made it to the top because of hard work. It's nurture, not nature.

Last night, the Boston Celtics' Ray Allen entered the history books by making more three-point shots than any other player in NBA history, surpassing Reggie Miller.

Perhaps not surprisingly, TV commentator Mark Jackson recently said that Ray Allen was born to shoot.

And that made Allen mad. Jackie MacMullan quoted Allen on ESPN.com: "I've argued this with a lot of people in my life,'' Allen said."When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, 'Don't undermine the work I've put in every day.' Not some days. Every day. Ask anyone who has been on a team with me who shoots the most. Go back to Seattle and Milwaukee, and ask them. The answer is me — not because it's a competition, but because that's how I prepare.

"[My preparation] drives me insane. I'm wrought with anxiety about being ready, about getting my shots in with nobody on the floor but me. Sometimes I get this bad feeling, almost like an itch, and I've got to get rid of it. I've got to get out there and get my shots up so that feeling goes away. It is bothering me right now. Small things are getting to me.

"Some people could care less if they make a jump shot, a free throw," Allen continued. "I have chosen to zone in and focus on this. I played baseball and football and some soccer, and I truly would have been the best at those sports at whatever position I chose because I would have set my mind to it.

"I'm of sound mind and body, two arms and two legs, like millions of other people, but the ones who want it badly enough set themselves apart.''

THINK AGAIN: A user's guide to the science of the mind

THINK AGAIN: A user's guide to the science of the mind

Allen succeeds, he says, because of hard work. Jordan too. It's nurture over nature. Malcolm Gladwell makes similar points in his excellent book Outliers (although he acknowledges in passing that nature matters too).

But Allen (who doesn't lack confidence) also thinks he could have been the best at soccer, football or baseball, if he wanted to, because of his work ethic. He might just have a big ego. He doesn't think hard work matters. He thinks it's all that matters. Nurture 1, Nature 0.

Allen is right that becoming an expert comes down to practice. Not playing and having fun, but real practice. K. Anders Ericsson, an expert on the development of expertise, talks about the 10-year (10,000-hour) rule. You have to practice that much to be an expert. In a well-known study of violinists, he found that the variable that separated the best from the good and the mediocre was vast differences in the number of hours they had spent practicing in their lifetimes.

But what about Hakeem Olajuwon? One of the greatest centers of the 1990s, Hakeem grew up playing soccer. He first played basketball at age 15. Seven years later, he was already the best player in college basketball and was the NBA's No. 1 draft pick at age 22.

Do NBA players get to the top because of talent or hard work? Is it nature or nurture? Some people say there's no such thing as talent (although height may be an exception) and that talent is really the ability to work hard. But why would everyone be born with the same amount of physical coordination and strength, etc.? Why would we evolve with such tremendous variation, and yet all be born equal in respect to talent? In the realm of sports, this idea seems kind of ridiculous. But the idea that talent matters and hard work doesn't is equally crazy when you look at the work the best put into their games.

The answer is obvious; to be decent, you might be able to get by with an "or" — talent "or" hard work — but to be the best, you need talent and hard work. Ray Allen has far more physical talent than you or I or almost anyone else on the planet; Jordan and Olajuwon were more talented than Allen. But, to paraphrase Star Wars, the three players put in "more hard work than you can possibly imagine."

Why do some people see talent and some see hard work? The actor-observer bias might explain both. We tend to interpret our own actions as caused by our environment — so Ray Allen sees his sharpshooting as due to external factors, namely, hard work. But we interpret others' behavior based on their internal states — so Mark Jackson sees Allen's shooting as part of him, something he was born with.

There may be another reason for these opposite biases as well. Outsiders can't see how hard elite performers work, so we think they get by on talent. Elite performers can see how hard they work, but they only compete against other performers who have tons of talent, so they see their work ethic as separating them from the elite crowd. It does, but talent separates the elite crowd from the rest of us.

We all have our biases, but the bottom line is: The best are the best because they don't have weaknesses. They are born with talent and they work like crazy.

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