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Tiger mothers will disagree, but you can’t manufacture a prodigy

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

We have prodigies all wrong. We fool ourselves that the secrets of exuberant ability can be observed and then replicated elsewhere to achieve the same results. But the truth could not be more different. The more we learn about high performers, the clearer it becomes that there is only one universal characteristic: they are all different. Nurturing greatness cannot be decoded into a pretend science. It hovers somewhere between an art and a mystery.

It has been a bad month for “tiger mothers”; the first of many bad months, one hopes. Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed explores the huge dangers that follow from the sharp-elbowed obsession with high grades, whatever the human cost. And Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s new study on prodigies, punctures the fantasy that elite talent can be coached by a single prescriptive method.

Solomon’s previous book, The Noonday Demon, was a deeply intelligent study on depression. The same mixture of thorough reporting, humanity and erudition informs Far From the Tree. “While it is true that parents push their kids too hard and give them breakdowns,” Solomon writes, “others fail to support a child’s passion for his own gift and deprive him of the only life that he would have enjoyed.”


Judgement, in other words, always trumps theory. “I gradually realised that all parenting is guesswork,” Solomon concludes. It is a timely intervention, because two strands of conventional wisdom have converged to reinforce the idea that if pushy parents follow the right formula, they can engineer designer children.

The first is the hegemony of developmental psychology. Solomon describes “the widespread presumption that a child’s destiny hinges on getting a baby foot on a tall ladder”. Anyone who has observed parents in the elite pockets of London or New York will have witnessed the hysteria attached to early achievement. It is as wrong as it is terrifying. The biologist E O Wilson was asked what represented the greatest hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the “soccer mom” and her list of after-school clubs and activities.

Obsession with how well your child is doing at the age of three and a half has been compounded by pop science books promising the secret of nurturing greatness. The genre tells us nothing about genius but a great deal about ourselves. In a phony meritocracy, genius must be reduced to a formula that is open to anyone. It cannot be acknowledged unless it can be domesticated and commodified.

Cherry-picking is the preferred methodology favoured by authors determined to “decode” genius and to uncover a template for future greatness. Well, let’s cherry-pick two examples that demonstrate the problem with cherry-picking.

Until very recently, the pre-eminent rivalry in men’s tennis was between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. It is one of the greatest rivalries in sports history. Here is the crucial point: though both men were exceptional young players, the learning environment in which they grew up could not have been more different.

Nadal’s parents effectively ceded Rafa’s tennis upbringing to his father’s brother, Toni. Uncle Toni was brutally tough, pushing Rafa to the limits of his physical and mental capacity. Even now, despite being an 11-time Grand Slam winner, Nadal plays with a hounded intensity, as if fearful that he will be punished if he ever stops chasing down lost causes.

When Rafa was growing up, as John Carlin’s authorised biography describes, the rest of the family worried deeply that Toni might be damaging the teenager: “In the case of Rafa’s mother, [bemusement] occasionally gave way to anger . . . His godfather went so far as to say that what Toni was doing to the child amounted to ‘mental cruelty’.”

There is no escaping the logic that Nadal’s education was an enormous risk. The uncle gambled that his nephew could withstand extraordinary pressure. Rafa could easily have been crushed. That the risk ended in success does not prove it was not a risk.

Compare the story of Federer, who has won 17 Grand Slam titles. A passage in Jon Wert - heim’s book Strokes of Genius summarised the influence of Federer’s family: “His parents weren’t pushy; if anything, they were ‘pully’. If they nudged him at all, it was to stop taking tennis so seriously. Instead of supplementing God-given talent with burning ambition and intense training, the Federers stressed fun. Instead of suggesting to their son that he was special, the Federers took pains to treat Roger no differently from their daughter, Diana.”

The Nadals pushed the boundaries; the Federers provided a “relentless onslaught of the normal”. In terms of nurturing winners, the two opposite approaches have been roughly equally vindicated. In human terms, both men are widely admired. There is no “right” approach. It depends on the character of the child.

Random selection

What makes some men and women exceptional will always remain unknowable. The uncertainty has two separate dimensions. First, there is the complex and largely unanswerable question of innate talent, gifts conferred at birth. This strand of greatness then interacts with the equally unscientific question of nurture. Identifying exceptional talent is hard; knowing what to do with it is even harder.

Humanity is not only messy and disordered, it is also random. We can be sure that many potential prodigies lived unfulfilled lives in an unhelpful environment. We can be equally sure that many children with access to every social and economic advantage are crushed by over-coaching – or lack the talent to benefit from it. We cannot even learn rigid lessons from elite achievers because the interaction of nature and nurture is always unique.

That mystery will doubtless annoy tiger mothers around the world. For the rest of us, the fact that some corners of human achievement cannot be deconstructed is a source of joy and humility.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.