As I have never been on a golf course in my life, be wary when this column kicks off with a tribute to a golfer. That said, Paul McGinley’s gracious interview following the announcement of his Ryder Cup captaincy was a joy to hear. Anyone who has played in a team of any sort – at any level – knows what he meant about being the type of player who believes in the team. Indeed, his modesty about his own considerable achievements on the green in comparison with those other golfers on the European team were not just honest, but revealing.

Contrast McGinley’s humility and genuine delight at the superior talent of others around him with the behaviour of another sportsman in the news last week, Lance Armstrong. Armstrong saw in others’ successes his own failings and was prepared to do anything to be number one.

Armstrong’s entire sense of himself was wrapped up in being the winner, the best: the one who took all the plaudits. For McGinley, it is obvious success is a communal thing; something that can be shared, and can also be best honed and shaped by failures. It seems Armstrong couldn’t accept failure. He needed to be constantly recognised as the best.

One difference between the two men is how they see success and potential. Ultimately, Armstrong’s interpretation – either you had the talent or you didn’t – was all that counted to him. In the end his obsession ruined not just him and his team, but the integrity of the sport to which he devoted his life.

In McGinley’s case, his greatest achievement may well be his ability to marshall the talent at his disposal, seeing potential as an evolving attribute that can be developed and constantly improved.

Last Thursday, I contemplated both interpretations of potential as I waited in a queue to see teachers at my daughter’s first parent-teacher meeting of secondary school. They’re funny things, parent-teacher meetings; the potential for indignation and miscommunication is infinite.

South Dublin still has its fair share of Tiger mums and dads. God help the teacher who doesn’t recognise the inherent genius of their “gifted” child. To be fair, it also has a fair share of narrow-gauge teachers, for whom the points system is the only real barometer of a student’s success. Sure, they’ll talk about decency, emotional intelligence and the like, but at the end of the day they know the league tables are paramount; and that inside the head of the Tiger mum is a large scoreboard keeping tabs on every one of their special one’s achievements from being an early talker and walker right through to the first 11 hockey team and on to those magical 600 points in the Leaving.

But all teenagers are different and not everyone can be the best. So the real question for most parents is: how can their children reach their potential?

This is something that has perplexed psychologists for years and it is extremely important for the economy and society in general.

Is potential and thus talent inherent, something to be shown off that can’t endure failure? Or is it in constant development, something that can be improved on and motivated by setbacks?

How we see ability is material to how we live our lives.

Sometimes we hear certain children are ‘gifted’. We’re then very surprised if these young prodigies don’t achieve great things in later life.

Could it be that the way we look at talent explains why people reach their potential or not? Is it a gift or is it learned? This is not an academic question, but something fundamental to our quality of life, because underachievement brings with it all sorts of psychological and emotional trauma.

If we look at how children learn, we can see how some patterns repeat over and over again. Why, when a child is doing maths, for example, does she find herself getting frustrated and giving up – then finds she can’t do sums that she could do a week ago?

Could this be because we think talent is inherent and we simply aren’t clever enough to work things out?
Observing such black and white behaviour, American psychologists in the 1970s did a series of experiments, splitting teenagers in maths classes into two groups.

The first were told they weren’t trying hard enough. If they just put some more effort in they could get it. The other group of students were told nothing and left to their own devices.

Interestingly, the kids who were told they weren’t trying hard enough persisted in the face of failure and eventually succeeded. The ones who were left on their own gave up. So we have capable students giving up because they hit a setback, whereas other students (regardless of ‘talent’), if encouraged, develop ability.

This has been revealed over and over again, showing that people who believed talent was God-given, or that some people were gifted, limited their own potential. They concluded they were not up to it. Those people believed in fixed intelligence. But those who were told it was just a matter of looking at the problem again, eventually succeeded. They believed in developed intelligence.

Unfortunately, humans like the idea of fixed intelligence and can make the mistake of equating effort with a lack of ability. This is easier for all, the ones who have to try and don’t want to and those who think they don’t have to try and couldn’t be bothered.

Again, psychologists have shown via experiments that praising children for intelligence rather than effort saps their motivation, and close to half of those kids who were praised for intelligence overstated their results to their peers. This has huge implications.

The brilliant Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell, using this research that people who think they are clever overstate their cleverness and lie about it, made the point that Enron collapsed because of its cleverness, not despite it.

When people asked how could such clever people screw up, Gladwell’s answer was it was precisely because they were clever. When faced with evidence that their models weren’t so smart, the Enron managers lied; first to each other and then to the rest of the world.

Could the same thing have happened at Anglo? After years of being told and telling each other that they were clever, they were reinventing banking and had an innate ability to manage risk and make money, could they have just lied like the talent-obsessed kids?

Armstrong also believed in the ‘ability as a gift’ notion and defined himself as the best. When he decided he couldn’t be so legally, he pumped all sorts of stuff into his veins, cheated and lied; first to himself, then his team and then the world.

This is a very human thing to do. It’s not right, but it’s very human. McGinley’s view is the opposite, thinking that you can work on ability, try harder and get better, slowly.

When I see parents at the parent-teacher meetings obsessing about results and the points system as if ability were a gift their precious child simply has to have – because if not, it will be a reflection on the child and the parents – I wonder have we learned nothing from this momentous week in sport?

David McWilliams’ new book The Good Room is out now

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