Terry Pratchett, IQ, Practice, and Mastery

Prolific fantasy author Terry Pratchett, who recently died of early-onset Alzheimer’s, inspired many wannabe fiction authors. But unless you’re a genius (as measured by raw intellect, not the vague label of ‘genius’ ascribed to people who demonstrate ‘skill’ at some subjective/useless activity like finger painting), better stick to writing non-fiction, or anything that isn’t too cognitively demanding. You’re already cognitively preordained to fail – and the sooner you know this, the sooner you can stop wasting your time on what will amount to a long, frustrating exercise in futility. From Wikipedia:

Pratchett was born on 28 April 1948[1][14] in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, England, the only child of David and Eileen Pratchett, of Hay-on-Wye.[1] His family moved to Bridgwater, Somerset, briefly in 1957, following which he passed his eleven plus exam in 1959, earning a place in High Wycombe Technical High School.[1][15] Pratchett described himself as a “non-descript student” and, in his Who’s Who entry,[1] credits his education to the Beaconsfield Public Library.[16]

So he was eligible to attend high school at age 11 and became a full-blown writer at 20. Very impressive and indicative of genius intelligence.

But what about practice? It’s only useful if you’re smart enough to actually make the necessary cognitive connections to attain mastery. Consider a large jigsaw puzzle; the time spent assembling of the pieces is analogous to the practice in order to achieve mastery, which is the completed puzzle. Less intelligent people have missing pieces, such that no amount of assembling will ever give a complete picture or understanding. Another analogy is trying to cross a river with a plank of wood, where IQ is the length of wood and the width of the river is the difficulty of the task. If you’re not smart enough, crossing the river ‘bridging the understanding gap’ will always be impossible, regardless of how you fiddle with the plank. Finally, IQ is analogous to differing levels of radiation, such that standing in front of a microwave oven, even for 10,000 hours, will never cause cancer because microwave radiation (low IQ) simply isn’t strong enough to cross the necessary threshold to damage DNA (understanding). Gamma radiation (high-IQ) will. So among a pool of, say, 1000 people who are smart enough to theoretically attain mastery in a sufficiency cognitively demanding task, those who put in 10,000 hours have a better shot mastery among that small pool of people. Practice can help you live to your full cognitive potential – but not more. Like a bathtub, IQ or ‘cognitive capacity’ is analogous to the depth of the tub. Once it’s filled, any extra water (practice) will just spill over the edges, doing no good. Practice cannot make the walls of the tub higher.

Then we have skills transference, which means people who are smart and masters at one task can often make the transition another field, often surpassing less intelligent, but seasoned experts in this new chosen field. This is how Andy Weir, author of the enormously successful novel The Martian, was able to leapfrog literary giants – despite being a programmer by trade, not a writer. From his bio on Wikipedia:

At the age of 15, he began working as a computer programmer for Sandia National Laboratories. He studied computer science at UC San Diego, although he did not graduate. He worked as a programmer for several software companies, including AOL and Blizzard, where he worked on Warcraft 2.

So there you go. What were you doing in your late teens? Playing video games, reading comics, and just getting by in college with a mediocre SAT score? Were you just average growing up as a kid, not exceptional? Then take your lofty intellectual dreams, like becoming a successful (as measured by being published by a traditional publishing house or selling tens of thousands of copies of self-published work) fiction author, and cast them adrift in a Viking funeral pyre.

Even if you start late in life, IQ is still important for picking up the rules of writing and constructing compelling characters and plots. While high-IQ does in no way guarantee success as a writer, it is pretty much necessary, sorry.

The point is, and this comes up again and again in these online debates about IQ and ability, we need to learn to set realistic expectations at the personal level – even if coming to terms with our cognitive limitations makes us uncomfortable, especially in a society and culture where too many people have been mislead into believing what they want to hear, not what is reality.

Related:

So Much For That 10,000 Hours Rule
IQ and Writing

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