Grace, Works and Raducanu image

Grace, Works and Raducanu

When Andy Murray won his first grand slam in 2012, writes the journalist Ian Leslie, it was a struggle against adversity coloured by grit and determination. When Emma Raducanu won hers ten days ago, it was tennis on a different level: flowing, blithe, natural, genius. When Murray won, we all felt relief. When Raducanu won, we felt joy. "We laud effortful achievement. We prefer effortless superiority."

Indeed we do. But this century has seen plenty of popular examples of what Leslie calls “the argument against talent.” David Chambliss, Anders Ericsson, Matthew Syed’s Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers have argued that talent is essentially overrated. Innate ability is less important than perseverance, practice, focus, mental preparedness and so forth.

Translated into theological language: works are more important than grace.

We want to believe this for several reasons, Leslie argues. 1) “It accords with the egalitarian, hierarchy-flattening spirit of the age. We are suspicious of elites or elitism of any kind. Once you set your mind against unearned privilege, it’s a short step to believing that nobody is born to be a champion or a great musician; that everyone has the potential to be as successful as anyone else ... It feels right, it feels just, that the highest rewards should go to those who persevere.” 2) “It is good for business. If talent is innate, then you can’t buy it, and nobody ever got rich selling something that can’t be bought. If what we call talent is in fact a matter of how we behave and what we believe then the free market is very much here to help.” 3) “It is reassuringly technocratic. It meets a certain desire to have everything explained and formularised, made routine and transparent.” The theological parallels are striking.

Yet no matter how loudly we insist that we prefer works to grace, there is something deep within us that longs for grace over works:

In 2011 the psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay presented 103 study participants with written descriptions of two classical pianists. One pianist was described as having innate ability (the “natural”); the other was described as someone who had worked extremely hard to develop her ability (the “striver”). The participants, who were a mix of experts and laypeople, were then played a recording attributed to each musician and invited to say which they rated more highly. Before doing so, they were asked for their views on musical achievement. Most of them stated that training and practice were more important than talent. But their ratings showed that they preferred the natural over the striver - and of course, they had been played exactly the same recording.

Tsay called this “naturalness bias”. Unsure if it applied only to artists, she performed a similar experiment, this time with entrepreneurs making pitches. She got a similar result: participants, especially if they were founders or investors, rated the same business proposal higher if they had been told it was from a natural rather than a striver. Our culture has a deeply ambivalent relationship to excellence. We prefer to attribute it to hard work, yet find ourselves inexorably drawn to stories of innate talent. We admire strivers, but we adore naturals.

Totally. We admire Ronaldo; we adore Messi. We admire Muralitharan and Allan Border; we adore Shane Warne and Viv Richards. We admire Joe Frazier; we adore Muhammad Ali. We admire Stephen Hendry; we adore Ronnie O’Sullivan. Something in our hearts is thrilled by the idea that you don’t always get what you deserve, and that sometimes you inherit great blessings through divine benevolence rather than human diligence. There is something magical about it. Ineffable. Supernatural.

Despite the power of the argument against talent, it has, remarkably, never quite overcome our deep-rooted attachment to the idea that there is something mysterious about the very highest level of excellence; something that defies every effort to break it down into habits, practices and feats of willpower. We continue to stubbornly believe that there are human beings who have an indefinable superiority. We have not eradicated the intuition that talent is analogue, immaterial, and unfairly distributed, and that certain individuals have such an abundance of it that they can do unreachable, incomprehensible things ... Emma Raducanu resists explanation. She does not make sense. And that’s OK - in fact, it’s glorious. Genius can be such a joy.

Our minds applaud works. But our hearts pine for grace.

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