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Extracts from an essay on 'Healthy Ambition'

17 August 2016

Oliver James

With the Olympic games due to kick off in Rio this weekend, this week’s blog shares an extract from Oliver James’s essay on ambition, as part of our partnership with The School of Life.

In the 1960s, László Polgár was a Hungarian educational psychologist who had written several scientific papers on the effectiveness of practice in creating excellence. As was common behind the Iron Curtain, he used pen pal letters to communicate with young people in other countries, and through one of them he met a Ukrainian woman, Klara. He explained his passionate conviction that excellence can be nurtured to her and she fell for him, as well as his arguments. They agreed to have children and to turn them into chess grandmasters, choosing that game because it has an incontestable, objective metric by which achievement can be measured.

Polgár was a mathematician by specialism; doubtless that helped in his plan. But he was not exceptional, so it is not valid to object that he passed genes for exceptional pattern recognition to his children. He played the game as a hobby; his wife did not play at all. Having read up on the best means for teaching it, he prepared to conduct his unusual experiment.

As luck would have it, Klara gave birth to three daughters. There had been no female grandmasters, and it was widely assumed that females were born less capable of the mental activity entailed to be exceptional at chess. If he could create a female grandmaster it would be all the more telling, since the administrators of world chess forbade the participation of women in top tournaments.

Starting with his eldest daughter Susan, Polgár was careful to treat it as a playful activity, turning it into a fantasy of dramatic wins and losses. By the time she turned five she was excited by playing and spent hundreds of hours practising. Entered in a local competition, she treated it as fun, winning 10–0, causing a sensation. Meanwhile, her younger sisters were intrigued by this activity and László allowed them to feel the pieces, seeing them as toys, without giving any formal tuition until they were aged five.

Interviewed recently, all three girls described playing the game as something that they loved doing; it never seemed like a chore. Instead of messing about playing Monopoly, netball or going to the local swimming pool, chess was just what they enjoyed in the Polgár family.

Sure enough, in 1991 the eldest daughter became the first female grandmaster. The second daughter had ten straight wins against male grandmasters, a performance rated the fifth best in the history of chess. Her younger sister became a grandmaster at the age of 15, the youngest ever (of either gender).

It is a matter of record that Polgár had declared his intention of creating grandmasters before his children were born. Neither he nor his wife were talented in relevant skills. It is very hard to argue with this story as evidence for the overpowering importance of nurture rather than nature in causing exceptional chess achievement. But more than that, it is interesting in terms of how to create emotionally healthy high achievers, as opposed to the many highly distressed ones.

That Polgár understood the need not to coerce his daughters into playing is clear; he grasped that small children need to enjoy fantasy play. Consequently, his daughters all seem to have grown into satiable, well-balanced people rather than hungry success addicts. There is no guarantee in any case that rigorously hothousing children produces exceptional achievers (it often produces, at best, prodigies who do not usually go on to be exceptional and who are liable to suffer emotional problems).

Prominent prodigious sportsmen who became desperately unhappy include Bjorn Borg, the cricketer Marcus Trescothick and the rugby football phenomenon, Jonny Wilkinson. All of them were driven in a quite different way from the Polgár sisters, externally rather than self-motivated.