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What This Homeschooled Chess Champion Teaches Us About Talent

Fabiano Caruana was homeschooled and is really good at chess. Like Bobby Fischer good.

Fabiano Caruana is really good at chess. The 26 year old American is a grandmaster, and he is ranked second in the world after narrowly losing to reigning Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. According to his website, Caruana has been playing chess since he was five, but it was age 10 that he began to garner attention, after becoming the youngest American to defeat a Grandmaster in an official tournament. By age 12, he had earned the international title of FIDE Master. And then at age 14, he became the youngest grandmaster in US history, beating the record set by Bobby Fischer.

Caruana was homeschooled, and it was only because his parents believed in him that he was able to become the chess player he is today. CNBC reports:

As Caruana began getting more and more serious about the game, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov stepped in to warn his parents that a career in chess was “too risky” and that it would be difficult to make a living.

Thankfully his parents “disregarded the advice and let their son play chess while homeschooling him.” Lou Caruana explains that “we knew he was extremely intelligent, so we did have a degree of confidence that with or without formal education, he would be O.K.” Lou also explains that Fabiano “spent a tremendous amount of time reading, and so he is somewhat self-educated.” Commenting on Caruana’s education, journalist Daaim Shabazz writes:

His evolution makes a good case study for homeschooling and other ways of learning that enable young people to break free from the static environment of formal education in order to pursue their passions. It also makes for a good case study of what talent looks like in its earliest stages.

While Caruana likely had a lot of natural talent, his success as a chess player is tied to specific habits of mind that helped him develop that talent to become a champion. Shabazz notes that “one of the things I saw in Fabiano early on was not being afraid to play the strongest competition available. He didn’t fear losing. I once saw Caruana lose a game when he was around 9 or 10 and he didn’t seem to carry any of the usual childish pouting from a loss.” Shabazz speculates that “this self-control may have been developed because of his early diet of competitive open tournaments. In these competitions you must forget about a bad result quickly or risk distraction in the next game. In a recent interview, he mentioned his ability to come back from losses as one of his top strengths.”

The Power of Grit

Angela Duckworth – a psychology professor and 2013 MacArthur Fellow – has a word for the resiliency of mind that allows Caruana bounce back from losses: grit. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance she explains that the more she paid attention to both her teaching and the research she was conducting, the more she realized that innate talent isn’t a reliable indicator to future success and that instead it is an attitude of grit and a willingness to grow that best predicts student success. Duckworth introduces us to David, a freshman in a high school algebra course. David’s first math test came back with a D. In her interview with David, she asked him how he dealt with that disappointing result. He said: “I did feel bad – I did – but I didn’t dwell on it. I knew it was done. I knew I had to focus on what to do next. So I went to my teacher and asked for help. I basically tried to figure out, you know, what I did wrong. What I needed to do differently.” Duckworth reports that “by senior year, David was taking the harder of Lowell’s two honors calculus courses.”

The development of grit is aided by moving away from what Stanford University professor and researcher Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” and instead embracing a “growth mindset.” In our blog post on growth mindset, we explain: “those with a fixed mindset believe that talent, intelligence, and ability are set and unchangeable—genetically determined or a gift that you either have or you don’t.” In contrast, “those with a growth mindset believe that through effort and perseverance we have the ability to improve and grow in any area to which we set our minds. Growth does not discount the existence of innate talent. Instead, it recognizes that natural talent undeveloped due to lack of effort will never reach its full potential.” We note that “in general, those with less “natural ability” that work diligently will ultimately achieve more than those “gifted” who do not cultivate their skills.” (Our Learning and Development Specialist Lisa Shumate has written this helpful post for tips on cultivating a growth mindset in our children and students.)

You Can Improve Yourself

While most of us will never be as good at chess as Fabiano Caruana, with the right kind of practice, we can all make meaningful improvements in chess or any other activity (yes, including math!). The book to read on good practice strategy is The Talent Code [my review] by Daniel Coyle. He opens his book by asking:

How does a penniless Russian tennis club with one indoor court create more top-twenty women players than the entire United States? How does a humble storefront music school in Dallas, Texas, produce Jessica Simpson, Demi Lovato, and a succession of pop music phenoms? How does a poor, scantily educated British family in a remote village turn out three world-class writers?

And he spends the rest of the book trying to answer those questions.

Coyle found that the world’s most accomplished athletes, musicians, chess players, etc., all sharpen their skill with a shared kind of practice, what he refers to as deep practice. Coyle explains that deep practice is characterized by “slow, fiftful struggle” where people purposely operate “at the edges of their ability” with full recognition that this means failing more often than succeeding. Coyle explains this paradox, noting that “experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.” The key is to “choose a goal just beyond your present abilities” because “thrashing about blindly doesn’t help” but “reaching does.”

Coyle also writes about the coaching style he encountered most often. He notes that while our Hollywood stereotype of the successful coach emphasizes long, inspirational speeches and dramatic levels of energy and excitement, that isn’t what he found to be most successful. Instead he writes that the coaches were “quiet, even reserved” and that they “listened far more than they talked.” Rather than giving inspirational speeches, these coaches “spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments.” These coaches had “an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customizing each message to each student’s personality.” Daniel Coyle calls these coaches “talent whispers.”

Now get out there and play some chess!

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Fabiano Caruana was homeschooled and is really good at chess. Like Bobby Fischer good.

About Ethan Demme

Ethan Demme is the Chairman and CEO of Demme Learning and is passionate about building lifelong learners. Ethan is an elected member of the board of supervisors in East Lampeter Township, PA. He has never backed down from a challenge, especially if it's outdoors, and is currently into climbing big mountains and other endurance sports. An active member of his local community, Ethan is a well-socialized homeschool graduate who holds a B.A. in Communication Arts from Bryan College.

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