My view is that people who are born into a reasonably good educational infrastructure get exposed repeatedly — albeit briefly — to lots of the activities which might intrigue them. If the activity is going to click with them, it has the chance. To borrow the initial example, most high schools and junior high schools have chess clubs and not just in the wealthiest countries. Virtually everyone is put in touch with math, music, kite-flying, poetry, and so on at relatively young ages.
The idea of taking an economics class in college, or picking up some economics literature, strikes most educated people at some point, even if they squash the notion like a bug. If there is some other Paul Samuelson-quality-would-have-been who didn’t become an economist, perhaps he preferred some other avocation even more.
Billions of people are not exposed to quality economics, math, music, etc., but those people also don’t have the nutrition, the education, the infrastructure, or whatever, to excel at world class levels. The infrastructure and the exposure come together and in that sense we keep on mining the pool of potential talent. (Their only modal scenario to #1 for these individuals is an entirely different life altogether; mere additional exposure won’t do it.)
Two scenarios militate against my thesis. First, mistreated savants may not receive the necessary exposure to the activity. I am very much a believer in the potential productivity of mistreated savants. Still, I believe they often do best when not trying to be pure #1 in some commonly contested, measurable area but rather by filling unusual and hard to specify niches in a broader production process and benefiting from the division of labor to an especially high degree.
Second, a large number of children are placed on medication at early ages. This may not eliminate their exposure to an activity in the literal sense, but it may stop them from responding to potential interests.
In sum, I believe that the odds that “the best (modal) chess player in the world” has never played chess is well under fifty percent but probably above ten percent.
But those are only a minuscule handful of the possible occupations and activities that human beings engage in. Take a look at the U.S. Census, which lists “over 21,000 industry and 31,000 occupation titles in alphabetical order.” I have little doubt that no one on earth is meaningfully exposed to more than a minute percentage of all of the possible things one can do with one’s life.
Nor do I think there’s any conceivable system in which people could be meaningfully exposed to more than a handful of possible careers. In most cases, you simply don’t know whether you’ll like a career or activity until you’ve put in at least several months to get acclimated to it and to build up some basic competence. This is true in either direction: plenty of people go to law school but end up years later disliking the practice of law, while plenty of people (I’d bet) fail to explore some activity that they’d actually like simply because it appears uninteresting or daunting at first glance. In any event, it’s just not possible to give someone six months’ exposure to 1,000 different careers.
As a result, there’s an inestimably large amount of human capital misallocation and misinvestment. Countless lawyers and doctors and bankers who complain about their work might have been perfectly happy as a lawn mower mechanic or as a beekeeper or as a chemist specializing in laundry detergent, but never had any inkling that they should have explored those careers.
I think about this sometimes in terms of the NBA. Obviously, when playing basketball it helps to be tall. And the tallest people, on average, are generally found in northern Europe. But basketball isn’t a popular sport in the Netherlands and Scandinavia so a tall, athletic young man (especially if he’s, say, 6′6″ rather than 7′1″) isn’t particularly likely to be seriously trained to play. In Spain basketball is popular so there’s a bunch of Spanish players. But if it were equally popular in northern Europe, I bet you’d see more Scandinavians in the NBA than Spaniards.
Somewhat similarly, if you look at top American basketball players they’re obviously mostly people of African descent. The country with the second-most players in the NBA is France, and ten-out-of-ten are black. There’s also players from the US Virgin Islands, St Vincent and Grenadines, the Dominican Republic, and guys like Thabo Sefolosha from Switzerland and Kelenna Azubuike, Luol Deng, and Pops Mensah-Bonsu from the UK. And yet relatively few Africans are playing in the league. Presumably that’s some combination of the sport not being popular in Africa, the recruiting infrastructure not existing in Africa, and the low standard of living retarding growth.
Tyler Cowen asks the question, “What are the odds that the best chess player in the world has never played chess?” It’s a great human capitalization question. But I have a related question, that Chuck Klosterman noted (I forget where this is): It’d be perfectly plausible for me to assert that the world’s best band is an as-yet unheard-of band playing in the rundown bars of Detroit; it would be somewhat less plausible but still believable that the world’s greatest writer is still an unpublished guy still trying to hack it; but it would be totally implausible for me to assert that the world’s best quarterback is not in the NFL.