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My interest in the science of talent has a personal backstory. By the age of three, I’d had 21 ear infections and after an operation to remove fluid from my ears, it took me an extra step to process speech. To help me catch up with my peers, I was diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder. I repeated third grade. I was sent to a special school for children with learning disabilities. I was fed a steady stream of low expectations.
One day, when I was 14, everything changed. A new teacher took me aside and asked me why I was still in special education. With no prior expectations – seeing only the child in front of her – she took notice of my boredom and frustration. I remember that moment vividly, because for the first time in my life, my mind was suddenly brimming with possibility as I wondered: what am I actually capable of achieving?
As a first step, I decided to take up the cello. I approached my grandfather – an accomplished cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra – and we immediately got to work on my goal to join the high school orchestra. Right away, I became immersed in practising. Something about the cello, and the structure of classical music, seemed to gel with my brain. After just a few months of focused practice, I successfully joined the orchestra and even beat out players who had been playing years earlier.
Years later, here I am, a psychologist on the faculty at New York University, with books and scientific papers about intelligence and creativity, an MPhil from Cambridge and a PhD from Yale. Were my talents always present but unrecognised or was I just a late bloomer? Society and education tend to hold the view that talent is innate, or at the very least has to be developed while young. While my personal experiences suggest otherwise, I must admit, I’m just a single anecdote. Perhaps I’m just an outlier. So what is the evidence? What does the science actually tell us about talent?
One thing that has emerged clearly from the research is that talent and practice are far more intertwined than originally thought. A wealth of research conducted by cognitive psychologist K Anders Ericsson and colleagues has demonstrated that a deep, well-connected database of domain-specific expertise makes a significant contribution to elite performance. They have found that the breadth and depth of expertise is typically acquired through 10 years of deliberate practice, where a motivated individual constantly strives to learn from feedback, and engages in targeted exercises provided by a supportive, knowledgable mentor to push beyond his or her limits. Expert performance researchers have investigated this “10-year rule” of expertise acquisition in a wide range of fields, including medicine, professional writing, music, art, maths, physics and sports.
While deliberate practice is a large part of the story of success, it is unlikely to be the entire story. After all, what contributes to the motivation to practise in the first place? Why do some people seem to learn particular material faster than others? How come even when we take two people with the same amount of deliberate practice, there are still differences in their performance? In a recent study, David Z Hambrick and colleagues found that deliberate practice only explained 30% of the differences in performance ratings in chess and music, leaving most of the variation unexplained by other factors.
In recent years it has become clear that the 10-year rule is not actually a rule, but an average, with substantial variation around the mean. Exceptions to the 10-year rule have been found across the arts, sciences, sports and leadership. Some people take much longer than 10 years to become an expert, whereas others get to the same point in far less time. For instance, four-time Ironman triathlete world champion Chrissie Wellington didn’t compete professionally until the age of 30, but won her first world championship less than a year later.
These findings suggest that a concept such as talent may be required to help explain the development of high performance. But what is talent? Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton argues that talent is best thought of as any package of personal characteristics that accelerates the acquisition of expertise, or enhances performance given a certain amount of expertise. In other words, talent allows a person to “get better faster” or “get more bang for the buck” out of a given amount of expertise.
Of course, whether a unique package of personal characteristics counts as a talent depends on the domain. But even talent within a single domain can be individualised. People can mix and match their own unique package of characteristics in various ways to express the same talent. For instance, consider that the person with extremely high levels of perseverance and motivation can offset other characteristics that may be less than stellar by comparison, such as a poor memory. What’s important is the total package, not the precise mix of personal characteristics.
But how does talent develop? Unfortunately, many people have an overly simplistic understanding of talent. They view talent as innate, ready to spring forth given the right conditions. But this is not how talent operates. Gareth Bale wasn’t born with the ability to score memorable goals. Talents aren’t prepackaged at birth, but take time to develop.
Yet it’s also well known that none of these personal characteristics – from mathematical ability to courage – are completely determined by genes. Genetically influenced doesn’t mean genetically determined. Although genes code for proteins, and proteins are the building blocks of everything we do, they are far removed from anything we would recognise as talents. One of the most important discoveries in recent years is that the environment triggers gene expression. Every step we take alters the configuration of all the cells in our body. As Matt Ridley notes: “Genes are the mechanisms of experience.” Talent develops through the interaction of genes and the environment. Talent and practice are complementary, not at odds.
One key to this mystery is recognising that tiny genetic and environmental advantages multiply over the years. The kid who is slightly taller than the others, or who can read just a bit better than others, will get picked first for the basketball team, or put into a slightly more advanced reading group. Over time, the ability level of the kid who was selected for advanced instruction and the kid who wasn’t will widen. Of course, the other side of the coin is also possible, where a slight genetic or environmental disadvantage can lead a person to avoid situations where that difficulty would be revealed. Yet those are precisely the situations that would allow the person to learn how to compensate, and learn and grow. These “multiplier effects” have been investigated from a number of vantage points, including Urie Bronfenbrenner and Stephen Ceci’s bio-ecological model of abilities and chaos models in which tiny differences can lead to large differences at a later state in development.
Also frequently unrecognised, some characteristics may not even appear until a growth spurt in adolescence. So one characteristic, such as extraversion, can develop early, while another characteristic, such as speech production, may lag – which may appear awkward until the two come into harmony. The uneven development of personal characteristics ca n delay the onset of a talent, making it eventually appear to come out of nowhere.
As an analogy, think of genes like players in an orchestra. There has to be a lot of syncing for the overall symphony to sound beautiful. The players have to be in sync not only with one another in their own instrumental section, but all the different sections have to coordinate with one another. Not only that, but if the orchestra plays in a totally unresponsive environment – for example, an audience of Justin Bieber fans – the players will be discouraged from further practising and playing. Finally, the conductor is essential to this syncing up process, helping to nurture, support, and coordinate the various sections so that the overall symphony sounds beautiful.
Of course, we aren’t just passive recipients of our environment. All of us actively make choices, and these choices add up over the years. According to “experience producing drive theory”, genes indirectly influence the development of talent by motivating us to seek out experiences that in turn will develop the neural brain structures and physiology that supports even higher levels of talent. In Wendy Johnson’s formulation of the theory, this applies to all areas of individual differences, including motivation, interest, attentional focus, personality, attitude, values and quirky characteristics unique to each person. Genes indirectly pull our attention in certain directions and take us away from processing other information in the environment. We all differ in what captivates our attention, and that is determined by a lifetime of mutually reinforcing experiences as nature dances with nurture.
This more nuanced understanding of the development of talent has striking implications for our attempts to nurture talent. For one, a much wider range of personal characteristics, including conative and volitional characteristics have to be taken into consideration when judging whether a person will benefit from a particular training regime. At any moment in time, it’s possible for a talent to be absent because the person lacks interest, is feeling uninspired, or is not willing to put in the work necessary to develop the talent.
Also, since it takes time for genes to sync with one another and with the environment, some talents will be overlooked at any one moment. The talent a child displays may even transform into another talent as he or she develops and different genes become active. As Dean Keith Simonton points out, a talented artist may become a talented scientist, as different personal characteristics “kick in” at different times throughout development.
Of course, early bloomers do exist, and should be nurtured. Prodigies dazzle us with their virtuoso piano performances, quick and efficient chess moves, and imaginative paintings. While their performance would surely be impressive at the age of 40, prodigies typically reach adult levels of performance before the age of 10. These early bloomers become attracted to a domain early, and learning then accelerates rapidly. When engaged in their domain of interest, prodigies tend to focus like a laser beam, entering a state of “flow”, in which the task is effortless and enjoyable, and time recedes in the background.
Take academic prodigy Michael Kearney. Michael started talking at age four months and reading at eight months. He soaked up the elementary curriculum by the age of four, entered college at the age of six, and graduated at 10. His father, Kevin Kearney, observed that it was as though his son had a “rage to learn”. Psychologist Martha J Morelock, who has worked with prodigies including Michael, argues: “The kind of intense engagement these children exhibit is a reflection of a brain-based need to learn – a craving for intellectual stimulation matching their cognitive requirements in the same way that the physical body craves food and oxygen.”
While this is certainly part of the prodigy phenomenon, other factors undoubtedly make a contribution. Based on detailed interviews with a number of prodigies and their family members, David Henry Feldman and Lynn Goldsmith concluded that the prodigy phenomenon is the result of a lucky coincidence of factors. This includes the existence of a domain matched to the prodigy’s proclivities and interests. But it also requires a willingness to put in the hours necessary to develop the talent, availability of the domain in the prodigy’s geographical location, healthy social/emotional development, family aspects (birth order and gender), education and preparation (both informal and formal), cultural support, public recognition for achievement, access to training resources, material support from family members, at least one parent completely committed to the prodigy’s development, family traditions that favour the prodigy’s development and historical forces, events, and trends.
A closer look at the development of talent allows us to put things in perspective. While early bloomers exist, we shouldn’t dismiss the seemingly untalented. Life is not a zero-sum game. Just because one person displays talent early on doesn’t mean that others can’t burst on to the scene years later. Which is why it’s an egregious error for “experts” (such as parents or teachers) to suggest limits on what people can ultimately achieve.
Instead, we should encourage everyone to make contact with as many domains as possible, and be on the lookout for domains that activate the “flow” state. We should be aware of the fact that once anyone, whatever the age, finds the domain that best matches his or her unique package of personal characteristics, the learning process can proceed extremely rapidly as the individual becomes inspired to excel. This requires keeping the door open and instituting a dynamic talent development process where the only admission criterion is readiness for engagement. The latest science suggests we are all capable of extraordinary performance in some domain of expertise; the key is finding the mode of expression that best allows your unique package of personal characteristics to shine.