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The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent or Practice

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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What is greatness and how do people get there? Is greatness born or made? Is greatness the result of talent or practice? Few other questions have caused such intense debate, controversy, and diversity of opinions. The heights of human accomplishment have always fascinated us, and for good reason. The striving for greatness is a fundamental human drive, and without it we would be bereft of some of our most valuable cultural products. How we conceptualize greatness and its developmental trajectory has important implications for education, business, and society— which makes it all the more important that we make an effort to understand all the many complex, nuanced factors contributing to its emergence.

Greatness eludes precise definition, and historically it has been approached in different ways. In ancient times, greatness had spiritual connotations, and geniuses were viewed as divine. Kant thought talent was an integral ingredient of the emergence of greatness, as geniuses use their natural talents to produce something original and exemplary (Kant, 1790/1952). According to Kant, since genius was inborn, it cannot be taught; it can only be imitated by inspired non-geniuses. The English dramatist John Dryden echoed Kant’s sentiment, declaring, “genius must be born, and never can be taught” (Dryden, 1693/1885, p. 60).

Since the beginning of this debate, both extremes have been represented. Sir Joshua Reynolds, an influential 18th century British painter, warned his students at the Royal Academy that

You must have no dependence on your genius. If you have great talents, industry will improve them; if you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their deficiency. Nothing is denied to well directed labour; nothing is to be obtained without it. Not to enter into metaphysical discussions on the nature or essence of genius, I will venture to assert, that assiduity unabated by difficulty, and a dispo- sition eagerly directed to the object of its pursuit, will produce effects similar to those which some call the result of natural powers. (Reynolds, 1966, p. 37)

While it seemed everyone had an opinion, the topic started receiving scientific treatment with the publication of Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius in 1869. Based on his analysis of eminent lineages, Galton, who was Charles Darwin’s cousin and was greatly influenced by Darwin’s ideas, argued that genius is primarily born. While Galton acknowledged the importance of passion, zeal, and persistence, he argued that regardless of environment, those with exemplary natural abilities inevitably rise to the top (Galton, 1874). This idea didn’t go unchallenged. Alphonse de Candolle (1873) showed evidence for the importance of environmental factors, finding that eminent scientists from Western civilization tended to do their best work under particular political, economic, social, cultural, and religious circumstances. However, while de Candolle’s results showed the importance of environmental conditions on the average population, his data did little to explain individual differences within a population.

The early behaviorists, including B. F. Skinner and John Watson, emphasized conditioning. No doubt biased by his particular theoretical position on learning and behavior, Watson made the following bold claim:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even a beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years. (Watson, 1930, p. 82)

Regardless of the veracity of this bold assertion, at least Watson was honest that more data were needed on this topic! The advent of cognitive psychology brought an emphasis on expertise acquisition as the main factor underlying differences in elite performance. Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon and William Chase suggested that a decade of intense work and apprenticeship is required to become an expert in chess (Chase & Simon, 1973). This has become known as “the 10-year rule.” K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues have extended this research in a number of domains, including medicine, professional writing, music, art, math, and sports (Ericsson, Charness, Feltovich, & Hoffman, 2006). Researchers operating under the expertise performance framework argue that greatness is largely the result of a large amount of domain-specific knowledge, acquired through many thousands of hours of deliberate practice where one is constantly striving to learn from feedback and push beyond his or her limits (Colvin, 2010; Coyle, 2009; Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993; Syed, 2010).

While deliberate practice is certainly important, it’s unlikely to be the whole story. Even though the most cited and well-known philosophers and psychologists of all time were those who took extreme views on key debates of their time, including the nature–nurture debate, more moderate, integrative stances are more likely to be correct (Simonton, 1976, 2000a). In only the past quarter century, scientists across numerous fields—such as behavioral genetics, neuroscience, developmental psychology, personality psychology, and positive psychology— have amassed a large body of empirical findings that suggest the origins of greatness are far more complex than any single approach will capture (Marcus, 2012; Shenk, 2011; Kaufman, 2013). Things are often not what they seem.

Take the practice side of the debate. Many studies looking at experts suffer from a restricted range: Those without the requisite abilities have already been weeded out of the competition, so those skills will no longer be predictive of performance. What happens when you look at a random selection of the population? While deliberate practice may be an important contributor to expertise, is it also sufficient to carry just anyone all the way to greatness?

Recent research suggests it’s not. David Z. Hambrick and colleagues found that deliberate practice explained about 30% of the variation in performance in the two most widely studied domains in expertise research– chess and music (Hambrick et al., 2013). On the one hand, this is a very impressive amount of variation explained. Clearly, deliberate practice matters a lot, perhaps trumping any other single personal characteristic. But at the same time, most of the variation was left unexplained by other personal and environmental factors.

But if we dig even deeper, we can see more complications. What is the genetic contribution to the willingness to practice in the first place? While passion and persistence are certainly important for greatness, where do these characteristics come from (Cordova & Lepper, 1996; Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, Michael, & Kelly, 2007; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Kaufman, 2009, Vallerand et al., 2003)? Behavioral geneticists have discovered that virtually all psychological dispositions have a heritable basis (Turkheimer, 2000). Therefore, motivation and the ability to persevere and persist in the face of obstacles are likely influenced (although not completely determined) by genetic factors, which are always interacting with environmental factors.

Another complication is that there seem to be notable exceptions to the 10-year rule (Simonton, 1994, 2009a). For one, there exist prodigies and savants who seem to display extraordinary ability, even at an expert level, well before the requisite 10 years (Feldman & Goldsmith, 1991; Feldman & Morelock, 2011; Rutsatz & Urbach, 2012; Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2011; Treffert, 2011; Winner, 1997). In some cases, such as the savant who sits down at the piano and starts playing tunes, talent seems to emerge without any deliberate practice whatsoever!

What has become clear is that the 10-year rule is not actually a rule, but an average with significant variation around the mean. In fact, in some domains within the arts and sciences, those with the greatest lifetime productivity and highest levels of achieved eminence required the least amount of time to acquire the requisite expertise (Simonton, 1991a, 1991b, 1992, 1997, 1999). However, there are some fields, such as creative writing, where there doesn’t appear to be an early advantage to achieving greatness (Kaufman & Gentile, 2002), and if anything there may require on average an additional 10 years after professional-level expertise is acquired to achieve greatness (Kaufman & Kaufman, 2007). An even further complication is that too much expertise can be detrimental to greatness. Research shows that experts are at risk of becoming overly specialized and inflexible in their thinking (Frensch & Sternberg, 1992), although the disadvantages of over-training can be overcome by acquiring expertise across numerous, diverse domains (Simonton, 2000a).

Now consider the talent side of the debate. Many popular writers on this topic treat talent as if it means that some people are born with a skill, fully formed at birth. While psychologists acknowledge that many different traits such as IQ, creativity, talents, interests, and personality dimensions influence greatness, no sensible scientist claims that any of these traits are completely deterministic. Scientists will be the first to admit that no trait comes fully formed at birth, and there is plenty of variation unaccounted for to leave room for late bloomers and prodigies who burn out fast (Kaufman, 2008; Protzko & Kaufman, 2010). Also, no sensible scientist would argue that just because a trait has a genetic contribution, it is immutable. Something can have a very large heritability coefficient and still be very amenable to change. As it turns out, the way genes influence greatness is much more nuanced and fascinating.

For one, the many traits that make up greatness, such as creativity and leadership, don’t appear to operate in an additive manner, but appear to require the full configuration of many interacting genes for their manifestation (Simonton, 1999a; Lykken, 1982; Waller et al., 1993). Also, the pathway from genes to talent to greatness is often very nuanced and complex. Some of the most well-known behavioral geneticists recognize that it’s time to go beyond heritability estimates. A currently active area of research is the study of epigenetics, and how the many interacting genes that make up any trait are differentially activated depending on the environment (Johnson, 2007; Turkheimer, 2012; Johnson, Turkheimer, Gottesman, & Bouchard, 2009; Moore, 2003; Ridley, 2003).

Genes pull us subtly, and not so subtly, in various directions and influence our decisions. The “multiplier effect”—in which initially small, genetic advantages can compound into large, observed differences—can operate in a multitude of ways (Ceci, Barnett, & Kanaya, 2003). The environment can cause exaggerated differences, such as when children pick the taller kid for the basketball team in elementary school, but the slightly more talented and passionate musician can also make decisions throughout his or her life that compound into larger differences down the road.

Also, many seemingly environmental effects, such as parenting style, have turned out to have large genetic components. As one example, the direct influence of parenting has been shown to be overrated, as the apparent association between parental phenotype and offspring phenotype is often the result of shared parent–child geno- type rather than a direct effect of parenting causing their children’s behaviors (Harris, 1999; Pinker, 2003). Certainly parenting matters. Water still has an essential influence on fish, even if it doesn’t explain any of the differences between fish. It turns out that parenting is important for child development in ways different than originally assumed. Genes influence parenting because, like any other behavior, parenting behaviors are influenced by genes. Parents play a crucial role in supporting the expression of genes, as do peers and teachers. The importance of environmental support is most striking in the context of disadvantaged homes, where genes account for substantially less variation in cognitive ability compared to socioeconomically advantaged homes (Tucker-Drob, Rhemtulia, Harden, Turkheimer, & Fask, 2010).

Further nuance is introduced when one looks across domains of greatness. Many different traits contribute to greatness, in differing degrees and combinations depending on the domain (Simonton, 2009b). Athletic greatness surely draws on a different set of skills, dispositions, and cognitive abilities than academic/scientific greatness. And both forms of greatness differ from what is required for artistic and performance/ entertainment-related greatness. Even within domains there are different skills and dispositions required. Think about the difference between poets and science writers— both are writers but seem to come from a different species sometimes!

The complexities don’t stop there. By definition, very few people reach excellence in a domain, and no two paths are exactly the same. Some people actually invent a whole new path of deliberate practice for others to follow! The fact that two people can obtain the same result through a very different route opens up a new can of questions. Do all domains require creativity for greatness? Can someone, such as the gold-medal winner of the 100-meter dash, be great simply by running faster than all other competitors that year? Likewise, some domains (such as mathematics) may demand more domain-specific talent, whereas for others (such as dart throwing), intense deliberate practice may play more of a role. Must all paths to greatness require extraordinary talent? Also, it can be tricky differentiating expert performance from great performance. What’s the dividing line? Is greatness reserved only for the gold-medal winner of the 100-meter dash, or is the runner-up great as well?

And that’s just talent and practice. What about the full range of life experiences and early developmental experiences— many of which are quite harsh and traumatic —that shapes drive and passion (Ludwig, 2003; Simonton, 2000b, 2009a, 2009b)? Where does inspiration come from (Thrash & Elliot, 2003)? What’s the influence of mindset, stress, and stereotype threat on cognition and performance (Aronson & Juarez, 2012; Beilock, 2011; Dweck, 2007)? What about so-called learning disabilities, mental illnesses, and all different kinds of minds—can’t they be an advantage (Grandin, 2010; Kaufman, 2013)? What about opportunities and just sheer luck (Gladwell, 2008)? How do all those factors contribute to greatness? Lots of questions. These are all thorny issues that must be dealt with when scientifically studying greatness.

The topic of greatness is one of the most fascinating in all of psychology and has relevance for every single human being on this planet. As it turns out, the truth is far more nuanced, complex, and fascinating than any one viewpoint or paradigm can possibly reveal. It’s time to go beyond talent or practice. Greatness is much, much more.

Which was the spirit behind my edited volume, The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent or Practice, available for purchase today on Amazon. The volume doesn’t include all the answers, but at least points out the many complexities when scientifically investigating this topic. My aim in assembling the stellar list of contributors was to put together a well-balanced review of the latest research and thinking on greatness that could serve as a valuable resource, not just for scientists but for anyone who wants to get a broader, more complete understanding of greatness. Hopefully this volume also stimulates thought and leads to new, testable hypotheses and research programs.

Table of Contents

Preface (Excerpted above)
Scott Barry Kaufman, New York University

Part One: Perspectives

1. Greatness as a Manifestation of Experience-Producing Drives

Wendy Johnson, University of Edinburgh

2. If Innate Talent Doesn’t Exist, Where do the Data Disappear?

Dean Keith Simonton, University of California at Davis

3. Where Does Greatness Come From: A Treasure Hunt Without a Map

Samuel D. Mandelman, Teachers College, Columbia University and Elena L. Grigorenko, Teachers College, Columbia University, Yale University, Moscow State University

4. Whither Cognitive Talent?: Understanding High Ability, its Development, Relevance and Furtherance

Heiner Rindermann, TU Chemnitz, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, Cornell University

5. Young and Old, Novice and Expert: How We Evaluate Creative Art Can Reflect Practice or Talent

James C. Kaufman, California State University at San Bernardino, John Baer, Rider University, and Lauren E. Skidmore, California State University at San Bernardino

6. Prodigies, Passion, Persistence, and Pretunement: Musings on the Biological
Bases of Talent

Martha J. Morelock, Vanderbilt University

7. Savant Syndrome: A Compelling Case for Innate Talent

Darold A. Treffert, University of Wisconsin

8. Mindsets and Greatness: How Beliefs About Intelligence Can Create A
Preference for Growth Over Defensiveness

Paul A. O’Keefe, New York University and CUNY Graduate Center

Part Two: Debate

9. Giftedness and Evidence for Reproducibly Superior Performance: An Account
Based on the Expert Performance Framework (REPRINT)

K. Anders Ericsson, Roy W. Roring, and Kiruthiga Nandagopal, Florida State University

10. Yes, Giftedness (aka Françoys Gagné, Université du Québec à Montréal

11. Gagné is Omitting Troublesome Information so as to Present More Convincing Accusations: His Accusations Along with My Own Exploration of the Evidence for Innate Talent

K. Anders Ericsson, Florida State University

Part Three: Domains

12. Scientific Talent: Nature Shaped by Nurture

Gregory Feist, San José State University

13. The Promise of Mathematical Precocity

Linda E. Brody, Johns Hopkins University

14. Memory Expertise or Experts’ Memory?

John Wilding, University of London

15. Practice and Talent in Acting

Helga Noice and Tony Noice, Elmhurst College

16. The Rage to Master: The Decisive Role of Talent in the Visual Arts (UPDATED REPRINT)

Ellen Winner, Boston College and Harvard Project Zero; Jennifer E. Drake, Boston College

17. Music in Our Lives

Jane Davidson and Robert Faulkner, University of Western Australia

18. Creating Champions: The Development of Expertise in Sports

Paul R. Ford, Nicola J. Hodges, and A. Mark Williams, University of British
Columbia

Epilogue: Michael Howe Remembered

Jane Davidson, University of Western Australia; John Sloboda, Keele University; and Stephen Ceci, Cornell University

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Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. barth 1:40 pm 05/22/2013

    Scott, having read your posts in the past, and having noted the care you exercise in your assertions—you’re always sure to supply ample supporting references for any conclusion you express—I was startled to see what I consider a clearly false statement in this post, and especially surprised that it occupied a position of extreme prominence.

    I refer to the bold claim in your very first paragraph, “The heights of human accomplishment have always fascinated us, and for good reason. The striving for greatness is a fundamental human drive, and without it we would be bereft of some of our most valuable cultural products. “

    What???? “The striving for greatness is a fundamental human drive”????????

    Scott, perhaps you have led an exceptionally charmed life where everyone you’ve encountered was busily working towards Olympic gold or the Nobel, which might account for your skewed assessment. But my own observations of a more representative sample of the human species is that not only is the striving for greatness not a fundamental human drive, but it’s a drive not even present in more than a small minority of people.

    Scott, grab a subway-train full of people and interview every one of them. In what “domains” are they now pursuing, or have they ever pursued greatness? Most people are quite content to pursue “ordinariness”. They might ADMIRE greatness, they might be FASCINATED by greatness. But pursue it themselves because it’s a “fundamental human drive”? I think not, and I’d be amazed if you can supply your usual references in support of THAT contention!!!!!

    P.S. Scott, I also wanted to point out a small error you made, when you said, “Also, many seemingly environmental effects, such as parenting style, have turned out to have large genetic components. As one example, the direct influence of parenting has been shown to be underrated, as the apparent association between parental phenotype and offspring phenotype is often the result of shared parent–child geno- type rather than a direct effect of parenting causing their children’s behaviors.”

    Clearly, you mean the direct influence of parenting has been shown to be overrated, not underrated.

    Link to this
  2. 2. sbkaufman 3:49 pm 05/22/2013

    Hi barth, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think you make a good point. However, research on Self-Determination Theory by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan suggests that competence is a fundamental human drive. Now, you could sensibly argue that competence and greatness differ in level of achievement– greatness being the highest level of competence– and that more people strive for competence than greatness. I’m open to that possibility.

    Your subway example is really interesting! I wouldn’t take your hypothetical finding as necessarily negating my statement, however. It could very well be that most of the people on the subway have been told their entire lives that they don’t have what it takes to be great, or they may not have found that domain that really speaks to them, and which inspires them to be great. But I reckon it’d be possible to activate their inner drive for competence through support, encouragement, and inspiration.

    Regarding your p.s.: good catch! I’ve changed the word “underrated” to “overrated” in this post. I’ll also see if I can make the change in future editions of the book. Best, Scott

    Link to this
  3. 3. Nick Talent 11:52 pm 05/22/2013

    Fascinating topic.

    Working with talent, teams, and individuals, and using an objective tool (developed from MRI research) into identifying talent, I can only add from experience that greatness is made EASIER when built in areas of natural talent.

    It seems to me similar to the parable of building on rock, rather than sand.

    Here’s my take on talent for what it’s worth:

    http://www.talent-technologies.com/new/2011/08/what-is-talent/

    Link to this
  4. 4. marclevesque 6:26 pm 06/15/2013

    Striving for competence and striving for greatness do not seem like the same things ?

    Link to this

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