But a host of research that has been done in the last few decades has created serious doubts about the degree to which talent (in the sense of natural abilities) actually exist and even more serious doubts about the degree to which early differences in performance are good predictors of top performance. I'll briefly refer to some relevant publications:
- Intelligence and how to get it (by Richard Nisbett): This book shows the evidence for the statement that intelligence is something you can acquire: 1) There is no fixed value for the heritability of intelligence. Environment can play a major role in differences in intelligences between individuals and groups, 2) Heritability places no limits whatsoever on modifiability of intelligence -for anybody. Intelligence is developable and schools can make children smarter, for instance by using computer-assisted teaching and certain types of cooperative learning. 3) Genes play no role at all in race differences in IQ, environment differences do. 4) Believing that intelligence is under your control is a great start of developing intelligence, 5) Certain habits and values in cultures can be highly beneficial for learning and developing intelligence, 6) Parents can do a lot to increase the intelligence and academic achievement of children (both biological and didactic factors matter.
- What is intelligence? (by James R. Flynn). This book is about the so-called 'Flynn effect' which refers to the steady rise of the average IQ test scores over generations. It is an effect seen in most parts of the world, although at greatly varying rates. It is named after James R. Flynn, who documented it extensively. This increase has been continuous and roughly linear from the earliest days of testing to the present. The rise in intelligence is so rapid that it disproves the idea that genetic factors limit the development of IQ.
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (by Carol Dweck). Carol Dweck has shown through her research that people who see intelligence as unchangeable (a so-called fixed mindset) develop a tendency to focus on proving that they have that characteristic instead of focusing on the process of learning. This disregard of the learning process hinders them in the development of their learning and in their performance. This means that the wrong convictions about intelligence can make smart people dumb! But there is an alternative mindset. When people view intelligence as a potential that can be developed (a growth mindset) this leads to the tendency to put effort into learning and performing and into developing strategies that enhance learning and long term accomplishments. Message: it pays off to help children and students invest in a view of intelligence as something that can be developed.
- Whistling Vivaldi (by Claude Steele). Social psychologists Claude Steele, Joshua Aronson and others have discovered the phenomenon of 'stereotype vulnerability', which is the tendency to expect, perceive, and be influenced by negative stereotypes about one’s social category (ethnic group, gender, age category, etc.). Steele and Aronson showed in several experiments that black students performed more poorly on standardized tests than white students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, black students performed better and equivalently with white students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one's behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. These experiments have been followed with several other social categories with comparable results.
- Anders Ericsson is one of the leading experts on expertise development. He has demonstrated through research that building top expertise is more than anything else a matter of long and repeated deliberate practice. Deliberate practice stretches you. If you'll be able to do deliberate practice, you'll benefit by becoming better. Especially if you'll be able to keep it up for extremely long periods of time. The amazing thing is that this statement is valid for a wide range of domains of top performance (music, sport, science, chess, you name it). Deliberate practice is something very specific. There are at least three key elements to deliberate practice: 1) Setting specific goals, 2) Obtaining immediate feedback, 3) Concentrating as much on technique as on outcome. Much research has shown that top performance in a wide array of fields is always based on an extreme amount of deliberate practice, as a rule of thumb researchers estimate a figure of 10000 hours. The effect of deliberate practice is cumulative. You can compare it with a road you're traveling on. Any distance you have travelled on that road counts. So, if you have started at an early age, this will lead to an advantage over someone who started later. There are several books which have described Ericsson's work, such as Talent is overrated (2008), The Talent Code (2009) and The Genius in All of Us (2010.
- Social psychologists Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg did an interesting series of experiments involving priming. Priming means that subjects are subtly and often unconsciously activated to feel, do, or think in a certain way before performing a task. Dijksterhuis and Van Knippenberg wrote an article in which they described 4 experiments described which showed that priming the stereotype of professors or the trait 'intelligent' enhanced participants' performance on a scale measuring general knowledge. Also, priming the stereotype of soccer hooligans or the trait 'stupid' reduced participants' performance on a general knowledge scale. Apparently, we can surprisingly easily be brought into an intelligent state of mind.
- The Brain That Changes Itself ( by Norman Doidge) is about neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the process of how the brain continuously changes as a consequence of experiences. Neuroplasticity goes so far that it is possible for the brain to relocate brain activity associated to a certain function from one area to another, for instance in the case of brain damage. The brain can physically 'rewire' itself through adulthood, albeit in a more limited way in comparison to the process that occurs during childhood. Neuroplasticity is something which we can consciously influence. Whatever we focus our attention on has its consequences in terms of how the brain changes. That is why it may be wise to make deliberate choices about what you focus your attention on. Neuroplasticity research shows our characteristics are less carved in stone than we tend to think. Dysfunctions are often less definitive than we have long thought. We can consciously keep on developing our brain and our functioning in general. And we do. Everything we do and think shapes how we further develop. Every time we consciously focus our attention, we change structurally.
- Research by Tracey L. Shors and colleagues shows that thousands of new cells are generated in the adult brain every day (neurogenesis), particularly in the hippocampus, a structure involved in learning and memory. Within a couple of weeks, most of those neurons will die, unless the animal is challenged to learn something new. Learning -especially that involving a great deal of effort (effortful learning) - can keep these new neurons alive. Although the neurons do not seem to be necessary of learning, they may play a role in predicting the future based on past experience. Enhancing neurogenesis might therefore help slow cognitive decline and keep healthy brains fit.
Also read: 25 Quotes about Expertise and Expert Performance