Source: RichardGiles_WikimediaCommons

Whether you care about sports or not, you have probably encountered Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who just won his third Olympic Gold Medal in the 100m dash.  He is a tremendous physical presence who also has worked extraordinarily hard at his sport. 

When looking at the performance of a world-class performer like Usain Bolt, it is easy to ask about the role of talent in highly skilled performance.  For the past few decades, there has been a tension in the research literature between the importance of practice in creating highly skilled performance and the importance of innate talent or aptitude in a domain.

Researchers like Anders Ericsson have explored the importance of deliberate practice in achieving expert performance.  This work demonstrates clearly that the harder you work at a skill the better you get at it.  Hard work is clearly crucial.  No matter how much natural ability anyone has for something, they will not achieve a high level of skill without putting in time and effort to improve.

The question is whether talent matters.  That is, if your goal is to be among the best in the world at something, does talent play a role on top of effort?

This issue was explored in a paper in the July, 2016 issue of Psychological Science by Matthew Makel, Harrison Kell, Davd Lubinski, Martha Putallaz, and Camilla Benbow.  They explored the role of academic aptitude in long-term success in professions that involve thinking.  This paper presents an analysis similar to one done by several of these authors in a paper in 2013

In this paper, the authors analyzed the long-term career accomplishments of students who were identified in the Duke Talent Identification Program.  This program gives gifted seventh-grade students (who are roughly 13-years-old) the chance to take the SAT.  Those students who score highly (above 700 out of a possible 800 on the Math test or above 630 out of 800 on the Verbal test) are included.  This project tracks these individuals over the long-term.

The researchers identified a sample of 250 individuals from this program who took the SAT between 1981 and 1994.  The average age of the individuals in the sample was 40 years.  Most of the participants in this sample were Caucasian or Asian. The researchers then determined whether these individuals went on to get advanced degrees, to hold patents, and explored the professions they went into.

The results from this sample were quite similar to those obtained in the earlier sample I mentioned from the 2013 paper by some of the same authors.  In this sample, 37% obtained PhDs, About 8% had tenured faculty positions at universities. Overall, 39% of the sample published at least one paper in an academic journal, 9% held patents, and 2% had written books.  All of these percentages are much higher than the equivalent percentages of accomplishment in the population overall.

Another element of this analysis was that the type of excellence participants displayed at the age of 13 influenced their later accomplishments.  Those who excelled early on the SAT Math test generally went on to careers like math, science, engineering, and medicine.  Those who excelled early on the SAT Verbal test often pursued careers in the arts, humanities, and careers in writing.  That is, the excellence they displayed was related to their early talents.

What are the implications of work like this?

This work suggests that having talent and then working hard to nurture that talent is a good recipe for high-level success.  If your goal is to be the best in the world at something, then hard work matters, but talent matters as well. 

That said, hard work does matter.  Talent without hard work yields no results.  Perhaps more importantly, lots of people who do not display early academic aptitude still go on to achieve high levels of success in fields that involve thinking.  There are lots of college faculty, article authors, and patent holders who did have the same level of early talent as the individuals in this sample. 

A key lesson from this work, then, is that talent and hard work both matter.  It is easy to take the research on the role of deliberate practice on expertise and to blame anyone who has not achieved a high level of skill.  Had they only worked harder, they would have been able to perform better.  But, talent matters as well.  Just because someone works hard, does not mean that they will necessarily achieve world-class performance in a domain.

And on top of all of this, many people do not live in circumstances that support the kinds of deliberate practice that lead to expertise.  Children who grow up in poverty may not have access individuals and institutions that can help them practice.  Indeed, these individuals may have to go to work in order to feed themselves and their families at ages when other people have the luxury to develop their expertise. 

Finally, while I have talked about early talent, I have not said that this talent is necessarily innate.  Looking at samples like those in the Duke Talent Identification Program involves individuals who are tested at the age of 13.  By that age, students have had a large number of experiences that affect their performance.  So, even the measurement of talent at a relatively young age involves a combination of some genetic factors as well as an early environment that nurtured early talents.