What Goes Into the Development of Greatness?

A new book gives hints about what it takes to make it to the top.

Posted Jan 10, 2019

 Agnieszka Radwańska at 2008 US Open by Charlie Cowins (CC BY 2.0)
Source:  Agnieszka Radwańska at 2008 US Open by Charlie Cowins (CC BY 2.0)

What makes someone with early potential develop that talent in a way that results in high performance or greatness?

A new volume, The Psychology of High Performance: Developing Human Potential into Domain-Specific Talent, edited by Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, and Frank C. Worrell, addresses that question by examining outstanding performance across five different domains: academic disciplines (mathematics and psychology), arts production (culinary arts and drawing/painting), arts performance (dance and acting), professions (medicine, software engineering, and professional teams), and sport (golf and team sports).

The book was, in part, inspired by a famous study by Benjamin Bloom and colleagues in 1985, which retrospectively examined the trajectories of world-class athletes, artists, scholars and professionals. That work, the authors write, “remains a valid and elegant reporting of the developmental stages of instruction experienced by his study participants. What was missing ... is an explicit description of psychosocial dimensions of eminent achievement.”

The study of expertise has expanded in recent years to examine similarities and differences across multiple domains (see the Journal of Expertise), and this edited volume brings together scholars across various disciplines. Rena, Paula, and Frank kindly responded to three questions regarding their new book.

What have we learned since Bloom’s original contribution on the psychology of high performance?

Ironically, one of the major things that we have learned since Bloom’s (1985) study is how much he got correct. The importance of looking at talent within domains; providing the right resources both within and outside of school; the importance of the family, especially in the earliest years; the right teachers and mentors at particular stages on the developmental trajectory in a domain; and a community of learners are still key factors in the advancement of high performance.

Since 1985, we have since learned that psychosocial skills and insider knowledge interact with ability to enhance the likelihood of progress to the next level of talent development, and we do have some ideas about which psychosocial skills matter broadly across domains. 

We still need to identify psychosocial skills unique to domains and who is best placed to convey these skills and knowledge. Also, we have little to go on regarding developmental benchmarks for talent development, largely because we assume that present performance is the best predictor of future performance—but it may be that present performance is not the sole predictor. A better predictor may be the capacity to develop and maintain critical psychosocial skills.  For example, what happens to a talented individual who loses passion for the domain, stops practicing intensely, or is unable to focus?

Used with permission
Source: Used with permission

What are the commonalities for talent development when considering multiple domains?

All domains change over time in response to societal demands. For example, medicine has needed to increase sub-specialization and pay more attention in training protocols to interacting and communicating with patients. Aesthetics within fields of performance also change and as a result, preparation changes (witness that in the education of artists, the basic skill of drawing has become optional in the curriculum and preference is given to learning what you need to know to do the art you want to do).

Commonalities across talent development domains can be divided into several categories. The first is the personal category. In addition to domain-specific ability and creativity, passion, persistence in the face of failure or setbacks, and engaging in the work of the discipline or field over time are useful across domains. 

The second category is environmental. Social, emotional, and financial support are critical.  Even in domains where the tools or equipment that is required is relatively inexpensive, the resource of time is key, and time is dependent on a certain amount of fiscal resources. 

The third factor is chance, which involves both the personal and environmental. The individual developing talent needs to be on the lookout for opportunities and ready and willing to take up opportunities as they arise. There are a lot of talented individuals aiming for the top and typically there are more talented individuals than there are opportunities.

It is important to note that domains differ in important ways as well. For example, talent trajectories begin, peak, and end at different times. And within domains, there are early and late specialization fields, those that focus more on teamwork and others that are more individual, those that expect large commitments to education and those that do not, and those that require a great deal of disciplined or deliberate practice and those that require less.

The next steps for the field will be to categorize these similarities and differences based on research and the best practices presented in this book and translate this information into a testable model.

What can we learn from talent selection and development from sports that has the potential to be applied in academic settings?

Sports provides several key lessons. First, the domain of sport relies more on sport-specific criteria than do academic fields. They use actual performance as a selection tool. Individuals are asked to play the sport, often with other equally talented athletes who are trying out, and those who perform best are selected. Teachers (coaches) do the selection with pretty good accuracy.

Second is the importance of ongoing disciplined practice. We use the term disciplined rather than deliberate practice because the nature of the “practice” that one needs to engage in to succeed in physics or acting may be very different than the deliberate practice required in sport, but it is still practice in the discipline.  

Sport has long recognized the importance of psychosocial skills like coping with performance anxiety—particularly at the elite levels of competition. Sports take place in front of audiences where one has supporters and individuals who are not rooting for you and you have got to learn to be able to “shut out” distractions and get the job done. Similarly, games are played almost weekly or even more frequently, and athletes have got to put their best selves on the field or court on every occasion. Thus, an athlete is trained to “pick oneself up” after losses, understand the lessons the loss provides, and move forward to try to win the next game.  Sports psychologists are integrated into this important component of training. We leave the development of these skills to chance for academically talented individuals, but we could place more of a focus on developing them.

Sport also seems to have many different avenues for gaining experience in the early years—through school teams, park district activities, club sports, and so on. These opportunities are open to all children and get more selective as they progress.  In other words, “on ramps” are readily available. Parents know and accept the idea of starting young children with exposure and progressing to increasingly more selective and competitive opportunities. We do not have such “on ramps” in academics and parents do not have the same knowledge or acceptance of the idea.

However, we argue that many of the advantages of sport come with it being a performance domain, and other performance domains such as elite music performance also offer useful lessons for academic domains. As in sport, in developing elite musical talent, there are explicit criteria for selection based on performance, and diminished reliance on abstract tests. Teachers are often practicing professionals and provide individualized instruction – much of the talent development work is conducted one-on-one. Teacher selection is also key and sometimes more important than the reputation of the music institution. And beyond one-on-one lessons, there are master classes sharing instruction with all the students of one teacher. Additionally, for a student to progress, he or she needs to pass muster every year in front of the whole department. Finally, there are “Reality 101” classes requiring students learn how to behave in professional environments, how to handle stress, how to get an agent, and other practical skills required to facilitate success. These skills would also be useful in academic domains and universities are now beginning to have classes on succeeding in academia or translating your doctoral degree into success outside the academy.

Photo credit: Agnieszka Radwańska at 2008 US Open by Charlie Cowins (CC BY 2.0)


Subotnik, R. F., Olszewski-Kubilius, P., & Worrell, F. C. (Eds.) (2018). The psychology of high performance: Developing human potential into domain-specific talent. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.