“The natural trajectory of giftedness in childhood is not a six-figure salary, perfect happiness, and a guaranteed place in Who’s Who. It is the deepening of the personality, the strengthening of one’s value system, the creation of greater and greater challenges for oneself… becoming a better person and helping make this a better world.”
That quote by Dr. Linda Silverman, director of the Gifted Child Development Center, is a reminder that even for those who are gifted and talented, financial and social success, and making positive contributions, are not automatic or assured.
(The quote is from my article Reaching for Excellence: Gifted Students)
What makes an ‘Outlier’?
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, describes in his new book Outliers: The Story of Success [audiobook format] some of the personal and social aspects of how people become outstanding, “outliers” on the upper end of intelligence, ability and achievement curves.
“To truly master any skill, Gladwell suggests, leaning on various pieces of research, requires about 10,000 concentrated hours. If you can get those hours in early, and be in a position to exploit them, then you are an outlier.”
That quote is from a Guardian newspaper article by Tim Adams, who further describes what Gladwell is saying about exceptional people.
“You might expect Outliers in this regard to be a handbook for the self-made man, a re-statement of the dream of American individualism; in fact it is the polar opposite of that,” Adams writes.
“Gladwell’s contention is not only that success is the result of a complicated mix of social advantages but also that the insistence that some individuals have extra-special gifts and talents, are geniuses in particular fields, or pull themselves up by their bootstraps, is incredibly destructive to society’s idea of itself.
“‘No one,’ he says, ‘not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone.’”
From The man who can’t stop thinking, by Tim Adams, guardian.co.uk.
Looking at the forest, not just the tall trees
On his site www.gladwell.com Gladwell comments, “If you go to the bookstore, you can find a hundred success manuals, or biographies of famous people, or self-help books that promise to outline the six keys to great achievement. (Or is it seven?)
“So we should be pretty sophisticated on the topic. What I came to realize in writing Outliers, though, is that we’ve been far too focused on the individual – on describing the characteristics and habits and personality traits of those who get furthest ahead in the world.
“And that’s the problem, because in order to understand the outlier I think you have to look around them – at their culture and community and family and generation. We’ve been looking at tall trees, and I think we should have been looking at the forest.”
In an excerpt of his book, Gladwell writes, “If you put together the stories of hockey players and the Beatles and Bill Joy and Bill Gates, I think we get a more complete picture of the path to success.
“Joy, Gates and the Beatles are all undeniably talented. Lennon and McCartney had a musical gift, of the sort that comes along once in a generation, and Joy, let us not forget, had a mind so quick that he could make up a complicated algorithm on the fly that left his professors in awe.
“A good part of that ‘talent’, however, was something other than an innate aptitude for music or maths. It was desire.
“The Beatles were willing to play for eight hours straight, seven days a week. Joy was willing to stay up all night programming. In either case, most of us would have gone home to bed.
“In other words, a key part of what it means to be talented is being able to practise for hours and hours – to the point where it is really hard to know where ‘natural ability’ stops and the simple willingness to work hard begins.”
Gladwell thinks it is often external events, including birth during “fortunate” periods of history, that nurture talent development.
“What is so striking about these success stories is that the outliers were the beneficiaries of some kind of unusual opportunity. Lucky breaks don’t seem like the exception with software billionaires, rock bands and star athletes; they seem like the rule.”
From A gift or hard graft?, The Guardian Nov 15 2008 – an extract from Outliers: The Story Of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell.
Abilities vs strengths
Related perspectives on how talents get developed are expressed by Rena F. Subotnik, Director of The EKR Center for GiftedEducation Policy.
She notes “All children and adults have strengths, but not everyone has abilities that could lead to outstanding performance or the development of great ideas in adulthood.
“Abilities are domain specific, that is, one can have abilities in music, chess, language, mathematics etc. Those abilities need to be developed through good instruction, through persistence on the part of the person with abilities, and support from some important people in the environment (peers, parents, or teachers).
“Another factor to keep in mind, is that many of these abilities are hard to detect. One reason is that many domains don’t get explored in school, so if you are potentially gifted in chess and never have access to a chess program, the gift is not likely to be developed.”
Rena F. Subotnik is one of the editors of the upcoming book The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span, and notes, “Our book talks about at least two important variables that affect functioning.
[From online chat The Evolving Definition of Giftedness, November 19 2008 www.edweek-chat.org]
“One is ethnic minority status and how such status can be an advantage and disadvantage in talent development. Another is the psychosocial component. As individuals move into the ‘elite’ level in a domain, we can expect that they have mastered the content and skills of that domain.
“The things that differentiate them from others at that level is how creative they are with that information and how skillfully and passionately they communicate and relate to others. Social skills play a large role in successful expression of talent.”