Can we crack the secrets of talent and excellence?

It is fascinating to read about Bill Gates’ rise to become the wealthiest person on Earth, to see how Stephen Hawking has become one of the most important current theoretical physicists despite suffering from a serious neurodegenerative disease, or to watch back the incredible high-bar performance of Epke Zonderland at the 2012 Olympics. Though seeing such demonstrations of talent and excellence is very fascinating, however, researchers have been intrigued by the deeper question of what makes these individuals exceptional. This is one of the questions that our Psychology students who enroll in the new Master program ‘Talent Development & Creativity’ can help answer in the coming years.

The historical nature-nurture debate

In 1869, Sir Francis Galton published his book “Heredity Genius”, in which he concluded that ‘nature’ is more important than ‘nurture’. In other words, excellent performers are born, not made. This was based on his observation that the relatives of high-performing individuals such as famous poets, scientists, and musicians, were likely to be high-performers as well [1]. In 1873, however, Alphonse de Candolle challenged the conclusion of Galton. After analyzing the personal histories of 200 excellent scientists, De Candolle concluded that it is primarily the environment, such as education, familial and economic conditions, that is at the origin of talent development [2]. The works of Galton and De Candolle subsequently gave rise to the famous nature-nurture debate, which has featured prominently in the domain of behavioral and social sciences in general.

An intense discussion remains alive. While researchers have reached consensus that both nature and nurture play a role, they do not agree on the relative importance of the two. Today, one dominant belief is that to reach the top in a certain domain, an individual should primarily engage in many (often more than 10,000) hours of deliberate practice [3], but another dominant belief is that being genetically endowed is a necessary component for becoming a top performer [4]. After almost 150 years of research, one starts to wonder whether the secrets of talent and excellence will ever be resolved…

After almost 150 years of research, one starts to wonder whether the secrets of talent and excellence will ever be resolved…

However, researchers do agree that, regardless of their relative importance, various personal and environmental factors play a role, such as genetic endowment, practice, education, familial support, but also teacher or coach support, being committed to reach the top, etc [5]. Furthermore, looking at talent development over the life span, Simonton summarized some typical properties [6]. First, individuals who reach excellence in music, sports, arts, and sciences, often have very individual patterns of development. This entails that there is no common road to the top, as is evidenced by the observation that excellent performance is demonstrated at different ages for different individuals. For instance, Jodie Foster was nominated for her first Academy award at the age of 14, whereas Meryl Streep acted in her first movie in her late 20s. Second, the variables that stimulate or inhibit talent development change over time. For example, a particular student may find a new and engaging supervisor, who stimulates the student’s motivation and the time the student devotes to the project, which in turn further stimulates the student’s abilities and the engagement of the supervisor, and so forth.

All in all, talent development seems to be a process that is shaped by a combination of multiple factors including genetic endowment, psychological factors such as motivation and commitment, and environmental factors, and this process takes different forms for different individuals [5].

Cracking the secrets of talent and excellence

In past research and practice on talent and excellence, the factors contributing to talent, whether they are more nature or nurture, have primarily been treated as stable factors, not as factors that are changing, and shaping each other, over time. However, taking the typical properties of talent and excellence into account, to crack the secrets of talent and excellence we should not continue with the question of what the contributions of nature and nurture components across the population of excellent performers are. Rather, we should ask ourselves how the different nature and nurture components combine to shape talent over time for different individuals [5]. Accordingly, practitioners in education, business, music, and sports, who form one component of an individual’s ‘dynamic talent network’, should focus on how they can create the conditions under which talent can be stimulated [7]. For instance, a supervisor who is sensitive to the current level, enthusiasm, and commitment of a student, may increase the probability for a positive spiral between the commitment and enthusiasm of the student, additional support of the supervisor, and of course the (ultimately excellent) skills of this particular student.

We have arrived at a point at which new ideas and methods on talent development should be implemented.

To conclude, after a 150-year long debate on the origins of talent and excellence, we have arrived at a point at which new ideas and methods on talent development should be implemented. In September 2016, our Faculty will launch a new Master program ‘Talent Development & Creativity’. Students in the program will acquire scientific and practical skills on the development, selection, and stimulation of talent and excellence, so they will have the opportunity to crack the secrets of talent and excellence…


Relevant links and publications

[1] Galton, F. (1869). Hereditary genius: An inquiry into its laws and consequences. London: Macmillan.

[2] De Candolle, A. (1873). Histoire des sciences et des savants depuis deux siècles. Geneve: Georg.

[3] Ericsson, K. A., Roring, R. W., & Nandagopal, K. (2013). Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance: An account based on the expert performance framework. In S. B. Kaufman (Ed.), The complexity of greatness: Beyond talent or practice (pp. 137-190). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Gagné, F. (2013). Yes, giftedness (aka “innate” talent) does exist! In S. B. Kaufman (Ed.), The complexity of greatness: Beyond talent or practice (pp. 191-221). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Den Hartigh (2015). Capturing complex processes of human performance: Insights from the domain of sports (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Groningen, Groningen.

[6] Simonton, D. K. (2001). Talent development as a multidimensional, multiplicative, and dynamic process. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 39-43. doi: 10.1111/1467-8721.00110

[7] Van Geert, P., & Steenbeek, H. (2005). The Dynamics of scaffolding. New Ideas in Psychology, 25, 115-218. doi: 10.1016/j.newideapsych.2006.05.003


NOTE: Image by IVESON.COM, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Ruud den Hartigh studied Psychology at the University of Groningen, and did his masters in Human Movement Sciences at the VU University Amsterdam, where he graduated in November 2010. In 2011 Ruud obtained a PhD grant to conduct a research project at the University of Montpellier and the University of Groningen. During his PhD project, Ruud has studied human performance processes across different domains, mostly sports. One line of research focused on psychological and performance changes during positive and negative momentum. In addition, he studied talent and expertise, in particular cognitive and motor performance among expert and non-expert athletes, and the process of talent development across sports, science, education, business, technology, arts, and music. In March 2015, Ruud started a position as Assistant Professor Talent Development and Creativity at the Department of Psychology, University of Groningen. He is also the coordinator of the Master program Talent Development & Creativity, which runs from September 2016.

Select Publications

Den Hartigh, R. J. R., Cox, R. F. A., Gernigon, C., Van Yperen, N. W., & Van Geert, P. L. C. (in press). Pink noise in rowing ergometer performance and the role of skill level. Motor Control.

Den Hartigh, R. J. R, Gernigon, C., Van Yperen, N. W., Marin, L., & Van Geert, P. L. C. (2014). How psychological and behavioral team states change during positive and negative momentum. PLoS ONE, 9(5), e97887. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0097887

Den Hartigh, R. J. R., Van Der Steen, S., De Meij, M., Van Yperen, N. W., Gernigon, C., & Van Geert, P. L. C. (2014). Characterising expert representations during real time action: A Skill Theory application to soccer. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 26, 754-767. doi: 10.1080/20445911.2014.9550

Briki, W., Den Hartigh, R. J. R., Markman, K. D., Micallef, J. P., & Gernigon, C. (2013). How psychological momentum changes in athletes during a sport competition. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14, 389–396. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2012.11.009

Briki, W., Den Hartigh, R. J. R., Hauw, D., & Gernigon, C. (2012). A qualitative exploration of the psychological contents and dynamics of momentum in sport. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 43, 365-384. doi: 10.7352/IJSP 2012.43.365

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