Even for those with high potential, making positive contributions to the world is not automatic or assured. Malcolm Gladwell and others describe some of the key aspects that affect how gifted and talented people realize their abilities

Dr. Linda Silverman, director of the Gifted Child Development Center, agrees “The natural trajectory of giftedness in childhood is not a six-figure salary, perfect happiness, and a guaranteed place in Who’s Who."

She notes there are other aspects beyond achievement or success, as usually measured: "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.”

But realizing high potential abilities is affected by many influences, both inner and social.

Malcolm Gladwell describes in his new book Outliers: The Story of Success, some of the personal and social aspects of how people become outstanding “outliers” on the upper end of intelligence, ability and achievement curves.

Gladwell suggests that mastery of any skill requires about 10,000 hours of concentrated and focused effort.

He also contends that success results from a mix of social advantages, and thinks the idea that only a few special individuals have the exceptional gifts to be a self-realized genius is distorting and destructive.

He says, "No one, not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses - ever makes it alone."

On his site www.gladwell.com he 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."

But that is a problem, he says, "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.”

Some of the most well-known examples of high ability also illustrate a key element on the path to success, Gladwell points out.

“Bill Joy, Bill 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 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."

He concludes it is really hard to know where so-called ‘natural ability’ stops "and the simple willingness to work hard begins.”

Related perspectives on how talents get developed are expressed by Rena F. Subotnik, Director of the Center for Gifted Education Policy, of the American Psychological Association.

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, persistence, and support from some important people in the environment (peers, parents, or teachers)."

Another factor, she notes, 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.”

Subotnik is an editor of the book The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span, and notes there are at least two important variables that affect talent.

“One is ethnic minority status... 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.”

So having strong abilities are clearly important in success, but there are many things that impact how those talents get developed and expressed in the world, including social relationships, opportunities, emotional intelligence, resilience and persistence.

Author's Bio: 

Douglas Eby writes about the psychology of creative expression and personal growth. For more about gifted and multitalented adults, see his site: HighAbility.org