Interviews With 120 Top Artists, Athletes and Scholars : The Key to Success? It's Drive, Not Talent, Study Finds

Times Education Writer

A five-year study of 120 of the nation's top artists, athletes and scholars has concluded that drive and determination, not great natural talent, led to their extraordinary success.

"We expected to find tales of great natural gifts," said University of Chicago education professor Benjamin Bloom, who led the team of researchers who studied the careers of America's top performers in six fields: concert pianists, Olympic swimmers, sculptors, tennis players, mathematicians and research neurologists.

"We didn't find that at all. Their mothers often said it was their other child who had the greater gift," Bloom said.

The most brilliant mathematicians often said they had trouble in school and were rarely the best in their classes. Some world-class tennis players said their coaches viewed them as being too short ever to be outstanding, and the Olympic swimmers said they remember getting regularly "clobbered" in races as 10-year-olds.

Anonymous Interviews

The foundation-supported research team conducted in-depth, anonymous interviews with the top 20 performers in the six fields, as judged by national championships or similar honors.

They also interviewed their families and teachers, hoping to learn how these individuals developed into extraordinary performers.

Instead, the researchers heard accounts of an extraordinary drive and dedication through which, for example, a child would practice the piano several hours daily for 17 years to attain his goal of becoming a concert pianist. A typical swimmer would tell of getting up at 5:30 every morning to swim two hours before school and then two hours after school to attain his or her goal of making the Olympic team.

Bloom, an eminent educational researcher, said his findings "remind me of the old joke about the young man walking down a New York street who stops to ask a little old lady, 'How do I get to Carnegie Hall?' And she looks up and says, 'Practice, young man. Practice.' "

Although practice and motivation seemed to explain their success, the top performers, regardless of their field, appeared to follow a similar course of development, the researchers found.

In practically every case, the parents played the key role, first by exposing their children at an early age to music, sports or learning. The vast majority of the parents were not themselves outstanding musicians, athletes or scholars. For example, fewer than half of the parents of the distinguished pianists had ever played any musical instrument.

Valued Competition

But the parents of the swimmers and tennis players did enjoy sports and valued competition, Bloom reported. The families of the pianists and sculptors appreciated art and music, while the parents of the research scientists displayed a great love for learning.

The parents of the mathematicians and research neurologists reported that their children showed both an unusual curiosity about how things work and an "independent nature" that allowed them to play or work alone for hours.

Although it is not uncommon for children to ask repeatedly "why?," "what appears to make the parents of the (scientists) unique is the nature of their response to their children's questions," Bloom wrote. "They responded to the questions seriously, often encouraging even more questions."

Beyond specific attitudes or interests, the parents also taught their children to value hard work and competition.

"These parents placed great stress on achievement, on success and on doing one's best at all times. They were models of the 'work ethic,' believing that work should come before play and that one should always work toward distant goals," Bloom said. The results of the research will be published this week in a book entitled "Developing Talent in Young People."

The families said in the interviews that they wanted their sons and daughters to have "normal" childhoods and that they had no inkling that the children would achieve unusual success.

Parents Encouraged Them

But once a child displayed an interest and enthusiasm in a particular area, these parents encouraged them at every step and were willing to spend countless hours shuttling them to and from piano, tennis or swimming lessons.

"Even in homes where money was tight, no sacrifice was too great in order that the child have whatever he needed to learn to become a musician. 'My parents didn't have nickels to rub together,' Bloom quoted one pianist as saying. 'Those were the bad old days. But there was always money for music.' "

Several of the families reported moving to new homes just to get their children in better academic environments or to be closer to a coach or instructor.

Bloom's study also found that these extraordinary achievers, all of whom were younger than 40 when interviewed, appeared to have gone through three distinct stages of development, regardless of their field.

At first, the parents exposed the children to playing a piano, tinkering with scientific games or hitting a tennis ball, but it was just fun. They played tennis with their families, for example, and developed the habit of regular practice. Usually, the children also had some outside instruction--perhaps a neighbor who gave piano lessons or an uncle who was a good tennis player.

Gained Recognition

Then, at some point, they began to gain recognition for their ability. A 7-year-old would play the piano for a school performance. An 8-year-old would beat all the other children at his local tennis or swimming club.

"Within two to five years, most of the individuals in our study began to see themselves in terms of the talent field," Bloom wrote. "They began to see themselves as 'pianists' and 'swimmers' before the age of 11 or 12, and 'mathematicians' before the age of 16 or 17."

"Most of our talented individuals had very good experiences with their initial teachers, and many had developed a very comfortable relationship with them," Bloom wrote.

At the second stage of development, as a child's rapid progress become apparent, the parents usually sought out a more expert instructor or coach.

Typically, the new teachers "were perfectionists who demanded a great deal of practice time for the student and looked for much progress in a relatively short period of time," Bloom wrote. They usually stressed the refining of the child's technique, whether it be their fingers on the keyboard or their strokes in the water or on tennis court.

In the middle years, these young people first tasted extraordinary success. Some set national swimming records as adolescents. The pianists got opportunities to perform with symphony orchestras. The future mathematicians and neurologists were already doing independent research projects and winning science fairs. The tennis players were winning state championships.

Greater Commitment

At this point, their commitment to their field escalated one step further. The subjects said they began "living" for swimming, or tennis or the piano and devoted hours each day to practice. They also sought out the nation's best coaches or teachers, those who were recognized masters at training the best.

Sixteen of the world-class pianists reported having studied at some time with one of five master teachers. The mathematicians and scientists, who often had become attached to a special teacher or gained the attention of a local university professor, gravitated to the nation's top universities in math and science.

At this final stage of development, the focus was less on technique than on developing a personal style. The swimmers and tennis players said their master teachers helped them with strategy and psychology. The pianists said they learned about expressing their own interpretation of the music.

"During these years the student was completely committed to the talent field. Now most of the motivation was internal and related to their larger goals," Bloom wrote.

Few of the talented individuals expressed any regret about devoting so much of their time to pursing a single goal.

'It Was Productive'

"I loved tennis. To me, it was productive," said one former player. "To sit in a (fast-food) parking lot in a car with four or five 16-year-olds didn't interest me a bit. I never felt I missed that."

A few swimmers reported a great feeling of letdown after the Olympics ended and their swimming careers were over. Most of the top achievers, even those who had left their field, said they had retained a feeling of pride in their accomplishments.

Bloom said the study convinced him that talent must be carefully nurtured over many years.

"The old saw that 'genius will win out' in spite of the circumstances just doesn't hold up," he said.

Because natural talent seemed to play such a minor role in the development of these performers, Bloom said he was also convinced that a large number of individuals could achieve at extraordinary levels if given the right encouragement and training.

The research "points to the enormous human potential available in each society and the likelihood that only a very small amount of this human potential is ever fully developed," he concluded. "We believe that each society could vastly increase the amount and kinds of talent it develops."

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