What is talent – and can science spot what we will be best at?

Practice and our genes are not the only factors when it comes to developing special abilities.

By Scott Barry Kaufman


One interesting takeaway from this article is that the “10-year rule” is a norm with wide variations around the average. Reading this, made me think about how “normal” came about and the relativity of this, ie it is norm/average/normal within set/s. Wellman (1958) wrote in his medical literature survey that “normal” may have been used to convey “statistical norm”, the mathematical norm and ideal between two limits. Meanwhile, Edwards (1978) wrote that psychiatrists use their subjective experiences to make judgments on abnormality from clinical, statistical, and prognostic aspects, and dependent on the concept of mental illness, micro and macro culture, views of their country, personal experiences, and training. The importance of contextual considerations for what is considered “normal” is also echoed by Baxer (2006) where he argued for the importance of using local norms. 

The normal-abnormal distinction depends on whether the local norms fall under the normal distribution or a skewed distribution, and how the criteria for cut-off between normal-abnormal are determined. Such variabilities over time, between countries, between states, and even school districts, can have large implications for diagnostic criteria, that affect prevalence rates, which in turn affects programming/interventions and such.  Scully  (2004) wrote about the difficulty of defining disease and that definitions of disease as the opposite of health do not tell us what disease means. Similarly, viewing abnormal or disorders and opposite or not normal does not tell us anything about what it means to be “normal” and what it really means to be “abnormal”. 

Back to this article, the “10-year rule” seems to serve more for one to use this as a benchmark to gauge how long to sustain effort/practice in order to attain a goal of becoming an expert and to compare one’s progress against this average/mean/norm, in order to re-adjust goals and actions.

The second item of interest relates to the environment-gene interaction. Kaufman wrote that “the environment triggers gene expression. Every step we take alters the configuration of all the cells in our body. As Matt Ridley notes: “Genes are the mechanisms of experience.” Talent develops through the interaction of genes and the environment. Talent and practice are complementary, not at odds.” In addition, this other part of the article is related to the above sentences, “it takes time for genes to sync with one another and with the environment.”

I would like to this one step further to point out the bi-directional relationships between environment and gene expression other researchers have written about such as Ellis and Boyce (2008), and Belsky (1997).

Here I share some personal experiences with my twice-exceptional autistic son. My son additionally has dysgraphia, dyspraxia, and CAPD. In a school setting, one of his difficulties is in expressing his thoughts in writing/typing/speech to text, etc. He often asks if he can act/sing/draw out what he means when the output demand is external, which was never allowed at public school. It is rare but he has been self-motivated enough to write something down on paper and is often eager to share with us.

I often wonder how I can bring out that side of him as he is so creative and truly thinks differently without trying to do so. Imagine, my shocked and delighted surprise when he wrote in pen (no corrections) and kept his written words within the yellow legal pad lines, single spacing, almost a full page of creative essay writing during a Davidson young scholar 1-hour workshop session when we attended our first Davidson summit in Reno, NV in 2017.

The second time I was really shocked was the summer of 2018, when we went to a three-day gathering near the “Gardens of the gods” in Colorado Springs, CO. The same day we arrived, at this peaceful retreat full of nature and greenery, after check-in, we were each given some pens and notepads and asked to just relax before activities started. My son started writing on his own in his notepad a story titled “ Observations of the wild C”, where he described his older sister as if one would be describing a different species he is observing, in order to understand them. Since our visit to Colorado Springs, my son often asked if we will go back there during summer and he NEVER asks about going back to any other places we have visited which he enjoyed.

These two incidences in particular really stuck out in my mind, something/situation/condition allowed this other side of his genes to pass an internal threshold and manifest outwardly and spontaneously. When I asked him why he decided to write the story, he just said simply, I felt like it! Evidence shows that the brain, the nervous system, and the immune system are found to be functionally connected (Ballieau, 1992) and therefore it is logical to infer that environmental factors can affect our bodies and talent expression.

Last but not least, Kaufman’s view to ‘keeping the door open and instituting a dynamic talent development process where the only admission criterion is readiness for engagement’ and  “the key is finding the mode of expression that best allows your unique package of personal characteristics to shine.”, is a great message and viewpoint that should be promoted by parents to schools, as this will help open doors to ALL children, including 2e children. The current issue in public education is that many groups are fighting for funding for a particular disability or for the gifted, at the expanse of each other. If we all join together to fight for a viewpoint that will lead to services that benefit all, the results will be much better and beneficial to all. It is time for a  perspective shift from producing workers to supply the industrial revolution to nurturing human skills and talent that is respective of neuro-socio-economic-cultural dignity and skills required as we move through our lifespan.


Ballieux, R. E. (1992) Bidirectional communication between the brain and the immune system. Eur J Clin Invest, 10(22) Suppl 1:6-9.

Baxter, P. (2006). Normality and abnormality.  Developmental Medicine And Child Neurology, 48, 867-867.

Belsky, J. (1997). Variation in susceptibility to rearing influences: An evolutionary argument. Psychological Inquiry, 8, 182-186.

Ellis, B. J., & Boyce, W. T. (2008). Biological Sensitivity to context. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 183-187.

Scully J. L. (2004). What is a disease?. EMBO Reports, 5(7), 650–653. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.embor.7400195

Wellman, M. (1958). The concept of normal in medicine. Canad, M.A.L, July (79),43-44. Eur J Clin Invest. 1992 Oct;22 Suppl 1:6-9.

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