The "rage to master": What it takes for those scary-smart kids to succeed

Gladwell's practice theory is only partly right. A host of things must line up for the would-be prodigy to thrive

Published June 13, 2015 9:00PM (EDT)

Malcolm Gladwell   (AP/Evan Agostini)
Malcolm Gladwell (AP/Evan Agostini)

Excerpted from "The Boy Who Played With Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star"

One summer evening as a storm approached, Tiffany looked out the kitchen window and saw Taylor darting around the yard placing neutron detectors in trees and on the roof of the two-story backyard shed that the family called the Little House.

“I’m looking for neutrons that might-could be generated by lightning,” he shouted in response to her query. He added, without breaking stride, that there was some evidence that lightning produced neutrons, but it hadn’t been proven; it was an open question in physics.

“Maybe,” he yelled, “I can be the one who proves it!”

“Better get yourself inside pretty quick before you get whacked by some of those neutrons you’re hunting for,” Tiffany hollered back.

Psychologists and educators say Taylor’s sort of intensity is almost always apparent in gifted and talented children. “I call it the rage to master,” says psychologist Ellen Winner. “I hear it from parents all the time; they say there’s nothing that can keep their kids from what they want to be good at.”

Definitions of giftedness vary across the academic and geographic world, but researchers agree that the common denominators include extreme curiosity and an intense urge to discover. “Truly gifted kids are almost always autodidacts, motivated from within,” says Susan G. Assouline, who directs the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank Center, a leading research center focusing on gifted education. “Sometimes there’s something holding them back from expressing it, such as boredom or autism,” she says. (Recent research suggests a genetic connection between autism and prodigiousness.) “But on the inside, these kids want to be engaged; they want opportunities to discover something new.”

The U.S. Department of Education defines the academically gifted as “students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”

The UK Department for Children, Schools, and Families has a less verbose definition of gifted and talented students: “children and young people with one or more abilities developed to a level significantly ahead of their year group (or with the potential to develop those abilities).”

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) estimates that there are three to five million academically gifted children in kindergarten through twelfth grade in the U.S. — roughly 6 to 10 percent of the student population. In Britain, the estimate is 5 to 10 percent; Turkey and India say about 3 percent of their students are gifted. But the NAGC admits that its number is little more than an educated guess; no one really knows how many children are gifted or whether the proportion of them in the student body is growing or shrinking. “To know for sure, you’d have to precisely define criteria for giftedness, then do a big epidemiological-type study canvassing a whole country,” says Winner. “Gifted kids do seem more visible now, but it may be that because of advances in technology and communication more are showing up who wouldn’t have been noticed before.”

That’s probably true. In the pre-Internet era, it’s not very likely we’d have heard about someone like Akrit Jaswal, who performed surgery on a burn victim’s hands at age seven and was admitted to an Indian medical university at twelve; or William Kamkwamba, who built a wind turbine to power his impoverished Malawian village at age fifteen; or Gregory Smith, an American who finished elementary school in one year and high school in two years. After graduating from college with honors at thirteen, Gregory is pursuing a PhD in mathematics and traveling to developing nations to promote peace and children’s rights. He was nominated at twelve years old — and three times since — for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The community of gifted children includes a much smaller subset of kids often described as prodigies, or the profoundly gifted. These are the scary-smart kids whose talents and early achievements are off the charts. Among the handful of academic researchers who have studied them extensively, no one has devoted more time and energy than David Henry Feldman, the Tufts University child psychologist. Feldman defines a prodigy as “a pre-adolescent who is performing at the level of a highly trained adult in a very demanding field of endeavor.” In contrast to an especially smart kid of great general ability, the prodigy has a distinct form of giftedness that’s far more advanced and focused on a single interest.

These are the children who devour books (often nonfiction) before entering kindergarten; who teach themselves algebra or musical notation as toddlers; who take our breath away with their piano prowess, their devastatingly efficient chess moves, or their visionary artwork. With prodigies, the rage to master is extreme. They are attracted to a subject early and learn rapidly, approaching it with unshakable concentration.

Feldman became intrigued by profoundly gifted children and their cognitive development in the 1970s, and over ten years he closely tracked six extraordinarily gifted children. He told their stories in his 1986 book Nature’s Gambit. The book’s content is both surprising (among other findings, he noted that prodigies’ IQs vary widely depending on specialty) and disconcerting, since prodigiousness, Feldman discovered, often does not lead to happy adulthoods. Feldman’s sensitivity and commitment to his subjects are impressive, as are his observations of the characteristics that define and link these children. But he stresses that the body of knowledge about extreme giftedness is thin. Prodigies, by definition, are hard to gather in large numbers, and they are often too busy to participate in studies. “We’re dealing with very tiny samples, maybe fifty children who have been intensely studied,” Feldman says. “We are at the very beginning of understanding them.”

The past decade has brought renewed academic interest in prodigies and gifted children. Researchers see the gifted child (along with other outliers, such as savants, autistic children, and very high-IQ cases) as among the more striking manifestations of human potential. Understanding their intellectual development is an important key to deciphering the complexities of intellectual development across the entire spectrum of children.

One of the primary questions puzzling researchers like Feldman is exactly where and how intelligence is generated in the brain. But the neuroanatomical basis of prodigiousness still generates more questions than answers. For instance, how do neurological reward systems differ between high achievers and other children? How and why are some brains seemingly wired to love novelty? Why do some people have such a driving need to ask questions and achieve mastery? What neural systems underpin the ability to outperform the rest of us? And how do external factors affect brain development?

“Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the ability to answer, or even properly ask, what’s going on inside a prodigy’s brain that creates those conditions,” says neuroscientist Francisco Xavier Castellanos, director of research at New York University’s Child Study Center. In the near future, neuroimaging will likely boost our understanding of the brain’s development and help us predict future performance and deficits, health-related behaviors, and responses to pharmacological or behavioral treatments. “But the tools we have now to observe the brain are a bit like an early-generation microscope,” says Castellanos, who has spent much of his career scanning and analyzing the brains of children and adolescents. “We can tell that the brain is very busy, but we have profound ignorance about its workings.”

Neuroscientists have observed a correlation between brain size and IQ — but it accounts for only about 10 percent of variations. Research also suggests that adult intelligence can be predicted during childhood by the rate of change in the thickness of a child’s cerebral cortex, the gray matter that makes up the brain’s outer layer. Other evidence has emerged that the efficiency with which information travels through the structures of the brain — in particular between the parietal and frontal lobes — may be a significant enabling factor for intelligence.

General intelligence is typically gauged by IQ score, which remains a popular scale in large part because it’s a reasonably comparable measure that’s been applied over a long term to large numbers of people. “IQ is like democracy; it’s better than the rest but it has acknowledged flaws,” says Castellanos. “We can’t deny that IQ data are among the best measures in finding differences between people in general, but reliable ways.”

And yet, IQ doesn’t go very far in explaining the way smart people’s brains work or in providing useful tools for mapping the path from raw cognitive ability to remarkable achievement. “[IQ is] unlikely to predict a kid who has abilities like Taylor’s,” says Castellanos. “There’d be lots of kids with IQs as high as his who wouldn’t have gone this far, this fast.”

Joanne Ruthsatz, a psychologist at Ohio State University, confirmed Feldman’s observations that IQ requirements for mastery vary widely across specialties. In a 2012 paper published in the journal Intelligence, she reported that a typical IQ for an art prodigy is around 100. Early chess and music masters usually have higher IQs, as do math whizzes, who average in the 140 range.

A high IQ will not take you far in the art world (in fact, it appears to be a handicap for those with artistic gifts), but it’s almost essential for a high-achieving physicist. Then again, there are exceptions. The iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman had an IQ of 124, high but not spectacular, yet in his mid-twenties he mastered the astonishingly complex equations that led to his Nobel Prize–winning theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED), and he did it with what biographer James Gleick called “frightening ease.”

“Winning a Nobel Prize is no big deal,” Feynman reportedly told his wife after accepting the prize, “but winning it with an IQ of 124 is really something.”


The search for a specific cognitive ability that underlies all forms of prodigiousness has pointed most distinctly toward working memory, a key cognitive function that allows us to hold information in our minds in a highly active state. According to several recent studies, a high working-memory capacity is a constant that appears to predict and positively affect performance and intelligence across all domains. Ruthsatz has administered standardized IQ tests to prodigies and found that, although IQs ranged from 108 to 147 — just above average to above the conventional cutoff for genius — each prodigy was at or above the 99th percentile for working memory.

So how does working memory work?

“It’s been argued that the brain is limitless as to how much information can be stored in a lifespan,” says Castellanos, “and no one has proven otherwise. What’s profoundly limited is how many things we can hold in our mind at one time, available for processing. The magic number for humans seems to be seven, plus or minus two.” To get to a novel thought, a person has to be able to maintain several things up in the air, ready to manipulate.

It’s relatively easy to test for working-memory capacity. One common way to measure it is by seeing how many items someone can remember simultaneously for a short period. If you’re given two ten-digit phone numbers and can repeat them back, you have a higher working-memory capacity than someone who can recall only seven digits of one phone number. Working memory lets you multiply large numbers in your head or remember the names of two new acquaintances while being introduced to a third. It’s crucial to academic, professional, and social success, and it typically increases steadily through childhood and adolescence, peaking between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. It begins to decline in our thirties, but it can be fortified and preserved through training or pursuits that demand its use. It is this premise that has driven the success of brain-training programs and apps that promise to make our minds more supple and spry — although there is absolutely no solid scientific evidence to back up these promises.

Surprisingly, humans and monkeys have identical working-memory capacities. But modern humans have learned, in a profoundly useful adaptation, to hack the limits of working memory through a process called chunking, in which information is analyzed and compressed into composite nuggets that are more memorable and easier to process. For example, we chunk when we hear 212 not as three discrete elements but as the telephone area code for Manhattan. This allows our memory systems to be more efficient and effective at grasping possibilities and extracting useful structure from raw data.

High achievers are able to chunk and superchunk in the domains they’re focused on. “We all know someone,” says Castellanos, “who amazes us at how fast they can think. You observe them and you say, ‘Holy shit, you got there faster than I did. Now, if I had X percent more time I might have been able to get there too.’ I think of intelligence as how much can you get done in the span of time available — whether it’s a lifespan or the moment in which we’re thinking.”


One of the longest and most frequently debated aspects of high achievers is the degree to which they are born or made. Is a person’s intellectual destiny dependent on inherited mental hardware? Or can someone starting at sub-prodigy levels reach genius-level acumen in a chosen discipline through ambition and long, hard work?

Much of the research on talent development has been driven by the urge to answer these questions and predict who will rise to the top. An extensive and growing body of evidence confirms that we can identify future innovators by the time they are teenagers. The same research has confirmed that those whose abilities are identified early and who are given support to develop their talents are the ones most likely to grow into the creative, high-achieving adults who transform society, advance knowledge, and reinvent modern culture.

“Exceptional youthful ability really does correlate with exceptional adult achievement,” says Jonathan Wai, a research scientist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program and the author of Psychology Today’s Finding the Next Einstein column. “It really is possible to identify the kids who are likely to become future innovators.” Wai has investigated different populations of intellectual outliers to better understand the talent-development process and the degree to which brainiacs are likely to become billionaires.

In 1969, Johns Hopkins University’s Julian Stanley began administering the SAT college-admissions test to children under thirteen. Stanley also initiated the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), which since 1971 has tracked early takers of the SAT who score near the top on the math or verbal sections of the test (some two hundred thousand students participate annually in the searches by taking the SAT in the seventh instead of the usual eleventh grade). Following the education and career paths of what has become a cohort of more than five thousand, SMPY has accumulated forty-five years of data that provide much of what we now know about early aptitude and subsequent trajectories of some of the nation’s smartest children.

A high percentage of the children who were identified as extremely intelligent went on to become high-achieving adults. The top 1 to .01 percent (those whose IQs range from 137 to 160) typically joined the upper echelons of the STEM professions or became high-achieving humanities professors, powerful politicians, or successful journalists or novelists. The average MD or PhD has an IQ of around 125, while individuals with IQs above 160 often do brilliant work in mathematics or physics, where success is even more dependent on raw mental processing power.


The takeaway, it would seem, is that innate talent and high general intelligence — which are to a great extent heritable, like titles of nobility — are a first-class, high-speed ticket to advanced achievement.

Not necessarily. For one thing, cognitive abilities don’t appear fully formed at birth; they develop over time through a complex interplay between nature and nurture. (Research has attributed genetic influence on human intelligence to between 30 and 80 percent of its total variance.) Among the most important discoveries in recent years is that environment triggers gene expression. Although most personal characteristics — everything from perseverance to memory — are influenced by our genes, they are not fully determined by them.

And then there’s the issue of deliberate practice. In 1993, Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson (now at Florida State University) proposed that expert performance was far more dependent on a long period of concentrated, deliberate practice than on innate ability or talent. Ericsson and his colleagues found that violinists and pianists whom faculty rated as the best musicians had devoted an average of more than ten thousand hours to deliberate practice by age twenty. “We attribute the dramatic differences in performance between experts and amateurs-novices to similarly large differences in the recorded amounts of deliberate practice,” concluded Ericsson.

The paper, which suggested that practice time explained most (about 80 percent) of the difference between elite performers and committed amateurs, unleashed a torrent of research on the development of expert performance and has been cited in academic literature more than forty-five hundred times. In his 2008 best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell touted what he called the 10,000-Hour Rule — the theory that ten thousand hours of appropriately guided practice is “the magic number for true expertise” in any field — which fueled one of the most persistent and influential pop-psychology claims of recent years. The concept’s popularity — due to its meritocratic implication that almost anyone can excel at a chosen discipline if he or she tries long and hard enough — has been sustained by a slew of other bestselling books, including Daniel Pink’s Drive (2009), Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code (2009), and Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated (2010).

Neither Ericsson nor Gladwell went so far as to claim that innate talent was completely irrelevant to high-level success. “Achievement is talent plus preparation,” wrote Gladwell, and Ericsson cautioned that effective training depended on the quality as well as quantity of practice time. But these finer points were lost amid Ericsson’s continued insistence that “experts are always made, not born” and Gladwell’s contention that diligent practice, more than talent, was the primary factor in the success of everyone from Bill Gates to the Beatles.

The influence of deliberate-practice theory has, at times, reached absurd levels. In 2010, commercial photographer Dan McLaughlin was so struck by the 10,000-hour proposition that he quit his job to attempt to become a professional golfer. The duffer, who started at 30 over par, told the BBC that “the goal is to . . . compete in a legitimate PGA tour event.” Near the end of 2014, after 5,600 hours of practice, he’d managed to bring his handicap down to 3.1 — respectable, although well above the 1.4 he needed to attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open tournament.

Subsequent research has shown that the answer is not nearly as simple as “practice makes perfect.” For one thing, claims that deliberate practice nearly always trumps innate talent and intelligence conflict dramatically with the observations of teachers and others who work with gifted children. Many academics have derided Ericsson’s “absurd environmentalism” and pointed out conceptual and methodological gaps in Ericsson’s tests of his theory, which he later applied across several domains. More comprehensive research by others, including Wai and a team led by psychologist Brooke Macnamara, have found that the acquisition of expertise is, in fact, highly related to cognitive ability and that practice time explains only 20 to 25 percent of performance differences in chess, music, and sports. In another blow to deliberatepractice theory, Simonton, of UC Davis, has led several studies that found that people with the greatest lifetime productivity and highest levels of eminence actually required the least amount of time to achieve high-level performance. While practice is as important for prodigies as for other people, the time in which prodigies can amass the expertise needed for mastery in any given field is compressed. (A 2014 New York Times article on the research debunking Ericsson’s deliberate-practice theory was titled “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Talent.”)

And yet, the evidence is stacking up that talent and practice are complementary, rather than oppositional, and far more intertwined than originally thought. All human characteristics, including the capacity and proclivity to deliberately practice, involve a mix of nature and nurture.

“Unfortunately, many people have an overly simplistic understanding of talent,” says University of Pennsylvania psychologist Kaufman, who writes about intelligence and creativity in his Beautiful Minds blog for Scientific American. “In fact, there is no such thing as innate talent,” Kaufman contends. “Gareth Bale wasn’t born with the ability to score memorable goals. There are certainly genetic influences, but talents aren’t prepackaged at birth; they take time to develop.” In other words, high achievers are born, then made.

Some concept of talent may be necessary to help explain the development of high performance. But many researchers now argue for a more expansive definition of talent. Talent isn’t just brainpower or acumen in a particular domain, they say, but any collection of personal attributes that quickens the development of expertise or improves performance given a certain degree of expertise. Simonton identifies four sets of characteristics — cognitive, dispositional, developmental, and sociocultural — and notes that a deficit in any one will lead to overall deficiencies. Tradeoffs can sometimes compensate (for example, someone with average intellect can become an overachiever if he or she is highly motivated), but these tradeoffs go only so far. “That’s why exceptional talent is so rare,” says Simonton.

David Lubinski, the Vanderbilt University psychologist who now codirects the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, adds opportunity to the constellation of personal attributes that lead to extraordinary performance.

“You could also include a million other things,” says Kaufman, “such as physical features, social skills, and curiosity.” There’s also assertiveness, rebelliousness, self-confidence, and “grit,” or the willingness to work hard. “The missing piece of the pie,” Kaufman says, “undoubtedly includes other forms of engagement that don’t feel as effortful as deliberate practice, such as play and flow.”


If personal traits are as important as brains, so is another factor, and it isn’t usually included on most researchers’ lists — perhaps because, as a chance element, it can’t be studied systematically. But this factor, Feldman says, is the most revelatory takeaway from his decades-long studies of prodigies.

When Feldman began working closely with exceptionally gifted children, his primary question was, What does it take to translate the raw material of innate intelligence into genius-level mastery and exceptional accomplishment? His conclusion, after thirty years of empirical research:


According to Feldman, the path from supersmart kid to worldchanging adult depends mostly on what he calls “the co-incidence process.” Feldman’s research (now backed up by others) makes it clear that the circumstances have to be just right for talent to flourish. “From the starting point of innate, natural ability,” Feldman says, “specific talents tend to require specific environments very well suited to their development.”

For instance, the SMPY subjects were a fortunate bunch of kids from the start. Without encouragement from parents or teachers, they likely wouldn’t have taken the SAT early. Their advantages continued to compound after they were identified as “exceptionally gifted.” Unlike many — perhaps most — gifted children, they gained access to unusually rich learning experiences. These included special attention from schools and teachers and invitations to hyper-intensive summer programs, such as the ones that Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs, and Germanotta attended, where they could gorge themselves on a year’s worth of math or science or literature in a few weeks.

Two recent papers published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that among young people with high ability, those who were allowed to skip a grade, enroll in special classes, or take college courses in high school were significantly more likely to earn PhDs, publish academic papers, develop patents, and pursue high-level careers than their equally smart peers who didn’t have these opportunities.

Everyone’s heard the bright-kid-overcomes-all anecdotes. But the bigger picture, based on decades of data, shows that these children are the rare exceptions. For every such story, there are countless nonstories of other gifted children who were unnoticed, submerged, and forgotten in homes and schools ill-equipped to nurture extraordinary potential. In those environments, David Hahn–type outcomes are far more prevalent.

“There has to be an almost uncanny convergence of certain things lining up,” says Feldman. “The gifted child must be exposed to a field or art, someone must observe their interest and act upon it, and the timing and cultural context and available technology must all be right. Parents and teachers must have the resources and work hard to connect the prodigy with the right mentors or coaches, if the child is going to achieve any significant portion of innate potential.”

“This is not a trivial point,” says Winner. “Because it indicates that, of the [possibly] millions of children who are born with the potential to propel themselves to mastery, only a tiny portion are ever given a chance, due to accidents of fate. Imagine if Taylor had been born as an Aborigine in the Outback in Western Australia. There would be no technology, no environment, no mentors, no cultural context that would have matched his interests and abilities.”

“Even if Taylor would have grown up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan,” says Feldman, “things likely would have not worked out so well for him.” He would have been born into a culture that supported high achievers, but it’s hard to imagine where he’d have dug his holes or shot off his rockets — or found neighbors who would tolerate his explosions and his glowing radioactive goodies. His parents might have had more financial ability to support his endeavors, but they likely would also have had more competing distractions — as would Taylor. Money can buy time, but when it comes to parenting, it often does not. Money can also buy a top-notch education, but prestigious prep schools are not set up to indulge exotic talents unrelated to bagging a spot at an Ivy League university. Formal schooling is just one piece of the prodigy puzzle, which also includes parenting, personal characteristics, social/ emotional development, family aspects (such as birth order, gender, and traditions), access to resources, and historical forces and trends. When all those things happen to be in coordination and are sustained for a sufficient period, a child born with extraordinary potential can bloom. When one or more elements are missing, inborn talent is more likely to wither.

“That’s a lot to get right,” says Feldman. “And because of that, only a tiny portion of would-be prodigies go on to become eminent, creative adults.

Excerpted from "THE BOY WHO PLAYED WITH FUSION: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star" by Tom Clynes. Copyright © 2015 by Tom Clynes. Used by permission of Eamon Dolan Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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