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Uncovering high performance: nature or nurture?

When it comes to performance, who do you look to for aspiration? World-class athletes, like Mo Farah? World-renowned musicians like Mozart or maybe Ed Sheeran? Or intellectuals, academics, any highly talented people? You’d be forgiven for believing these people were born with their talents - kind of like those people on L’Oréal adverts, who are ‘born’ with luscious hair.

Many of us perceive talent or highly skilled abilities to be something we’re born with, we either can or we can’t do this. Some of us are more creative than others, more musical, athletic, academic, mathematical, the list goes on. But we know from science that our abilities actually only partly depend on what we’re born with - our genes essentially - the rest, on our life experiences as well as time practising.

In this case, does that mean we can all become Olympic athletes if we put in the training hours? Or become the next Mozart if we practice writing and playing music every day? Well, our Cognitive Scientist, Martina Ratto, has the answer.

It’s a bit of both, really

You may have heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, popularised in his book Outliers, he suggests it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to reach top set skill [1]. But before we all rush off to set aside 10,000 hours of diving or painting, or whatever skill you’re thinking of, will it actually make us the next Tom Daley or Picasso?

Martina’s got 3 reasons it won’t:

  1. The number of hours can’t really be set in stone like that. The amount of time experts spend to become experts differs at an individual level. Some took more time to master their areas of expertise, others much less.

  2. Practising alone isn’t really enough, there are so many different factors contributing to the possibility of reaching excellence; our cognitive abilities, personality factors, age, and the quality of training itself - like the saying ‘a student is only as good as the teacher’!

  3. There are 3 kinds of practice; naive, purposeful and deliberate practice. Psychologist Anders Ericsson explains that naive practice is doing the same thing over and over without a clear goal and without challenging yourself. Purposeful practice is goal-specific and deliberate uses the expertise of others to challenge us [2] - like hiring a business coach to help launch your latest product, it’s using the knowledge of others to improve your own. If we only engage in naive practice, there’s a limit to how much we can improve by hours alone.

So, does that mean practice doesn’t count?

“Not really”, Martina says. Scientific research is still unclear about the existence of ‘natural talent’, we’re all born with different abilities and talents but we can all put in the effort to improve these.

According to psychologist Robert Plum, genes only account for 50% of our abilities and personality traits [3]. So, you might owe your mum and dad a thank you, or just your brain and willingness to improve, but most likely it’s a bit of both. For example, we might have inherited our creative flair from a parent, but it is down to us to drive towards improvement and excellence. If we’re not willing or able to spend time on creative projects we never realise our potential.

“No matter what role innate genetic endowment may play in the achievements of ‘gifted’ people, the main gift that these people have is the same one we all have - the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us.” Anders Ericsson [2]

“The bottom line is, there’s no clear scientific evidence to say which it is, nature or nurture”, says Martina.

Here’s what we do know

We all share the same organ, the brain, with the same potential (with training and practice). But practice can’t do the whole job, as we’re not programmable computers - as humans we have emotions, responsibilities, etc. that can get in the way of studying or training. We get to choose how we spend our time though, so while 10,000 hours of singing might not get you to Adele’s level, we can find our own ways to excel and improve.

Our potential to reach the highest performance is made up of our genes, our family background and education, our motivation to challenge ourselves with practice, our perseverance and any life experiences that we have made so far. These will all influence our attitudes and abilities. It really is a balance of nature and nurture, and what is most important is that any skill can be nurtured at any age. We might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but us human’s can still learn, nurture and develop our skills, abilities and performance throughout our entire lifespan.


Nature vs nurture: We all have different skills and abilities, and we all have the potential to become high performers in them. But even with goal-driven practice, learning from others, and time developing our skills, we won’t all master our areas of expertise and that’s because most of us are actually average at most things. So, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t make a smashing chocolate cake but burn beans on toast, we can’t all be excellent at everything. Head to our blog about embracing averageness to read more on this.


1. Outliers: the story of success (2008). New York: Little, Brown and Company.

2. Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise (2016). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

3. Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are (2018). Mit Press.




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