Some say greatness can’t be taught. Either you have it, or you don’t. And to a certain degree, that’s true. Nobody would deny that when it comes to God-given talent, the “nature” side of the argument has a strong case. After all, it’s God-given, right?
But what about “Nurture”? What if your child has the latent abilities, but never actualizes them? Are there things you should be doing as a parent to draw out your child’s natural talent, so he or she can become a champion, a trailblazer… one of the elite?
It turns out, there are.
“He’s always understood the game,” says Shane Battier. “He’s always understood the time to score. He has a feel for how games flow, and that’s not something you can teach. You either have it or you don’t have it.” – Shane Battier re: Lebron james.
It’s hard to shake that mindset. When we see someone doing great things, whether it’s on the basketball court, in the business world, on a stage… we can’t help but think ‘they were just born with it’. We don’t see the years of practice, the childhood development, the nurturing. We just see the result, in a flash. And we think, “They have a gift.”
But consider the research of Benjamin Bloom, an Educational Psychologist who conducted extensive interviews with 120 young men and women who had reached the highest levels of accomplishment in six fields: Olympic sprint swimmers; Top-10 rated professional tennis players; concert pianists; accomplished sculptors; exceptional mathematicians; and outstanding research neurologists.
“Few of the individuals were regarded as child prodigies. This raises serious questions about earlier views of special gifts and innate abilities as necessary pre-requisites of talent development.”
What does this mean? Talent is everywhere, even in your own child, even if you don’t see it yet. With singing competitions clogging up the TV; with high schoolers performing pitch-perfect violin concertos and dunking from the foul line, it’s easy to see that the world is overflowing with people who have the potential to be “great” at something.
The question is, what takes someone from that pool and catapults them to the next level?
1. Hard Work
“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”
You’ve probably heard that quote at some point in your life, usually misattributed to Albert Einstein. It was actually Thomas Edison who said it. But have you ever heard the second part? He continues: “Accordingly, a genius is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.” Homework is the operative word here, because we’re talking about kids.
Teaching kids to do their homework can be painful at times, but it’s also the key to unlocking their greatness. It’s how we first start to develop their work ethic. You want them to understand, as Edison says, that the difference between being average and being great…is sweat.
In this regard, if your children are young, you should invest some serious energy and time in getting them to appreciate the concept of homework. How do you do that? By creating a relaxed atmosphere, by making it fun and by being patient. Here is a fantastic video from a mom who does it right named Tracy Chadwick, teaching her 5 year old daughter how to do basic division.
What’s going on in that video is two-fold; her child is learning math. But just as importantly, she’s learning the joy of learning.
2. Let Them Fail
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan
Two years ago, a major cheating scandal broke at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, N.Y., where 71 students were caught cheating on New York’s Regents exam. We’re talking about smart kids, “gifted” kids, who were seen to be on a path to success, even greatness. So why did they cheat? The answer is obvious. Pressure. Kids become terrified of failing. Oftentimes, you hear of kids cheating because they are underprepared or simply don’t understand the test questions. But Denise Pope showed in her well regarded book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students that smart kids cheat too. Surprise. And why do they do it? Fear of failure. The minute a “talented” child brings home those first few A’s, parents start bragging. Teachers start talking. The child develops an internal standard of achievement and becomes terrified to lose it. But paradoxically, that standard becomes a barrier to greatness, not a conduit. If you see your kids starting to excel, be wary of putting undue pressure on them… Let them fail.
3. Start With What you Know
Results from Benjamin Bloom’s research also showed that “talent development was tied to the values, interests, resources and personal investments of parents.” That is, in pursuing your own interests you create situations that will intrigue and stimulate your children. Then you can reward or encourage that interest and come up with ways to extend it. It’s a win-win. You get to do activities that you enjoy and if your kids spark to it, you can begin the amazing journey of teaching life lessons through the prism of whatever particular skill set you have: math, song, sports, chess… bonding time becomes “talent-development” time. In fact, if you haven’t introduced your children to your own passions yet, what are you waiting for? Let them hover while you engage in whatever it is you love and then show them your process. Even if it compromises your enjoyment a little at first, slowing you down, the rewards down the road are incalculable… for them and for you.
4. Compliment Efforts, Not Results
In their book NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write about the concept of praising specific effort-based actions as opposed to praising ‘general talent’. For example, if your child hands you an art project, you want to avoid statements like, “What an awesome artist you are!” Instead, take a close look at the project and compliment some unique color choice they made or the effort they put into staying in the lines.
Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck supports this thinking:
“Saying, ‘You’re great, you’re amazing’ – that is not helpful,” says Dweck. “Because later on, when they don’t get it right or don’t do it perfectly, they’ll think they aren’t so great or amazing.”
Try to focus praise on saying things like, “I can tell you worked hard on that,” versus statements like, “you’re so good at that.” It’s actually enjoyable to take a moment, think about what your child has just created or accomplished, and pick out one or two things to highlight.
5. Inspire Them
A well-respected member of my South Jersey community recently got up on stage to receive a humanitarian award and gave a great speech about parenting and education. One thing he said was that every morning he asks his children, “What are you going to question in the world today?” It’s just a simple little statement, but the power of it is inherent: send your kids off into the world filled with curiosity. Give them the sense that they can make a difference. Tell your kids stories about Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller. Ask them how they would solve the world’s problems, like global warming or poverty. Sure, it’s grandiose. But that’s the point. Get them to think big, crazy, beautiful thoughts. In short, inspire them.
6. Teach Them To Be Bold
“Be Bold & Mighty Forces Will Come To Your Aid,” – Johann Goethe
It’s hard to explain this one, because it suggests a belief in magical beings – just what are these ‘mighty forces’? Angels? Fairy godmothers? Invisible helping hands? Who’s to say? The fact is, most people have experienced this phenomenon at some point in their life, which is why the quote by Goethe has become one of the most famous in history. Be brave, and the universe sends you a little help. Sure, it doesn’t always play out that way. Boldness doesn’t always lead to greatness. But when you reverse engineer it, greatness usually comes from boldness. Most of the moments of ‘greatness’ you look back on in your life, you probably had to overcome some fear. Take the shot. Kiss the girl. Stand up before a crowd. Whatever it was. Make sure your kids understand that magical things do happen when they take chances. And also remember that kids emulate what they see. So it just might require you breaking out of your own ‘adult malaise’ from time to time… and doing something bold yourself.
7. Teach Them To Be Humble
“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” – Muhammad Ali
Let’s say you’ve nurtured greatness. Your child is starting to achieve excellence, either in the classroom, or on the field or even in the social world. How do they maintain it? For one, you must teach them humility. As the bible says, pride comes before the fall. Icarus flew too close to the sun. If your child is starting to exhibit talent, warn them of the dangers of becoming too cocky. On the one hand, when you see them excel, you can’t help but swell up with pride a little bit yourself. That’s natural. But on the other hand, if you truly want them to reach the next level – to reach greatness – they are going to have to learn humility. Find a way to teach them…without taking the wind out of their sails. A good place to start is to read them cautionary tales like the aforementioned story of Icarus, a myth that still packs a punch today.
8. Connect the Dots
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs
You may find your child being unduly hard on themselves after a particularly bad performance. Or they may suffer a personal setback – the loss of a grandparent, breaking up with their first boyfriend or girlfriend – that can get in the way of unlocking their potential in other areas. In these instances, try to convey the concept embedded in Jobs’ quote above – that life doesn’t always make sense going forward, but looking back, you can see the plan. Unlike adults, kids are naturally “in the moment”. You don’t want them dwelling in their past — what little of it they have — so try gently prodding them along when they get hung up on something that’s gone wrong.
Sometimes the pebble in a child’s shoe can stop them from climbing mountains.
Often, when we see someone who has achieved greatness, we can’t help but think they were born with it, that it’s just “natural” talent. But you’d be remiss to ignore the other side of the debate: anyone who has reached elite status in their chosen field was “nurtured” somewhere along the way, whether by a mentor, a coach, a mother or father. As a parent, you can help pave the way to greatness by teaching your kids to work hard, be humble, not dwell on the past, take chances, embrace failure and stick with their dreams. And perhaps most importantly, sit down with them and share your own skills. Research has shown that talent development in kids correlates directly to the interests of parents, which you see in sports all the time, from Tiger Woods, to Peyton and Eli Manning, to the Williams sisters – all of whom had fathers heavily involved in their respective training. If your child sparks to one of your own passions, consider it a blessing – you’ll have created a beautiful bond that you can explore and deepen for the rest of your lives. Finally, remember that while greatness is certainly worth pursuing, it’s not the endgame. Just like shooting for the moon, even if you go for greatness and miss, you and your kids can still benefit from having taken the shot.