Toward a science of exceptional achievement: attaining superior performance through deliberate practice

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Aug:1172:199-217. doi: 10.1196/annals.1393.001.


Exceptional performance is frequently attributed to genetic differences in talent. Since Sir Francis Galton's book, Hereditary Genius, many scientists have cited heritable factors that set limits of performance and only allow some individuals to attain exceptional levels. However, thus far these accounts have not explicated the causal processes involved in the activation and expression of unique genes in DNA that lead to the emergence of distinctive physiological attributes and cognitive capacities (innate talent). This article argues on the basis of our current knowledge that it is possible to account for the development of elite performance among healthy children without recourse to innate talent (genetic endowment)--excepting the innate determinants of body size. Our account is based on the expert-performance approach and proposes that the distinctive characteristics of exceptional performers are the result of adaptations to extended and intense practice activities that selectively activate dormant genes that are contained within all healthy individuals' DNA. Furthermore, the theoretical framework of expert performance explains the apparent emergence of early talent by identifying factors that influence starting ages for training and the accumulated engagement in sustained extended deliberate practice, such as motivation, parental support, and access to the best training environments and teachers. In sum, our empirical investigations and extensive reviews show that the development of expert performance will be primarily constrained by individuals' engagement in deliberate practice and the quality of the available training resources.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Achievement*
  • Adaptation, Physiological / genetics
  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Aptitude
  • Child
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Motivation*
  • Professional Competence / standards*
  • Science
  • Transcriptional Activation