Who wins in the end? The kid with grit or gift?

Updated on August 23, 2016
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Melis is a leadership coach and is fascinated by human potential. She writes about what it takes to unlock true greatness in children.

Most of us still remember the Tortoise and the Hare – a timeless childhood fable by Aesop which teaches us the benefit of setting and maintaining a steady pace to accomplish our goals.

As the story goes, the tortoise gets tired of listening to the hare bragging about how fast he could run and challenges the hare to race. The hare laughs at the tortoise first, but then gladly accepts the challenge thinking he would win. After starting off fast, the hare looks back to see that the tortoise is far behind him. His overconfidence gets the best of him, and he decides to rest under a tree and falls asleep. When he finally wakes up from his nap, he hears other animals cheering for the tortoise crossing the finish line.

So, the moral of this story is that we win in life because we have the grit that is passion and perseverance to achieve our goals, not because we have superior abilities or gifts. Is that really so?

Well, in real life, not everything is black and white. As accepted by many researchers including Angela Duckworth, the author of the popular book The Grit, the path to unlocking potential has many aspects and grit by itself is not enough to explain the entire development process.

Every child has unique natural abilities and development path

Francois Gagne, one of the most renowned talent researchers, believes that every child’s development path is unique and therefore leads to different outcomes regarding talents. In a nutshell, in his comprehensive framework, Gagne explains gifts and talents to be two distinct concepts. He argues:

  • Every child comes to this world bearing natural abilities or ‘gifts’. These abilities are the building blocks of the child’s talent development.
    • Intellectual – reasoning, verbal, numerical, memory related
    • Social – persuasion, leadership, manipulation
    • Perceptual – vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch
    • Creative – problem solving, imagination, originality
    • Motor control – speedy reflexes, agility, balance, coordination
    • Muscular – power, speed, strength
  • If a child’s natural abilities are appropriately cultivated, they will develop into fully-formed competencies or ‘talents’. This development is a lifelong process and can be applied to every field of learning such as:
    • Academics – math, literature, science, etc.
    • Arts – creative performing, visual, written, spoken
    • Sciences – engineering, medical, social
    • Technical – construction, manufacturing, transport, etc.
    • Social Services – health, education community
    • Business – management and administration
    • Sports

Gagne also suggests that a natural ability can manifest itself in many different ways, depending on the field of competence. To give as an example, intelligence that is a natural ability can be expressed in the sharp reasoning of a scientist, the strategic planning of a businessman or the forward-looking analysis of a video game player.

Talent development requires much more than just having natural abilities. Gagne points out there are key intrapersonal and environmental factors that impact talent development.


7 qualities children need to unlock their potential

1- Practice: No surprises here! It takes thousands of hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in any field. Children need to:
– put in time and energy (and their parents’ money!)
– concentrate on the task to correct errors
– show resilience when faced with difficulties and bounce back

2- Willpower: Gagne believes ‘talent is the result of applying personal effort and willpower to the development of what are initially nothing more than uncertain potentials.’ Children:
– exercise self-control and regulate their behaviors and emotions can achieve their goals
– show perseverance and keep trying when going gets tough

3- Curiosity: In this context, curiosity corresponds to openness to all kinds of knowledge. An open home environment where questions are asked and answered develops a sense of curiosity and of problem-solving that facilitates learning.

4- Love of learning: All children possess love of learning. Once they find what really interests them and if they get engaged in a joyous, playful way, they can learn almost anything.

5- Ambition: Ambition points to drive, competitiveness, a desire to be the best. As described in the article, What makes Phelps one of the greatest athletes of all times?, what gets Phelps out of bed every day is to be the best ever. He just hates to lose.

6- A good environment is key to unlocking potential.
• The quality of peer group, teachers, mentors, coaches helps shape children’s behaviors.
• The quality of teaching at schools is critical.
• The desire of parents to see their children become successful in life helps children excel. Parents should provide both support supervision.

7- Chance: It is not possible to deny the impact of chance, especially when it comes togenetics and family environment. They play a major role, especially in early childhood.

After 35 years of talent development study and research, Gagne concludes that

"Each journey towards excellence is unique to each individual. The combination of all these ingredients will make different talents appear in different children."

Here is a recording where Gagne talks about his framework:

Coming back to the Tortoise and the Hare

It turns out the story is not about the tortoise, but about the hare. By belittling the competition, the hare could not regulate his behavior or emotions and thus ends up losing the race.

So, the real moral of the story becomes:
To be able to win, having a superior natural ability is not enough. Children need to know how to use that gift in the right way, in the right environment.

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