I was at the Higher Education Academy conference this week in Manchester.

I heard Dame Tanni Grey Thompson speak after the (excellent) conference dinner. Dame Tanni is a great Olympic Athlete. Her biography is called ‘Seize the Day’ – a phrase Beyond Distance is fond of – we called our learning design workshops CARPE DIEM (

But how she has seized everything and what an inspiration! Her ability to take and understand constant critique whilst maintaining absolute determination and independence of spirit shone through in every word.

Though thankfully very few of us face and overcome the disadvantages of paralysis from our early lives, as Dame Tanni did, I guess we all have our burdens which can appear to get in the way, of personal and professional achievement, and the enabling of others to excel.

The principles that I got from her talk were clear: the need for planning and preparing for success – sheer hard slog,  team work, forward-vision and aspiring to make dreams come true. I think it’s not too fanciful to apply these to the future for learning- indeed I think we should do nothing less!!

Gilly Salmon
July 2009

Achieving greatness: Can we rely on our genes, or is it all about hard work?

I wanted to focus my blog entry around an issue that I’ve read a lot about lately, and would be interested to hear what other people think. In our working lives, we all strive to be ‘successful’. Some of us have clearly defined routes to success, perhaps following a route that is planned out for us or pre-determined by the field we work in. For example, achieving the grades we ‘require’ at school, attaining a degree, going through higher education, perhaps working towards Chartership.

For others the route to success is very different: some people appear to be ‘blessed’ with a natural talent which, in itself, pre-determines and guides their future career. A ‘talented’ footballer; an ‘expert’ musician; a ‘born’ mathematician.

So what does it take to be great? Are some people naturally talented? Or is success and ‘greatness’ all about hard work and practice?

I recently stumbled upon two books that have got me thinking about these issues. One is called “Outliers” and the other is “Talent is overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else.” These books focus on the idea that being successful is not about our DNA or our genetics. It’s about hard work, determination, perseverance. I like this approach: it gives me hope in the belief that anyone can become successful or achieve greatness if they put their mind to it, work hard and learn from the mistakes they make along the way. Even the great Albert Einstein claimed “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems for longer”.

Within these books there is certainly evidence for this way of thinking, taking some of the world’s ‘great performers’ and considering their childhood and experiences. The suggestion is that these people didn’t just effortlessly get where they are today: they spent hours and hours practicing, dedicating themselves to attaining these skills.

But what about ‘child prodigies’? The psychological literature seems full of these case studies; anomalies; outliers. Are children with seemingly inexplicable skills ‘undeniable evidence’ of a ‘natural talent?’ And what about patients who suffer from neurological damage and, when they recover, have developed an ability or talent that they never had before? Similarly, the talent of autistic savants surely implies that there is some genetic reason for these areas of ‘genius’?

To finish with the (hopefully thought provoking) words of Rene Descartes: “It’s not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”

Kelly Barklamb

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