How to make sure your children are successful — even when they have no natural talent

If you are concerned by your child’s uninspiring exam grades or sporting performance, then psychologist Adam Grant has some good news. 

“Success is less a matter of natural talent,” he says, “and more about nurturing their ‘hidden potential’.”

Grant is an organisational psychologist and New York Times-best-selling author who has doled out advice to the likes of Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Serena Williams and Oprah Winfrey. His latest book, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things, is a guide to “raising aspirations and exceeding expectations”, formed from his research as a professor of psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. 

“I used to believe that you could judge where you would land from where you start; I thought the child prodigies, the best athletes, the most naturally gifted musicians, the most brilliant students were the ones who had the talent to go on to achieve greater things in the future,” adds Grant, 42. 

He was pleasantly surprised, then, to find his research demonstrated the reverse — “that there are many late bloomers” or people who struggle seemingly without “natural aptitude for a task or a skill but, with the right opportunity and motivation, go on to exceed their own and other people’s expectations”.

Grant’s research was spurred on by a 1980s study of 120 Olympic swimmers, neurologists, concert pianists and other high-achieving individuals, who “were rarely identified as having extraordinary potential by their early teachers and coaches – not even by their own parents, in most cases”. When they did later flourish, “it wasn’t because they had superhuman abilities|, but because they cared, and were willing to put in the work. “That was really the beginning, for me, of getting curious about hidden potential,” says Grant.

There’s also the fact that Grant has experienced this first-hand. He is Wharton’s top-rated professor for the past seven years and a Fortune 40 Under 40 alumnus, named as one of the world’s most influential management thinkers. 

Adam Grant is a TedTalk speaker, whose segments have been viewed 15 million times on YouTube Credit: Pasi Salminen

He is a TedTalk speaker, whose segments have been viewed 15 million times on YouTube, author of best-selling books and host of the podcast ReThinking, where guests have included Malcolm Gladwell, Dolly Parton, Jane Goodall, Jennifer Garner and Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

It is hard to believe he has ever been anything less than highly impressive. But he insists that he had no natural talent as a child. As a teenage diver, Grant was nicknamed “Frankenstein” and couldn’t touch his toes; he was told he needed remedial classes for writing, and was too shy to speak publicly. Still, he went on to make the US Junior Olympic diving team, write five books (one co-authored with Sandberg) and orate to packed audiences. 

“I had hidden potential in all those areas,” he says. And now he has another generation to observe: his children, aged 15, 13 and 10.

Much of the failure to discover hidden potential comes from underestimation, he says: when someone struggles with something, “we assume that’s not for me, I don’t have that talent, I don’t have a knack for that skill”. Moving on, rather than trying to nurture something we’re yet to excel in, “has dire consequences … we limit ourselves and the people around us”.

That’s not to say every sub-par drawing or tuneless clarinet recital is a potential masterpiece, but if your child is the next Van Gogh, you’re worst placed to spot it anyway, Grant says. “You don’t have the independence and the objectivity that you need to be an accurate judge.” The reasons for that are twofold: either parents “over-identify” with their children in a bid to revive their own perceived hidden potential, and “want their kids to live their dreams for them”. Or their expectations are too high, which can have deleterious effects. 

Grant points to research from Dr Thomas Curran at the London School of Economics that shows perfectionism in children has been rising in recent decades – typically caused by “parents having unreasonable expectations of kids and also criticising them harshly when they don’t live up to them. And what that means over time is that kids beat themselves up for making mistakes, for failing”, even though those mistakes form a fundamental part of any learning process. 

The best thing parents can do in the search for hidden potential is to connect their child with a teacher or mentor “who believes in their potential, who cares about their success and wellbeing, and who they trust – and do not feel is the parent trying to manipulate or control them, or a parent engaging in wishful thinking”.

It may sound like more work than if you had a prodigy on your hands – but Grant thinks early success isn’t all that useful. The ability to play a Mozart sonata or memorise swathes of information ahead of a test may help in certain circumstances, but “when it comes time to figure out how to contribute knowledge, and discover new insights”, this cohort can fall short, as they have little developed a propensity to reshape ideas into their own. Plus, a child used to excelling from the off is unlikely to have built up much resilience, according to Grant. “Failure stings a lot more when you don’t have any experience with it.”

Instead of worrying about how and when your child will display signs of success, two things matter more: adaptability, which Grant calls “a core skill” among the most impressive people he’s worked with, and equifinality — the principle that in any complex system, there are multiple routes to the same end. “Maybe the only thing you have to do for sure to be successful,” he says, “is be open to multiple ways of achieving success.”


Adam Grant on his five rules for success (at any age)

Think like a scientist…

…as opposed to a preacher, prosecutor or politician. Too many people spend a lot of their time thinking like preachers, where they proselytise their own views; prosecutors, where they attack someone else’s; or politicians where they only listen to people who already agree with their views. The danger of all these mindsets is they stop you from learning. You think you’re right, and other people are wrong.

“Thinking like a scientist doesn’t necessitate buying a microscope, but rather not letting your ideas become your identity. Recognise your opinions are hypotheses; your decisions are experiments. And when you do that, you’re much quicker to recognise when you’re wrong, and that means you can be faster to get it right.

Become a (sea) sponge

I once thought that being a sponge meant soaking up information and absorbing all the knowledge you can to get better. But being a sea sponge – whose key property is to absorb nutrients and expel harmful particles – is far more effective. 

We should apply that to the world of feedback, which we are often told is a gift. Whenever I hear that, I want to say, “Where’s the returns department?” because I didn’t ask for all these gifts and I’m not sure that all of them are going to be useful to me. Not all critics are being constructive.

This was the case for Mellody Hobson, chairman of the board of directors at Starbucks, who went from poverty to being one of the most successful people on Wall Street. At the outset of her career, she was hit with an avalanche of feedback, which led her to a series of questions: “Is this person trying to help? Are they credible on the task? And do they know me well enough to give me useful input?” If the answer to any of those questions is no, you might want to take the information you’re getting with a grain of salt. 

Ask for advice that leads people to coach you, rather than feedback, which is backward-looking.

Get giving

Success-wise, givers tend to outperform takers. I wrote about this phenomenon in my 2013 book, Give and Take, which detailed how individuals find it “more motivating” to be the benefactor. 

Receiving is passive — if you’re always the one being coached, it puts you in the position of depending on others for guidance. Selfish takers are too transactional. They burn bridges. And eventually karma tends to catch up with them. They also miss out on learning opportunities, because they only say yes to things where they think there’s a personal direct benefit.

Giving, meanwhile, is active — coaching others reminds you that you have something to offer.

Embrace imposter syndrome

“This is counter-intuitive to a lot of people, because we normally think about imposter syndrome as debilitating. But it is, in fact, a sign of hidden potential: less a case of people overestimating you, more you underestimating yourself. Research shows so-called imposters end up working harder than their peers to close the gap between what other people think they’re capable of and their own beliefs in their capabilities.

“The number of highly successful people who have grappled with imposter syndrome is both disproportionate and striking. They include Reese Witherspoon, a friend of mine, who appeared on my ReThinking podcast, where she admitted that during the filming of 2005’s Walk the Line, she called her team crying every day, because she felt she was failing … she felt like a complete imposter – yet she went on to win an Oscar for the role.

Seek excellence, not perfection

“Progress comes from maintaining high standards, not eliminating every flaw. Be bolder when it comes to our developing skill sets: you don’t have to have mastered something — whether that’s football or French — to use and enjoy it. I would reverse the “use it or lose it” saying and say “if you don’t use it, you might never gain it at all”.

If progress feels grinding, try some mental time travel. Consider how your past self would view your current achievements. If you knew five years ago what you’d accomplish now, how proud would you have been?

Hidden Potential: the Science of Achieving Greater Things by Adam Grant (£25, WH Allen) is out now