No man is an island’: The importance of opportunity in talent development

Smiling construction team

When most people think of talent, they think of a swashbuckling individualist whose own raw abilities has led them to excel in their field. After all, you say that somebody is ‘talented’ or someone ‘has talent’. However, this leads us to neglect not only the critical role of learning and resilience on their journey from ‘untapped potential’ to ‘high performer’, but also the key role played by those around them in facilitating this journey. I think that if you dig deep enough into any story of talent, you’ll dispel the myth that they were ever in it alone.

I think there is plenty of evidence to show that the social structures and opportunities that surround ‘talent’ can be just as important as an individual’s own natural ability and hard work. This blog highlights just three.

1. High expectations 

I’m sure that many of you are aware of the Pygmalion effect, which refers to how higher expectations can in turn lead to increased performance. This was most famously demonstrated in a study in 1960s on school children.1 In this study, teachers were told that certain randomly chosen children had higher potential than other children. Sure enough, these randomly chosen children in fact became high performing soon after.

I believe this effect is likely to be at play amongst many of the highest performing people we know. In the case of Thomas Edison, it was his mother who always expected highly and he has explicitly acknowledged her crucial role in his success, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me: and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

2. Opportunities for development 

The importance of opportunities for development are not to be understated. One particularly interesting example that helps to demonstrate exactly how dramatic the effects of opportunities for development can be is revealed by the sport of ice hockey. In the 1980s, Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley noticed that around 40% of professionals were born between January and March and only 10% between October and December.2 When investigating this phenomenon, researchers have noted that the arbitrary cut-off date for children’s year groups in Canadian hockey is January. Children born at the start of the year are therefore more physically and cognitively developed in age group hockey, leading scouts to choose them for their teams. This provides these children with access to the best training facilities from a young age, giving them a slight advantage which could result in a huge improvement in performance.

3. Social Support 


Psychological research has long documented the powerful effects that social support can bring to an individual’s resilience and performance.3 What’s more, this effects seems to apply across domains. For instance, in their research on Olympic champions, David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar noted that social support protected the world’s best athletes from the potential negative effects of stressors.4 Equally, researchers elsewhere have highlighted that it’s possible to predict the performance of business leaders from their social network ties.5

So, what does all of this mean in practice? Perhaps most importantly, it’s a change in mindset. Through understanding that talent is not something that somebody has, but something that is collectively built, managers, leaders and HR can grow their pool of talent by becoming ‘enablers of talent’ themselves.  



Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

2 Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

3 Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin98(2), 310.

4 Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(5), 669-678.

Mehra, A., Dixon, A. L., Brass, D. J. & Robertson, B. (2006). The social network ties of group leaders: Implications for group performance and leader reputation. Organization science, 17(1), 64-79.