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Benjamin S. Bloom directed a study of 120 young men and women who were among America’s top performers in widely divergent fields—piano playing, sculpting, swimming, tennis, mathematics, and neurology. After extensive interviews with the performers and their families, his team found that their home environments shared a number of traits.
Despite wide variations in the parents’ backgrounds, professions, and incomes, their homes tended to be child-oriented. Kids were important, and the parents were willing to do a lot—almost anything—to help them. The parents also believed in and modeled a strong work ethic. Work came before play, obligations had to be met, goals were to be pursued. In one of the most cited conclusions from Bloom’s report, he found that “To excel, to do one’s best, to work hard, and to spend one’s time constructively were emphasized over and over again.” In an organization, this would be called the culture—the norms and expectations that are simply in the air.
The parents of these high achievers gave them strong guidance on the general choice of a field, but chance played a large role in the specific choice. The artists tended to come from artistic parents, the athletes from athletic parents, the mathematicians and neurologists from very learned parents, and the parents provided early encouragement in those directions. But a child might end up studying the piano because a piano was available, or become a swimmer because the swimming team needed one more member. The children were not irresistibly drawn to specific fields, nor did their parents force them.
The parents did choose teachers, which was one of their most important roles as their children progressed and needed to be challenged at higher levels. The child’s initial teacher was almost always someone who happened to be convenient—a local coach, teacher, or relative. But invariably these kids progressed to a level where they needed a better teacher, and these next teachers were frequently not convenient; parents had to devote lots of time and energy to finding the right teacher and then driving the child to and from lessons. Ultimately these young achievers moved on to some form of master-level teacher, a step that demands major sacrifices of time, money, and energy by both parents and students.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the University of Chicago and colleagues investigated why it’s easier for some adolescents than others to sustain concentrated, effortful study, the core of deliberate practice and high achievement. The research focused on the students’ family environments, evaluating them on two dimensions, stimulation and support. A stimulating environment was one with lots of opportunities to learn and high academic expectations. A supportive environment was one with well-defined rules and jobs, without much arguing over who had to do what, and in which family members could rely on one another. The researchers classified family environments as stimulating or not and supportive or not, creating four possible combinations. Adolescents living in three of those combinations reported the typical low-interest, low-energy experience of studying. But in the fourth combination, the environment that was both stimulating and supportive, students were much more engaged, attentive, and alert in their studying.
This key finding fits exactly with observations in Bloom’s research. The environments he examined were also stimulating—“parents encouraged the curiosity of their children at an early age and answered their questions with great care”—and were structured and supportive, with everyone having clear roles and tasks, and parents going to some lengths to support their children’s practice.
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