Genes vs. …Well, Practice

“America is a country where you can be anything you want to be.”

Is that statement really true? You might suppose that you are greatly limited by your genetic endowment. That no matter how many tennis balls you hit, you would never be an Arthur Ashe. No matter how many hours spent over a chess board, you could never be a Bobby Fisher. No matter what childhood you experience you could never be a Mozart.

Yet a new book argues that the sentence is more true than not true.

In The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk argues that “profound achievements are often driven by petty jealousies and resentments…[and] great talent seems to cluster geographically and temporally, undermining the assumption that it’s all due to individual genetic endowments.”

Shenk doesn’t neglect the take-home point we’re all waiting for, even titling a chapter “How to Be a Genius (or Merely Great).” The answer has less in common with the bromides of motivational speakers than with the old saw about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving, as Ericsson put it, “repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,” which results in “frequent failures.” This is known as “deliberate practice,” and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible. Behold our long rumored potential, unleashed at last!

Full review by Annie Murphy Paul in The New York Times.

Comments (9)

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  1. Dan Smith says:

    Sounds like a rehash of the thesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”. Gladwell is a gifted writer and thinker who nevertheless tries to advance the point that 10,000 hours of practice in youth will produce greatness. I can tell he hasn’t been the parent of a kid in a soccer program. Every soccer mom or dad thinks his/her kid will be the next Mia Hamm or David Beckham. The sad fact is that most will not, even with 20,000 hours. Gladwell himself is a talented man who probably would have been successful if he’d been born in the slums of Mombai. I find it curious that he can’t accept that fact. The New Yorker magazine, for whom he writes, naturally oozes with support for the idea that success is applied externally. How else to justify their class warfare world view?

  2. Virginia says:

    I have to partially agree with Dan on this one. No matter how hard you try, sometimes you just don’t have the body type to be Kathy Ireland.

    On the other hand, I have to agree with the book that working really really really really hard helps bring out natural talents that can be used to achieve success.

    I’ve read a few books that relate similar topics, and, frankly, I’m always shocked that the books never seem to answer the question: Is it worth it to be a “genius” in one’s field?

    Of all of the questions asked about how to be “successful,” I’ve never heard anyone ask whether or not it’s a worthy goal. Most of the people that we perceive as genius got there because they had an overwhelming need to follow their passions, and because they ENJOYED what they did (or had some unnatural compulsion toward their endeavor). Failure was not really failure. It was an experiment that contributed to learning. But, their personal lives suffered, and many of them had serious mental and emotional problems.

    In the search for “success,” we often gloss over that fact.

    My theory is this: people spend their time doing things they like doing. So, if you find yourself saying, “I really ought to be practicing X,Y,Z, because I need to practice in order to be a success,” then you don’t really enjoy doing it as much as you think. And no matter how hard you push yourself, you’re not going to reach the level of genius. The real geniuses are the ones that do it because they can’t imagine life without their passion. But they also pay a big price for their obsessions.

  3. Don Levit says:

    My personal view is that much of whatever success one achieves is due to individual effort and a positive environment.
    Included in that positive environment is encouragement of one’s peers and family, adequate material provisions, and a culture which encourages knowledge and excellence.
    In our present culture, I would say that last element is sorely lacking.
    Even when one has good ideas, his opiniuons are not taken at face value.
    Rather, one has an ulterior motive, such as material personal gain, so his ideas are devalued.
    We should be concentrating on the message, not the messenger.
    Motives are much harder to decipher than ideas.

    But back to my original premise. I believe success is deteremined by nature and nurture, with a heavy emplasis on nurture. We need each other.
    Rabbi Hlllel stated this pretty well:
    “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
    If I am only for myself, who am I?”
    Don Levit

  4. Devon Herrick says:

    It is probably technically incorrect to suggest that we all “can be anything we want to be.” I will never be a professional athlete (or a male model). But there are numerous things I (and most others) can excel at to a sufficient degree to be considered a success.

    I’m not sure if a person’s genetic endowment is that important. Having parents who place high expectations on their children; and encourage their kids to seek new challenges, work hard and excel at whatever they try is probably more important than the IQ parents passed to their kids.

  5. Ken says:

    I continue to believe that genes are very important.

  6. Phillip M. says:

    I agree that this idea works for a lot of things, but not everything… I don’t believe goals requiring certain physical attributes can be met through simply practicing over and over. But, I have found this to be true with things like speed reading (constantly reading faster than you can currently comprehend, until you find that your comprehension ability has actually increased quite a bit from when you first started).. and weight lifting – constantly training to failure and thereby increasing muscle capacity through repair.

  7. Bart Ingles says:

    Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving, as Ericsson put it, “repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,” […] and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible.

    And now we know the secret of Tiger Wood’s success…

  8. Robert says:

    These books have always fascinated me. I like the idea, even if it is purely psychological, that I can do and be anything I wanted.

    I have read “Outliers” and I didn’t like that Mr. Gladwell was putting so much emphasis on external factors to success, and not enough on the individual accomplishments or willingness to make sacrifices to become great. For example there were lots of kids in Seattle that would have access to the University of Washington computer systems, but I doubt many of them would have been willing on their own accord to get up and go early in the morning as Bill Gates did.

    The book I really enjoyed was “Talent is Overrated” by Geoffrey Colvin. There the idea os deliberate practice and the mental work that it involves. It is never just a matter of repition, but improvement and growth in the that repitition.

  9. Don Levit says:

    I agree with Robert that individual effort is important.
    And, I agree with those earler who inferred that actual chemical changes in the brain accompany consistent efforts.
    My concern is the source of improvement – to what those people who are successful attribute their success.
    Not only is talent overrated, for even extraordinary gifts must be consistently used.
    To say that I am the one who has diligently worked, and I alone should rerceive the credit and the financial renumeration is overrated.
    Don Levit