The Science of Genius: A Q&A With Author David Shenk

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: Heidi Schumann David Shenk

Practice makes genius? That’s the idea behind the research of people like Anders Ericsson. It’s also at the center of a new book, The Genius in All of Us, by journalist David Shenk. Shenk robustly disputes the popular belief that intelligence and talent are genetically predetermined, and methodically explains the thousands of hours of practice behind the “genius” of a host of musical and athletic superstars (and those amazing London cabbies).

Can anyone be Michael Jordan? Probably not, but Shenk believes that most people are capable of a lot more than they realize. His book explores ideas similar to those recently covered in books like Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers, Geoff Colvin‘s Talent Is Overrated, and Daniel Coyle‘s The Talent Code, but there are plenty of new angles in Shenk’s Genius. He has agreed to answer a few questions about the book.


The idea that genes simplistically dictate both physical attributes and intellectual capabilities (or lack thereof) is pretty widespread, perhaps because of those Mendel-inspired eye color charts everyone fills out in high school biology, but the truth is a bit more complicated. How do genes work? Most importantly of all, can two blue-eyed parents really produce a brown-eyed child?


They really can. The key thing for people to understand about genes is that, while of course they substantially impact everything about who we are, the actual end results for any trait — eye color, height, athleticism, musicality — is the result of a dynamic interaction between genes and their immediate environment. Genes don’t contain instructions for eye color per se; they contain instructions on how proteins should be assembled. Exactly how those instructions get transmitted and subsequently become eye color, etc., is constantly affected by hormones, which in turn can be affected by nutrition, stress, activity, even thoughts. Genes are not blueprints — they’re more like switches that get turned on and off.

This may seem jarring to a lot of people who, as you say, learned the more simplistic Mendelian version. But the gene expression paradigm is widely accepted among geneticists.


So if intelligence isn’t predetermined by genes, what does determine intelligence?


Genes influence intelligence, to be sure. But fundamentally, intelligence is an accumulation of skills — not an innate thing. We all have genetic differences that are going to impact how we develop and learn. But that’s a far cry from saying that some people are just genetically doomed to be lackluster and others are destined to be brilliant. Intellectual skills and the psychological motivation to develop them begin to develop not long after birth and remain in play until you take your last breath.


What about pure geniuses like Michael Jordan or Mozart? Those kinds of extraordinary people must just be different than the rest of us — more genetically gifted, right?


That’s what it looks like from far away. Jordan flies through the air with such grace and abilities so far apart from mine that it seems he must be some sort of genetically gifted super-being. The rebuttal to this actually takes an entire book to convey, but it first involves helping people understand that everything about talent is a process. There’s the genetic piece, and then there’s the ability piece. When you look very closely at Jordan’s life, you see a rather ordinary teenage athlete with no particularly grand ambition until about mid-way through high school. (Don’t take my word for it – read David Halberstam‘s Playing For Keeps.) After the deep disappointment of not making the varsity team, Jordan developed an unparalleled ambition that quite simply dwarfed that of his schoolmates in high school and later his teammates at the University of North Carolina. Jordan’s abilities developed according to what he demanded of himself.

The same is true of other super-achievers. From a distance, it looks like they’ve got something almost super-human about them. But when you look up close, at the moment-to-moment lives they lead, the sacrifices they make, the extraordinary resources they have around them, their abilities actually do make logical sense. If it’s documented closely enough, you can actually see how they went from mediocre to good, from good to great, from great to extraordinary.

This is not to say that anyone can literally became anything, or that we’re equal in our potential. But from my vantage point, the true genetic gift is the design of the genome itself — our bodies and our minds are simply designed to respond to environmental demands.


You give evidence in the book that child prodigies are often not successful as adults. Why not?


Several reasons. First is that the skills are quite different. Child achievers are masters of a particular technical skill, which is impressive compared to other children; adult achievers have technical skill too, of course, but also a creative layer which is quite different. It often doesn’t naturally follow that the young technical achievers will also become creative masters.

The second reason is that early super achievers often get stuck in the psychology of their own success. Children who grow up surrounded by praise for being technically proficient at a specific task often develop a natural aversion to stepping outside their comfort zone. Instead of falling into a pattern of taking risks and regularly pushing themselves just beyond their limit, they develop a terrible fear of new challenges and of any sort of flaw or failure. Ironically, this leads them away from the very building blocks of adult success. Boston College’s Ellen Winner has written eloquently about this issue.


The Genius in All of Us is “not a instruction manual about how YOU TOO can become JUST LIKE WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE!” but you do offer some suggestions for how the average person can achieve greatness. Can you share a few of them with us?


In the book, the suggestions are made specifically in the context of understanding the science that lies behind them. Without that scientific underpinning, they’ll likely come off as motivational pablum. But here goes…

Nietzsche wrote: “All great artists and thinkers [are] great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.” His observation was dead-on, and timeless. Hollywood movies suggest that genius is a series of Eureka! moments, that true greatness flows effortlessly. We live under the great myth of the perfect first draft. While moments of inspiration do exist, great work is, for the most part, painstaking and cannot happen without the most severe (and constructive) self-criticism.

In consumer culture, we are constantly conditioned to gratify our impulses immediately: buy, eat, watch, click- now. High achievers transcend these?impulses. Like the Buddha who waits patiently at the gates of heaven until all others have entered before him, young Kenyans are content to run for many?years before they can even dream of competing in a major international contest. The tiny violinist screeches out earsplitting sounds not because he thinks?a dazzling concerto is right around the corner, but because there is something satisfying in the struggle and in the tiny improvements made along the way. The big prize is envisioned and appreciated as a far-off goal- it is not lusted after. Small accomplishments along the way provide more than enough?satisfaction to continue.


What does this new understanding of genetics and intelligence mean for parenting? What can parents do to help their kids achieve greatness?


In this limited space, let me just stick to one point, which is that parents need to model a life of delayed gratification and persistence if they want their kids to embrace those values themselves. Show your kids how hard you work, how often you experience disappointments and how you respond to those disappointments. If you blame others for your failures or simply give up, that’s what your kids will learn. If you take on a long-term challenge, show a deep commitment to the process and a refusal to give up in the face of adversity, your kids will pick that up instead.


It's a fascinating question, but what then needs to be developed in order to become a genius? He describes Jordan's will power, but how do we develop this will power? It's obviously not only hard work and delayed gratification. Interestingly, even mathematicians claim they chose to become a genius. A riveting discussion on can one choose to become a genius:

Lowell Thompson

So how does he explain "idiot savants" who are born with the capacity to play Bach without any lessons or, like the autistic Afro-British artist, Stephen Wilshire, who can look at any skyline anywhere on earth for a few minutes and then draw it in complete detail?

This sounds like just another pop "you can become whatever" book.


I've read one of Ericcson's papers and two things really bother me about this 'research'.

1) Most of the anecdotes are around mechanical geniuses (sports and music) versus say intellectual genius. And I chose the term anecdotes deliberately.

2) No scientific effort seems to be underway to test and reproduce this theory. The interpretation of historical data is compelling, it suggests we all have great potential regardless of what a test or genetics say. But this extraordinary claim needs extraordinary evidence. Just interpreting historical data is prone to reverse processing and silent evidence problems, among others.

In fairness Ericcson acknowledges he hasn't proven that genes don't play a role, he just doesn't see any evidence that it does so far.

Rudiger in Jersey

Genius like many things in life is a combination of hereditary gifts and personal drive and ambition. But the real question is what is the percentage of each. Thomas Edison said it is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration.

At UC Berkeley there was a Professor Emeritus Albert Einstein, son of the great physicist. He was a physicist as well but he was no ' Einstein.'

Why do offspring of great geniuses and promient accomplished parents fail to live up to expectations? Is the offspring of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie destined to be the Helen of Troy of her generation...or just a fairly attractive peer. Why was the son of Michael Jordan just a low benchwarmer in the last March Madness?

The answer: Because it is not just Genetics.


Why do people always use Michael Jordan as an example? An example of a smaller but extremely hard working player can be very misleading. How hard did Shaq work to be the 1rst draft pick? Usain Bolt crushed the 100 meter record with the worst form and least experience. Why? Pure genetics. No matter how hard I run I will never break 10 in the 100 meter (believe me I tried).

By using those very same statics that favor a nurture argument we can statistically prove that genetics dominates the top end of certain games and professions. Look at the statistics of birthdays for NBA allstars, Fields medalists and Nobel winning Physicists. The closer they are to beingrandom, the closer they are to a "natural" selection. At the margins where there are several people with similar nature endowments and in sports where skills are more important than "natural" talent hard work will dominate.

I suspect that these books like Outliers are seductive to people who want nurture to have an outsized part in the nature/nurture argument. If Einstein worked his way to relativity, then we can all be geniuses, Right? Yes hard will make anyone more competitive and may even be a necessity but I suspect Gauss and Newton were born better.



I love Michael Jordan!

Why do we love sports? Because of the morality tale it provides about hard work, dedication, perseverance, competitiveness, and a modicum of strategic thinking. Michael Jordan epitomized all of that, and look at what he accomplished in basketball.

Of course Michael Jordan epitomized all of that. And of course he accomplished great things in basketball. But that's not what I love about him.

I love him because he didn't stop there. No, he then turned his oh-so-prodigious talents - all his capacity for hard work, dedication, perseverance, competitiveness and strategic thinking - to the sport of baseball. And he couldn't even qualify as a professional minor-league player.

Moral: You can have the same capacity for hard work, dedication, perseverance, competitiveness and strategic thinking as Michael Jordan and STILL fail at what you pursue. These qualities may be necessary, but they are manifestly not sufficient, for greatness. And we have Michael Jordan to thank for demonstrating this conclusively.



Not everyone can become Michael Jordan. He was symmetric, resilient to injury, and otherwise physically able to thrive under intense training.

Other people, not so much. Training as much as Mr. Jordan did might injure or fatigue someone who doesn't have his natural ability to withstand that training.

On the other hand, there are probably people who have Mr. Jordan's physical gifts, but not his drive for perfection.

Or: it's a combination of a whole lot of traits, nature and nurture.


Do we really want our kids to be geniuses? Seems like quite an assumption.


Ignoring and/or playing down IQ and natural, i.e., genetic, talent as a NECESSARY condition for genius is just silly. I watched an hour dialog with the author and I was convinced he was either deceptive or ignorant.

Yes YOU - the totally average or even below average kid - can be a GENIUS if only you spend every second of that ever scarce resource - time - investing into a field where the kids with the most talent will constantly prove you, and Shenk, wrong. What's noble about promoting that? That's like trying to convince people they they, too, can win the lottery, that the odds aren't that bad if they just buy more tickets.

Science of genius? Please.

Savants might fail, but do most kids with very high IQ's? No. There's a massive amount of data on this (termite study, etc). These kids rock and achieve in life. I'd like to see a list of modern people with average IQ's who are considered geniuses. How about providing us with that?

And we know IQ is a VERY stable number, changing very little throughout life, and the arrow moves TOWARDS your parents' IQ's as you get older, not up or down depending on your training.

And how heritable are things like concentration, discipline, work ethic, etc.? Does Shenk discuss that? Or does he assume we're blank slates in that regard? Google "Big 5, conscientiousness, heritability .50"). People vary genetically with respect to this.

And let's not play with words and call people who are good at sports "geniuses". They are awesome athletes. After all, we don't call animals whose athletic talent dwarfs ours geniuses. But the point is the same. Natural talent is a necessary condition for athletic dominance, too.

And what about the survivorship bias?


Martin Doonan

My immediate reaction to the "anyone can be a genius" is: bobbins!
I will support an argument that people can be better than they think. But that also takes recognising their natural talents, too (or at least the things they are better suited to). That does not make genius.
Take myself and Jordan. Being fully 6" shorter than him, I don't think there was ever a way I could have been able to emulate his sporting prowess. That's genetics.
Or take academic & professional development. I worked hard at all the engineering subjects I took. I found I have more talent for some and have turned them into a career. There are some subjects I don't understand, despite long hours of study, and never will. That can't be a nurture thing, having spent as much time at it as my peers who have different skills spreads.


Genius is a sudden spark of intelligence.

We are all intelligent no question about that... but Genius are born and not brought-up...that is for sure.


A preposterous theory with equally preposterous
3 'data'. Its easy to cherrypick genetically superior failures and undermanned successes, and try to prove a point. Most disappointing is that you guys take him seriously even though his ideas are in direct opposition of your "# of books, not how much you are read to matters" chapter of your book.

It simply boils down to this: Can everyone become a genius? Certainly not. Can many people who could have been one fail? Of course. Genetics sets your ceiling, it might even set your floor, but the rest is up to alot.


Why does he perpetuate this myth that Jordan did not make the varsity team due to a lack of talent?

The reality is that Jordan did not make the varsity team his freshman year because there was a blanket rule at his school that NO freshmen played varsity.

He was the best player on the JV squad and the best player on the Varsity team the next year. This is on one of the best teams in the country. So no, he was not an "average" athlete until the "disappointment" of not making varsity.

Did you do any research for your book???

Lowell Thompson

OK, I'll take another bite at this apple and I'll use the prototypical example of the "genius" of Michael Jordan just for convenience. After thinking more, and reading some of the comments above, another question popped into my middling mind.

What about the role of luck and timing in real world success? Nobody's mentioned it.

If Jordan had been born before the 1920s, no matter how much of a basketball genius" he was, he would have died unheard of and unheralded. Why? Because American racism would have prevented him from even thinking about playing in the big leagues. Ditto for Willie Mays , Jackie Robinson, Derek Jeter or any other amazing "genius" baseball players before the mid 1940s.

The number of "black", "brown", women, gay, poor, non-white, non-male, non-upper middle class or wealthy American geniuses who are still dying on the vine right now because of discrimination in almost every field of endeavor gives lie to the basic premise of this "research" and this book.

The moral? Don't buy the book or its bogus premise.


Christopher Strom

More than a few commentors here seem to want genetics' influence on success to be an either/or situation - either genetics determines success or it is irrelevant.

Both seem to me to be a cop-out:

If success is determined by efforts alone, then one's relative success (and wealth) is deserved, and one is simply a better person than the less successful.

On the other hand, if the a person's success is based on genetics (i.e. factors outside individual control), then one can be much more content with mediocrity, since he is not gentically "gifted".

Mike B

I think that there is a strong selection bias with people who end up putting in the work and effort needed to achieve elite lever performance. People will put in the effort to improve themselves when they they experience positive feedback from expending that effort. When Michael Jordan or Mozart put the time in to practice they were most likely aware of how their skills were improving. Someone who lacks the innate talent will only hit a brick wall and thus will stop throwing good effort after bad so to speak.

People need to be encouraged to find the activity that their natural talent supports. It's basically the principle of comparative advantage. You try a number of activities (art, music, math, etc) and you determine which activities produce the greatest return per unit of training effort. People should never be encouraged to "brute force" their way to proficiency as it will only result in marginal performance and burnout as they struggle to keep up with those with a greater comparative advantage.



Cliff - Jordan was cut his sophomore year, so there it is not a myth.

But back to genetics, what did happen between his soph and junior years? From his bio:

"He attended Laney High school in Wilmington, North Carolina, but as a 5-11 skinny sophomore, he was CUT from the varsity basketball team. The summer before his junior year, he grew to 6-3 and began his path to super-stardom. "

William Bell

Mike B wrote:
>>When Michael Jordan or Mozart put the time in to practice they were most likely aware of how their skills were improving. Someone who lacks the innate talent will only hit a brick wall and thus will stop throwing good effort after bad so to speak.<< A painful (for me) case in point: my daughter's pursuit of balletic glory. She started with the Maryland Youth Ballet at the age of five or six, with stars in her eyes, and kept at it through high school -- spending three or fours hours in the studio every day after school, as a result of which she had to stay up past midnight most nights to finish her homework, also devoting summers to the same pursuit when she was old enough to be admitted to the summer training programs of the Princeton and Miami ballet companies. She was second to no one in diligence or desire, until, eventually, she was checked, hard, by the increasingly obvious fact that she was relatively lacking in certain innate abilities crucial to balletic success, as compared with others in her school, and that no amount of effort on her part would make up for it.



While I agree that if you dare to dream, keep your eyes up in the stars and believe in your will be beaten by someone who put their head down and worked hard, I find it interesting that you assert that "Jordan developed an unparalleled ambition that quite simply dwarfed that of his schoolmates".

How do you measure that? Is it not likely that 10 of his class mates had similar ambition, but we only know of his as he succeeded? Looks like responder bias to me

G Hall

Why is Jordan always the example that people choose? Everybody that follows basketball knows that Jordan was successful because of his incredible competitiveness that was borderline insanity.

All the stories about Jordan in the NBA talk about how he took practice more seriously than other players would take games, about how he had to win every single drill and every competition. Jordan would challenge other players to shooting contests after practice, and if he lost, he would demand a rematch until he won, physically forcing players to stay until he beat them.

A much better example in these articles would be LeBron James. LeBron dominated his peers from the age of 13 or 14, and was the best player in his age group (or any other age group for that matter) long before he was drafted #1.

He works hard, but not much harder than most other good NBA players (Kobe is often used as his foil in this regard), and yet dominates at a level that no one since Jordan or Oscar Robertson has.

Players like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant are arguments FOR work ethic over natural talent, not against it. Guys like LeBron James (or Jevon Kearse or Jonah Lomu) are the examples that these authors should be citing.