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.

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  1. Jason says:

    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:

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  2. Lowell Thompson says:

    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.

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  3. igolem says:

    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.

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  4. Rudiger in Jersey says:

    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.

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  5. Bill says:

    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.

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  6. nobody.really says:

    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.

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  7. KarenS says:

    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.

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  8. Owen says:

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

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