Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk

David Shenk has good news. Geniuses aren’t born, and very few of us have genetic limitation on our capacities.  Just to make sure you get it, his book is entitled The Genius in All of Us.

Shenk challenges the notion that genius, talent, and the potential to excel in a field is something a few people are born with, lucky people who hit the jackpot in the genetic lottery.  He is not entirely an advocate of nurture in the nature-versus-nurture debate.  He looks at new science that suggests that that is a false notion to begin with.  Traits, including intelligence, develop form the interaction of genes and the environment.

Genes are not a blueprint that determine out traits.  Genes influence our reaction to the environment.   The environment influences the expression of our genes.  It’s complex.  Shenk devote a chapter to epigenetics.  This is material in our cells that protect and support the function of our genes.  Our epigenes influence the expression of our genes, are influenced by the environment, and most astounding are hereditable.  Environmental and behavioral factors can change the epigenes in ways that are passed on to offspring for generations and affect the expression of genes in those offspring.

Unless we have some unusual genetic disorder, the lesson of this book is that our genes are just one card in the hand we are dealt, and genes are not necessarily the most important card.  Genes are important, but so are a lot of other things.  Our traits are malleable, shaped by genes, environment, and behavior, and to the degree that we can influence those things we can change our traits.  We can become geniuses.

The bad news is the road to genius is not an easy one.  Mozart and Michael Jordon have in common that they put in a lot of time over a many years deliberately practicing and improving their skills.  Beethoven and Yo-Yo Ma may seem like born prodigies, but they were surrounded my music, music teachers, encouragement, challenges, competition, high expectations, and opportunities from birth.  Abundant practice and continuing improvement from early childhood helped them become very competent musicians as children, and many more years of deliberate practice, commitment, and mentoring resulted in the genius they exhibited as adults.

Based on this, Shenk presents a chapter on how to become a genius.  Genius may not be quite the right word, especially if you starting something later in life after years of thinking you had little ability.  However, I think his advice is likely to lead to great improvement, even above normal success and excellence.  The first piece of advice is to find your motivation.  If you have the motivation to devote a lot of time to practice, and the commitment push yourself to always seek improvement, you will get better and with time will be excellent.  Shenk also has a lot to say about how this information can help parents and educators see the potential in children and contribute to the development of their traits and their success in any field.

I was very impressed with this surprisingly short book.  Actually, if you include the extensive notes, which are worth reading, it is not a short book.  It opened my eyes to a new, and I think more fruitful, way of looking at the way people develop.


Shenk, David.  The Genius in All of Us:  Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetic, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong.  New York: Doubleday, 2010.

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