On becoming talented

Dear colleagues,

"Talent is not a thing; it's a process." This is the claim made by David Shenk in his readable new book The Genius in All of Us. His argument has profound implications for teaching and research.

It is widely believed that some people are naturally talented, with a genetic advantage. In academic life, some students are identified as being smart. They get high marks and are cultivated as high achievers. A similar process occurs at higher levels.

Shenk says, to the contrary, that intelligence is not innate. He challenges the common idea that people's performance is a combination of genetics and the environment. He says there is no separate genetic component but that everything, including every skill, is the result of genes interacting with the environment. Instead of G (genes) + E (environment), he presents a different metaphorical equation: G x E. Genes can be turned on and off through voluntary action.

Setting out to demolish the usual conception of intelligence, Shenk targets IQ. He cites studies showing that average IQ scores have gradually risen over the past century, so much so that a person in 1900 with an IQ of 100 - average at that time - would today score just 60. Does this mean that the average person in 1900 was stupid? No, it means that more people today, through education and environmental influences, are developing mental capacities far beyond earlier generations. The same genes have interacted with a richer, more stimulating environment.

Shenk delves into studies of identical twins separated and reared in different environments. These studies are commonly used to claim that genetics plays a significant role in what a person becomes. Shenk shows the limitations of the studies. I was surprised to learn how different genetically identical organisms can be from each other. Activities like intensive exercise can affect gene expression in a matter of hours.

The implication of Shenk's analysis is that genius is created, not inborn. He goes through the research on expert performance showing that at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are required to become a world-class performer. To put in this level of effort requires commitment, so the next question is how to motivate children, and adults, to exceptional achievement. Shenk says the key is the capacity to delay gratification and persist in the face of failure. Indeed, he says high achievers need to revel in failure!

Shenk says parenting matters enormously for children's intelligence. In the university, teachers are not parents but can still make a difference. Are we missing the point in focussing so much on what students learn and giving so little attention to ongoing motivation? Shenk would think so.

Through their undergraduate years, students put in many hours studying for assignments. That will certainly help to develop their capacities. But to become great, they need to develop intrinsic motivation, so they want to keep working and learning and searching even after their last assignments are submitted. They need to learn to persist in the face of failure. Very little of this is built into the curriculum.

Then there are researchers, all of whom have capacity to become far better through continual effort and persistence in the face of failure. What is the incentive to do this? Higher salaries and pressures to publish in prestigious journals will provide some push, but these are inadequate to stimulate the level of sustained effort needed to become world-class. Intrinsic motivation is the key: research needs to be stimulating, indeed enjoyable, independently of external rewards.

4 April 2011

David Shenk, The genius in all of us: why everything you've been told about genetics, talent, and IQ is wrong (New York: Doubleday, 2010)


Thanks to Trent Brown, Peter Gibson, Ben Morris and Nik Russo for useful comments on drafts.

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