06/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why Little Louie Can Never Be A Genius

Delighted as I was to be greeted Friday morning by David Brooks's book review-ish column headlined Genius: The Modern View, and as much as I admire Mr. Brooks, I was surprised to discover that he wasn't writing satirically when he described the path to genius. According to the two new books he was discussing, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, you can develop your children into geniuses. All it takes is 10,000 hours of focused practice at an early age, plus a dash of family tragedy and toss in some neighborhood inspiration. Get the ingredients right and, ta-dah! Instant Mozart.

I must beg to disagree. I was privileged to have grown up alongside thousands of "geniuses" of the 10,000 hour class. I went to the Interlochen summer camp for the arts as a youth (Slogan -- Home of the Gifted Youth of America -- weren't we special!) and two of my children went to the year round arts academy there. By now almost a hundred thousand gifted youth from all over the world have gone through Interlochen, and they provide some 10% of the personnel of all the leading American orchestras. Interlochen alumni are prominent in all fields, including Larry Page founder of Google, the composer George Crumb, opera stars Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Jessye Norman. Many of these young people were the bright and often brilliant ones who put in their 10,000 hours. But only a very, very few of them have a certain level of gift that is completely beyond anything 10,000 or even a million hours of focused work can give you. These are the geniuses. And their gift came from inside, not from a parent dying at 12. Not from the good fortune of having a novelist living down the street.

Where did this 10,000 hour belief come from, this notion that a large numbers of hours of focused work will make little Louie over here into a genius? Brooks says Mozart was a good musician at an early age but would not stand out among today's child performers. I don't think you could find a serious musician who would agree. Mozart was not only one of the most gifted pianists and violinists of his era, but his compositions by the age of ten were masterful. By the time he wrote his ninth opera, the delightful and still frequently performed Finta Giardiniera, he was just eighteen.

How did this 10,000 hour concept evolve from being a requirement for competence into a false promise for the achievement of genius? You can trace some of this to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, from which too many people take away that Bill Gates became a programming genius because he had the opportunity to get his 10,000 hours on a computer early on in his life. But Gladwell didn't discover this 10,000 hour rule, he just popularized it, acknowledging the source as Daniel Levitan, who wrote, This is Your Brain on Music. But Levitan didn't claim that 10,000 of focused work would make anyone a genius either. All he says is that it will make you a virtuoso. Are virtuosos the same as genius? I gotta tell you, after having spent my own 10,000 hours and more at Interlochen, virtuosos are a dime a dozen.

Where did Levitan get the 10,000 hour genius concept from? That would be K. Anders Ericsson, who did the actual pioneering work. Ericsson is quoted, in an essay about him on his home university website, Florida State, "How, then, does Ericsson account for standouts such as Mozart, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods? Surely their prowess is evidence that they are beneficiaries of random gifts of greatness. Not so, says Ericsson, whose landmark findings attribute the expertise of such phenoms not to their inherent talents but to, in a word, practice."

There you have it, the all-that-makes-Mozart-special-is-10,000-hours meme started here, with Ericsson answering his own rhetorical question, and sweeping Mozart into the same hopper as two high-performing athletes. I could see how Ericsson might be able to say that his research actually included Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. But unless Ericsson is a couple of hundred years older than his bio indicates, he can't have much of a clue about how Mozart became a genius.

I believe that thinking is all about making distinctions. When we fail to make distinctions, or even worse, sweep ideas that ought to be kept distinct into one larger idea that now automatically loses its validity, then we really aren't helping move things forward. No Mr. Ericsson, I respect Mr. Woods for his hard work and great achievement. But I know Herr Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart after a fashion, and I can tell you that Tiger Woods, virtuoso that he is, is no Mozart.

So unless little Louie was born a genius, all the work in the world is not going to make him one.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste.