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Is There Really a Genius in All of Us?

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Books and articles that emphasize the "non-cognitive" determinants of genius and elite performance are all the rage these days. (I put "non-cognitive" in quotes, because the line between "cognitive" and "non-cognitive" traits is much more blurred than popular journalists make out. I'll write more on that in later posts.)

A recent book on the topic (which has just been released in paperback) is David Shenk's book "The Genius in All of Us: New Insights Into Genetics, Talent, and IQ." To be fair, the book hits the mark in so many ways. Shenk does a great job reviewing some of the cutting-edge research on epigenetics, and he does a service emphasizing the importance of nature/nurture interactions. Like Jonah Lehrer (see his latest Wall Street Journal article "Measurements that Mislead") and other journalists writing on this topic, Shenk discusses the important role of deliberate practice, grit and character. I also love the idea that because we don't know at any point in time the full range of a person's potential, we should help everyone maximize their potential. This is all great stuff, and it's backed by solid data. There is no doubt: a person's environment matters quite a lot, and skills and dispositions other than those those that standardized tests measure contribute to greatness.

Unfortunately, the book also misses the mark in important ways. Granted, greatness is a difficult topic to scientifically study. Only very few people reach genius level, and no two paths are exactly the same. Also, there is a "restricted range" issue often at play when studying the best of the best: those without the requisite abilities have already been weeded out of the competition, so those skills will no longer be as predictive of performance. Finally, it's important to distinguish between expertise and greatness: what distinguishes elite performance from great performance? While deliberate practice is necessary to make you an expert, can it carry you all the way to greatness? At what point does creativity and non-conformity come into play, where you end up inventing a whole new path of deliberate practice for others to follow? And anyway, while deliberate practice is necessary for acquiring expertise in any domain, is it reasonable to suppose that in any domain it is also sufficient (although, intriguingly, prodigious savants appear to display expertise that they never formally learned or practiced)? These are thorny issues that must be dealt with when studying greatness.

Shenk does discuss some of these complexities, but I think large parts of the story weren't told in full or at least as critically as I would have liked, particularly when Shenk discusses the predictive value of IQ, creativity and numerous talents, interests and personality traits. All of these traits contribute to greatness, in differing degrees and combinations depending on the domain. Athletic greatness surely draws on a different set of skills, dispositions and cognitive abilities than academic or scientific greatness. And both forms of greatness differ from what is required for artistic and performance- or entertainment-related greatness. Even within domains, there are different skills and dispositions required. (Think about the difference between poets and science writers; both are writers, but they seem to come from different species sometimes!)

Of course, none of these traits are completely deterministic, but then again no one claims they are. Scientists will be the first to admit that no trait comes fully formed at birth and that there is plenty of variation unaccounted for to leave room for late bloomers and prodigies that burn out fast. Also, many so-called "non-cognitive" traits such as persistence, perseverance and even self-belief have a heritable basis. This simply means that many interacting genes contribute to the trait (perhaps by facilitating the rate of learning in a domain), not that the genes predetermine the trait (they don't), or that the trait is immutable (it's not) or even that the many genes that contribute to the trait don't depend on the environment for nurturance (they do, very much so). I also don't think Shenk covered the full range of life experiences and early developmental experiences -- many of which are quite harsh and traumatic -- that shape drive and passion.

In my opinion, these parts are even more fascinating, as they demonstrate the wide variation that we have in our species. I think such a fuller understanding can help us appreciate the richness of individual differences. Nonetheless, Shenk's book raises a lot of important issues that we should be thinking about as a society.

I would love to get your thoughts. This is a topic that fascinates me, and I find much enjoyment looking at all sides and possibilities.

Read here for my full review written in collaboration with John Protzko at NYU and published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. If you are interested in reading more on the debate about innate talent, I highly recommend reading K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues' target article in the journal High Ability Studies, as well as commentary by me and my colleagues, and their response to the commentaries. I also highly recommend Dean Keith Simonton's delightfully comprehensive and timeless book "Greatness: Who Makes History and Why" as well as his more up-to-date recent book "Genius 101".

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