10/23/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It's Time to Shed "Innate"

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Derek's abilities are amazing. Where, precisely, do they come from?

I am struck by the profound contradiction between the language on the TED page, which calls Derek's talent "innate," and details of Adam Ockelford's actual presentation. First, Derek's brain was severely deprived of oxygen; then a nanny exposed his infant mind to an extraordinary amount of music; then that same nanny paired toddler Derek with a keyboard -- which he played passionately for months before real music emerged; then, at four and a half, he met his amazing mentor Ockelford. And on and on.

Derek developed his extraordinary skills in direct response to his brain injury and with extraordinary support. There is nothing innate about his "gifts." As marvelous as his genius is, it is not mysterious or unfathomable.

This is the 21st century revelation about talent: Science is dissolving the myth of innateness. We just need to get out of the way and allow it to go.

Under the old wisdom, a person either has talent or does not; if so, it flows like an invisible river of energy, constant and timeless. The reality, though, is that super-achievers develop different abilities at different ages. For every wonder child like Derek or Yo-Yo Ma who also thrives in adulthood, there is a long list of child prodigies who never become remarkable adult achievers -- and an equally long list of profound adult achievers who never showed any particular abilities as children (that list includes Copernicus, Rembrandt, Bach, Newton, Kant, Da Vinci, and Einstein).

Only one paradigm can make sense of such great achievements from such different life stages: talent as a set of developed skills. Genes matter tremendously, of course, but are also a part of the developmental dynamic. No one has a predestined biological fate. The new science of gene expression shows us that every individual is built with the capacity, as biologist Patrick Bateson says, "to develop in a number of distinctly different ways."

"Innate talent" is a difficult legacy to erase, given what in the past has seemed like such clear evidence. Without question, child prodigies exist. Jeremy Bentham studied Latin at age 3 and entered Oxford University at age 12. John Von Neumann could divide eight-digit numbers in his head by age 6. Judit Polgar became a chess grandmaster at age 15. Because these abilities appear so early (parents often say "out of nowhere"), and are often so bewitching, the first instinct from many parents and researchers alike is to answer the big mystery with a simple idea: in-born gift.

This new science is actually quite broad and nuanced -- nothing like the cartoonish "10,000 hours" summary we've all heard in the media. Still, some have pushed back hard against the development paradigm. -- David Shenk

In the 1990s, Anders Ericsson and others challenged this long-held view by bringing the talent-formation process partially into the light, documenting a young new "science of high ability."

This new science is actually quite broad and nuanced -- nothing like the cartoonish "10,000 hours" summary we've all heard in the media. Still, some have pushed back hard against the development paradigm. "Ericsson's research demonstrates the importance of hard work but does not rule out the role of innate ability," wrote Boston College's Ellen Winner in 2000. "[We] conclude that intensive training is necessary for the acquisition of expertise, but not that it is sufficient." An exceptional "inborn giftedness" must also be present, she wrote.

Behind her argument were two core points: First, some extraordinary abilities appear earlier than they could possibly be developed. This historically, been the most popular driver of the innate/giftedness paradigm: since one cannot see talent being developed, it must simply exist.

But is this thinking still justified, given what we've learned? As documented in my book and many others, studies have now shown conclusively that mindset, nutrition, parenting, peers, media culture, time, focus, and motivation all profoundly effect the development of abilities -- from the very moment of conception. We need look no further than Hart & Risley's 1995 spoken word study to understand how early life experience dramatically affects the trajectory of a very young child. We also know that early musical exposure works the same way.

Winner's second argument for innateness is what she rightly calls "atypical brain organization" in talented children. She points out that this can occur "as a result of genetics, the in-utero environment, or after-birth trauma."

It is indisputably true that some people with extraordinary abilites have distinct physiological differences in their brains. It is critical, though, to note that such brain differences do not create the ability but the opportunity for the ability to develop. Spectacular "savants" like Kim Peek (the "real Rain Man") and Derek Paravicini exemplify this. So-called "savant syndrome" occurs, explains University of Wisconsin psychiatrist Darold Treffert, when the brain's left hemisphere is severely damaged, inviting the right hemisphere (which is responsible for things like music and art) to heavily compensate for the loss. This, says Treffert, "promote[s] the idea of the brain's plasticity, and the brain's ability to recruit other areas to be put to use." In fact, it has prompted Treffert to wonder aloud: "Might there be a little Rain Man in each of us?"

In 2003, the University of Sydney's Allan W. Snyder used magnetic pulses to impair the left fronto-temporal lobe in healthy persons, resulting in some temporary savant-like tendencies like drawing animals with more detail and better proof-reading. But the new abilities did not suddenly appear; rather, they gradually developed as a result of the brain's shift in focus.

The lesson of all this is that parents, teachers and students must take the long and incremental view. Talent is a function of acquired skills. Achievement depends on attitude, resources, and, yes, lots and lots of practice.

Derek is us. The essential genius of all human beings is that we are designed to adapt.

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