The Creativity Debate

Talent or Practice – What Matters More?

A variety of perspectives on the origins of greatness.

Response to Zach Hambrick

David Shenk

David Shenk (davidshenk.com) is the author of six books, including The Genius in All of Us (“deeply interesting and important” - NYTimes), The Forgetting (“remarkable” - LATimes), Data Smog (“indispensable” - NYTimes), and The Immortal Game (“superb” - WSJournal). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Gourmet, Harper’s, Spy, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS. Shenk lives in Brooklyn.

Thanks for the opportunity to join this discussion. In order to point the way to the fullest possible answer of "How do people become great at what they do?" I suggest that we first need to pull back and ask a few even more basic questions, such as:

- Where do abilities come from?
- What is intelligence?
- What is innate?
- What does "heritable" mean?

I'm obviously not going to tackle all of these giant topics right now. But I do argue that a stark recalibration is in order. When I began to look closely at the latest scientific literature for my book, I was shocked by how poorly scientists have kept the rest of us informed on these essentials. Sadly, as a result, we're stuck in an early 20th century misunderstanding about where our traits and abilities come from.

We were taught in 5th grade science class that genes are blueprints for traits. That the brown-eyed gene gives us brown eyes. That genes for tallness make us tall. That genes contain actual instructions on what our traits will turn out to be. We know that environment plays a part, but the essential message of genetics has been that there's a certain amount of biological destiny built in.
That's actually not how genes work. Genes do not have finished information on what traits will look like, and they are not like robot actors who always say the same lines in the exact same way. It turns out that genes actually interact with their surroundings and can say different things depending on whom they are talking to.

To quote geneticists Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb: “The popular conception of the gene as a simple causal agent is not valid. The gene cannot be seen as an autonomous unit—as a particular stretch of DNA which always produces the same effect. Whether or not a length of DNA produces anything, what it produces, and where and when it produces it may depend on other DNA sequences and on the environment.” Genes powerfully influence the formation of all traits, from eye color to intelligence, but rarely dictate precisely what those traits will be. (That's why, these days, you often here the awkward word "probabalistic" being bandied about in connection with genetics). From the moment of conception, genes constantly respond to, and interact with, a wide range of internal and external stimuli—nutrition, hormones, sensory input, physical and intellectual activity, and other genes—to produce a unique, custom-tailored human machine for each person’s unique circumstance. Genes matter, and genetic differences will result in trait differences, but in the final analysis, each of us is a dynamic system, a creature of development.

All traits develop. The very concept of "innate" turns out to be flawed.

But what about "heritability?" We read all the time about studies of twins that have proven that X% of our intelligence comes from genes and Y% of our personality comes from genes. To be blunt, this is hogwash. The word "heritable" as used in Hambrick's short entry above, and currently used by a large number of academic psychologists, does not mean anything close to what lay readers are often led to believe. It refers only to statistically relevant differences in specific populations -- and cannot, as it is devised, have any meaning as to an individual's personal development or potential. To be even blunter: no scientist should be using the words "heritable" or "heritability" outside of a very strict academic journal environment. To introduce it into popular discussion is incredibly misleading.

This is my only serious quarrel with Hambrick's piece above: his reference to general abilities being substantially heritable and stable across a lifespan. That is a statistical derivation that, in my reading of the science of abilities, truly has nothing to do with your life or the lives of your children. The implication, as it is used above, is that you, dear reader, inherited powerful genetic limitations on your potential abilities and, further, that your abilities are stuck at a certain level throughout your life. I understand that Hambrick and others could produce dazzling studies to demonstrate that point. But it still isn't true. (My book rebuts this material at great length).

What's true is this: abilities are developed and abilities can change. Greatness -- or mediocrity -- is not something baked into your genetic makeup. It is something external that happens to people over the course of their lives.

Am I saying that you completely control your own destiny? That, at any age, you can become anything if you work enough at it? No, I am not. Development involves many influences well beyond our individual control. There is very early life, with its millions of tiny cultural, emotional, physical, and nutritional inputs. There are biological limitations. There are economic limitations. There are, as Gladwell points out, resources of pure luck and circumstance.

But there's also something very beautiful in the science I see -- including Ericsson's wonderful work. It is this: with the exception of people born with severe defects, most every human being has, at the moment of conception, an extraordinary potential. We are biologically designed to adapt to our circumstances. People become great at what they do when they have some sort of very deep and constant need to be great.

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