The genius in all of us: Why everything you’ve been told about genetics, talent, and IQ is wrong
By David Shenk
Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
One of the most interesting features of this 302-page book (total pages) is that there is only 134 pages of text. There is an 18 page bibliography (pages 279-297), and there is a 138-page "Sources and Notes, Clarifications and Amplifications" section (pages 139-277). There is no index.
Just a note here on the "Sources and Notes. . ." section: Shenk uses 134 pages of text to make his case, and it is engrossing reading. But, if you think "Sources and Notes" would be a long, tedious, boring section of the book, you would be sadly mistaken here. For each and every assertion that Shenk makes in his argument (we’ll get to that in a moment), he has a source or note to verify it. This is a highly researched, evidence specific, thoroughly developed argument that is worth every minute you spend with it.
If you are looking for a motivational book that will support all that you do in life, this is where to start. If you think for one moment that you are limited by the genes with which you were born, think again. Shenk claims your genetic heritage may account for only about 50% of your talent, and the other 50% is determined by nurture and your environment. What you do, and how you feel about what you do matters.
If I was looking for support for all of the motivational essays, speeches, articles, and books I have written throughout the years, this would be the book — and the evidence. What Shenk is saying is that the intensity of your motivation, ambition, persistence, and self-discipline are not genetically determined but are shaped by nurture and environment. Just as you teach children how to take responsibility for their lives, you, too, can have a direct, sustained, ongoing, positive, and productive influence on your own talent and ability. This is good news, and if you don’t believe it, read this book, and bathe in the evidence that supports his assertions.
All of the books that have been (and are being) written on neuroplasticity — "[the] term referring to the ability of the brain and nervous system in all species to change structurally and functionally as a result of input from the environment" — gain support from Shenk’s work. Shenk makes the case for the plasticity of intelligence.
Shenk explains how genes really work, that intelligence is a process not a thing, that talents are not innate gifts "but the result of a slow, invisible accretion of skills," as well as how to be a genius, how to inspire children, how to foster cultural excellence, and how to improve your genes. This is an amazing book!
Having been an advocate of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow, I was delighted to find Shenk referring to Csikszentmihalyi: " . . . intelligence isn’t fixed. Intelligence isn’t general. Intelligence is not a thing. Intelligence is a dynamic, diffuse, and ongoing process. This finding fits perfectly with the earlier work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues, who concluded that ‘high academic achievers are not necessarily born ‘smarter’ than others, but work harder and develop more self-discipline’" (p. 42).
Whether you are a supporter of the interactionist perspective or not, the book will introduce you to the way genius is made. That is especially interesting to read.
I think the author made a superb decision to separate his argument and the evidence used to support his argument. He is an excellent writer, and 134 pages may be all you have to read. I have found that the more technical you become by incorporating all your evidence and references within your narrative turns off more readers than it encourages. Shenk’s argument is so well presented, so smoothly offered, and so effective that it should be readable by a large audience — especially, I might add, educators. Educators are often those prone to picking out and doting upon their brighter students. After reading and absorbing what Shenk has to say may make them think twice about this approach.
The use of examples such as David Beckham, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche, Beethoven, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was delightful information.
Because of Shenk’s argument, and because of his emphasis on the interaction between genes, nurture, and environment, I loved the following paragraph: "For deliberate practice to work, the demands have to be serious and sustained. Simply playing lots of chess or soccer or golf isn’t enough. Simply taking lessons from a wonderful teacher is not enough. Simply wanting it badly enough is not enough. Deliberate practice requires a mind-set of never, ever, being satisfied with your current ability. It requires a constant self-critique, a pathological restlessness, a passion to aim consistently just beyond one’s capability so that daily disappointment and failure is actually desired, and a never-ending resolve to dust oneself off and try again and again and again" (p.55). Talk about motivation to excel!
Now, after writing a paragraph like that, Shenk offers a realistic assessment of what it takes to excel: "It also requires enormous, life-altering amounts of time—a daily grinding commitment to becoming better. In the long term, the results can be highly satisfying. But in the short term, from day to day and month to month, there’s nothing particularly fun about the process or the substantial sacrifices involved" (p. 55). Do you wonder why the information in this book — even when read by those seemingly committed to change — is likely to go in one ear and out the other?
Oh well. Even if you are familiar with the ideas here, even if you wave off social-science research as bogus, and even if you believe that talent comes primarily from genetic inheritance, this book is a good read. Shenk makes you think — and that’s a healthy thing to do whether you agree or disagree with him. Five stars out of five!