Talent and Genius: Determined by our Determination?

I recently finished reading a fascinating, fascinating book by David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ.  It tackles the question of nature vs. nurture and innate ability vs. acquired skill.  It debunks some of our long-held beliefs about genius and genetics over environment.  Shenk’s research from several different scientific areas suggests that “no one is genetically designed into greatness and few are biologically restricted from attaining it.”

And frankly, it’s welcome news because we can let go of the notion that our talent and IQ are fixed, pre-determined, and immovable.  This can free us from self-limiting beliefs such as I’m no good in music, so I’ll never learn to play the guitar well.  Or, math is not my strong suit, so Cs are good enough for me.

As adults, though, this could also end up forcing us to face some uneasy truths about ourselves.  Could I have become that singer if I would have stuck with it?  Could I have become the civil engineer I wanted to be if I had tried?  Did I lose my dream by giving up too early or not starting at all?  When we can no longer blame our genes or lack of innate talent, all that is left is the choice we made.

As teachers and parents, however, this can be powerful.  We should no longer be seeing children as having fixed-point IQs or pre-determined abilities.  As the research in this book suggests, talent, and even genius, can be developed and nurtured:  “Regardless of whether a child seems to be exceptional, mediocre, or even awful at any particular skill at any particular point in time, the potential exists for that person to develop into a high-achieving adult…as talent is a function of acquired skill rather than innate ability.”

So, how do we help children develop talent?  According to Shenk, there are four things we can do to nurture greatness in our children.  Provide intermittent reinforcement, believe in their extraordinary potential, support them but do not suffocate them, and embrace failures as huge learning opportunities.

Mozart (and Beethoven, Einstein and many others), it turns out, is not so much a born musical genius as he is a product of his upbringing.  Even before his birth, he was immersed in music.  From the age of three, his whole family was driving him towards musical genius.  His father began tutoring him using techniques that were cutting edge at the time.  This method, in time, became part of the Suzuki program.

We tend to believe that when someone is talented, then they must have an innate ability.  But as Daniel J. Levitin, a neuroscientist and musicologist, explains in the term he coined “circular logic of talent…we only apply the term retrospectively, after they have made significant achievements.”

This is not to suggest that all children are blank canvases awaiting their Picaso.  There are numerous factors at play in the shaping of talent, genius, and IQ.  Political, cultural, economic, nutritional, parental, geographical, many of which we have very little or no control over.  And, this post just touches briefly on the wealth of information and research discussed in this book.  But, we can influence some of those factors, and that can make all the difference.  We can be determined and persistent, and we can teach our children to be determined and persistent.

Are there any abilities that might be more influenced by genetics than by acquired skill?  What implications might this have on education systems? 

If you know people who might be interested in this post, feel free to forward them the link!

About Sherry Langland

I have been teaching English for 15 years and am passionate about teaching students to read critically, think critically, and live purposefully. I am also the lead teacher for our junior high department and am thankful to be part of such a dedicated group of teachers who are committed to collaborating around the most important part of our job: student learning. My biggest blessing is being the mother of 2 young men who are in their 20s and discovering their purpose.
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One Response to Talent and Genius: Determined by our Determination?

  1. Pingback: David Shenk on the clichés about "giftedness" | TalentDevelop

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