Sunday, May 3, 2009

On Genius

Last month I linked to an article in The Economist about autism and genius. The writer noted in passing that 10,000 hours of practice will give anyone a genius-like edge over the rest of us plodders. David Brooks at the NYT has read the books that Economist writer was alluding to, and reports that they've convinced him; indeed, 10,000 hours of practice will do the trick (along with a couple of other beneficial legs-up).

Coyle and Colvin describe dozens of experiments fleshing out this process. This research takes some of the magic out of great achievement. But it underlines a fact that is often neglected. Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re “hard-wired” to do. And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

Well, I certainly prefer "what you do over what you are" as a general proposition which puts moral responsibility solidly where it belongs - on people - and not where it doesn't. Society, genes, race, nationality and all those "other" places we don't control and thus can't be held to account for. Still, while I like Brook's sentiments, and unlike him I haven't read the books, I find it hard to accept it's only a matter what we choose to do. Some people are smarter than others. Some are way smarter. I know quite a few people who are way smart, and I've noticed they tend to be way beyond the rest of us in all sorts of fields simultaneously, including fields they never practiced in at all. I've also met folks who are hard-working and focused on what they do, but still they aren't intelligent. Live with it.

So my adaption to Brook's comment would be , it's not who you are, it's what you make of who you are.


Anonymous said...

it's not who you are, it's what you make of who you are

thank you for that -
by the way there once was a Russian-French-British-Israeli physicist by the name of Moshe Feldenkrais who taught how to make best use of "who you are". As unfortunately he went via the body to teach how to learn in general so now he is more and more hijacked by the relaxation/wellness crowd - which is a shame because he said some very unflattering things about the concept of relaxation is good in itself (what would happen to your lower jaw?)

Anonymous said...

It also depends on the quality of instruction. Ten thousand hours to become a violin or piano prodigy - okay. But only with the proper level of teaching.

As an amateur musician, I find it is possible to practice hours on end and accomplish very little if you don't have specific goals and an understanding of how to reach those goals. Musicians who received poor instruction as children have to spend considerable time UNLEARNING the bad habits they spent hundreds of hours acquiring.

The music prodigies of the world had great teachers and involved parents who started them very young. To this was added the ten thousand hours of productive practice, and of course innate talent.


Soccer Dad said...

You might be interested in this:

but then again I've spent hundreds of hours blogging and I'm still not Instapundit, so I guess that talent has to play a role too!

rashkov said...

Here is a very relevant article from the same journalist: Malcolm Gladwell writes about insurgent strategies