4 April 2010
You’ve probably heard it at one time or another: Most of us use only 10% of our brains. More factoid than fact, a claim of unknown provenance and dubious accuracy, the idea sticks around because of the enduring appeal of its underlying premise. We’d all love to think that we’re in possession of tremendous untapped potential, of latent mental powers just waiting to be activated.
Motivational gurus from Dale Carnegie to Tony Robbins have long promised access to these hidden stores of genius. Now here comes David Shenk who argues that we have before us not a “talent scarcity” but a “latent talent abundance.” Our problem “isn’t our inadequate genetic assets,” but “our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have.” The truth is “that few of us know our true limits, that the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call our ‘unactualized potential.’ ” At first it would seem that Shenk, the author of thoughtful books on information overload, memory loss and chess, has veered into guru territory. But he has assembled a large body of research to back up his claims.
Two bodies, in fact. The first concerns the emerging science of epigenetics, the study of how the environment modifies the way genes are expressed. Since the days of Crick and Watson, we’ve tended to see genes as a set of straightforward instructions, a blueprint for constructing a person. Over the last 20 years, however, some scientists have begun to complicate that picture. “It turns out that the genetic instructions themselves are influenced by other inputs,” Shenk writes. “Genes are constantly activated and deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses and other genes.” That means there can be no guaranteed genetic windfalls, or fixed genetic limits, bestowed at the moment of conception. Instead there is a continually unfolding interaction between our heredity and our world, a process that may be in some measure under our control.
The second body of research investigates the nature of exceptional ability and how it arises. We’ve traditionally regarded superior talent as a rare and mysterious gift bequeathed to a lucky few. In fact, Shenk writes, science is revealing it to be the product of highly concentrated effort. He describes the work of the psychologist Anders Ericsson, who wondered if he could train an ordinary person to perform extraordinary feats of memory. When Ericsson began working with a young man identified as S.F., his subject could, like most of us, hold only seven numbers in his short-term memory. By the end of the study, S.F. could correctly recall an astonishing 80-plus digits. With the right kind of mental discipline, Ericsson and his co-investigator concluded, “there is seemingly no limit to memory performance.” Shenk weaves accounts of such laboratory experiments, conducted on average people, with the tales of singularly accomplished individuals — Ted Williams and Michael Jordan, Mozart and Beethoven — who all worked relentlessly to hone their skills.
Bring these two domains together, and a new vision of achievement begins to come into focus. Shenk’s “ambitious goal,” he tells us, is to take this widely dispersed research and “distill it all into a new lingua franca, adopting helpful new phrases and metaphors” to replace old and misleading ones. Forget about genes as unchanging “blueprints” and talent as a “gift,” all tied up in a bow. “We cannot allow ourselves to think that way anymore,” he declares with some fervor. Instead, Shenk proposes, imagine the genome as a giant control board, with thousands of switches and knobs that turn genes off and on or tune them up and down. And think of talent not as a thing, but as a process; not as something we have, but as something we do.
It’s ambitious indeed to try to overthrow in one go the conventional ideas and images that have accumulated since 1874, when Francis Galton first set the words “nature” and “nurture” against each other. Yet Shenk convinces the reader that such a coup is necessary, and he gets it well under way. He tells engaging stories, lucidly explains complex research and offers fresh insights into the nature of exceptional performance: noting, for example, that profound achievements are often driven by petty jealousies and resentments, or pointing out the surprising fact that great talent seems to cluster geographically and temporally, undermining the assumption that it’s all due to individual genetic endowments.
Shenk doesn’t neglect the take-home point we’re all waiting for, even titling a chapter “How to Be a Genius (or Merely Great).” The answer has less in common with motivational speakers than with the old saw about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving, as Ericsson put it, “repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,” which results in “frequent failures.” This is known as “deliberate practice,” and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible. Behold our long rumored potential, unleashed at last! Shenk is vague about how, exactly, this happens, but to his credit he doesn’t make it sound easy. “You have to want it, want it so bad you will never give up, so bad that you are ready to sacrifice time, money, sleep, friendships, even your reputation,” he writes. “You will have to adopt a particular lifestyle of ambition, not just for a few weeks or months but for years and years and years. You have to want it so bad that you are not only ready to fail, but you actually want to experience failure: revel in it, learn from it.”
It’s in this self-help section that two weaknesses in Shenk’s argument become evident. The first is the matter of where the extreme drive and discipline that greatness requires are supposed to come from. Shenk tells us about Beethoven writing 60 to 70 drafts of a single phrase of music, and Ted Williams hitting practice pitches until his hands bled. Shenk would be the last to argue that such fierce dedication is “inborn” or “innate” — but if it isn’t, are the rest of us all equally capable of mustering it?
Shenk is also evasive about just what restrictions individual biology places on achievement. He is careful to say that we are not born without limits — it’s just that none of us can know what those limits are “before we’ve applied enormous resources and invested vast amounts of time.” He ducks the implication that these limits will, eventually, reveal themselves, and that they will stop most of us well short of Mozart territory.
Still, it doesn’t feel as if Shenk is making false promises, perhaps because he so sincerely follows his own advice. In an oddly touching footnote, he relates his own struggle to achieve. “My attitude toward my own writing is simple: I assume that everything I write is rubbish until I have demonstrated otherwise. I will routinely write and rewrite a sentence, paragraph and/or chapter 20, 30, 40 times — as many times as it takes to feel satisfied.”
Such efforts have resulted in a deeply interesting and important book. David Shenk may not be a genius yet, but give him time.
Annie Murphy Paul’s book “Origins,” about the new science of prenatal influences, will be published in September. NYTBR (abridged)