Interview: David Shenk

The American writer says success isn’t determined by genes


Shenk: testing limits

Shenk: testing limits

If you have been watching the World Cup over the past month you will have been marvelling at the way Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi manages to glide his way through defences with the ball seemingly attached to his left foot - how he evade tackles, finds team-mates with a flick of his boot and shoots unerringly at the goal.

Messi is sublimely gifted - a natural-born genius like Maradona and Pele before him. Or is he? Is it just conceivable that Messi's genius is due to the fact that he practises harder than his contemporaries?

American writer David Shenk contends that neither Messi, nor Menuhin, nor Shakespeare were genetically pre-determined to become geniuses in their fields. In his new book, The Genius In All of Us, he states that sporting or other kinds of genius usually have more to do with the obsessive pursuit of greatness and the ability to overcome failure than any specific genetic advantage.

That is not to say that we are not all naturally better at certain activities - more or less artistic, or athletic or mathematical. However, none of us really knows what our true potential is, according to Shenk.

"To say that you don't have the genes to be athletic or musical or intellectual is absolute nonsense. That is not to say that we don't have limits - we all do. But to find out what those limits are takes an extraordinary amount of effort and resources."

It is this effort, he believes, coupled with cultural and environmental advantages, plus perhaps a genetic push in the right direction, which makes someone "gifted".

He gives the example of American baseball legend Ted Williams, whose "natural" ability to hit the baseball further than anyone of his generation turned out to be the result of an obsessional drive to become a great batter. Shenk sees no coincidence in the fact that the baseball player who trained harder than any other in the history of the game also happened to be one of the greatest.

He also points to basketball legend Michael Jordan who, at the age of 16, was dropped from his high school team - a blow so humiliating that he trained obsessively from that moment to make himself into a great player.

Shenk says: "Of course, Ted Williams's obsessiveness would have had a genetic component. Your eye colour has a genetic component, your personality has a genetic component and there are genes which influence your intelligence. But none of that stuff is determined on its own by genes. It so happens that Williams had a brother who shared a lot of his genes and who ended up as a criminal. We all have our own motivations based on our reactions to adversity and the process starts before we are born."

For Shenk it is not a case of nature or nurture which makes us what we are. It is not even nature plus nurture. Rather it is nature multiplied by nurture or genes multiplied by environment, which makes us the people we become. "We used to think that genes came first and the environment came afterwards. We think of genes as this genetic programme which decides certain things early in our lives and then the rest is up to us. In fact this is not quite true. What the genes determine is dependant upon a process called 'genetic expression'. Whether genes manage to find expression is partly a product of our environment and this is a process which starts in the womb at conception. Genes never stop influencing what our brains and bodies do, but our environment has a similar effect on our genes - they can actually turn genes on and off. So we have a very complex nurture-nature interaction."

It is this complexity, Shenk maintains, which precludes the genetic advantage which some claim is responsible for Jamaican domination of sprinting or Kenyan pre-eminence in long-distance events. "I have not seen any evidence that shows that any ethnicity has a true genetic advantage. Once upon a time in the United States the Jews were thought to be the best basketball players and this was chalked up to ethnicity.

"We are under this misconception that similar genes congregate in ethnicities. The differences are bigger between people within an ethnic group than they are between groups."

He argues that of all the Caribbean nations, Jamaica, which has the sprinting pedigree, is the most diverse ethnically. What makes Jamaicans great sprinters, he argues, is the country's culture of running, not a sprinting gene.

So if genes are not directly responsible is it possible to make yourself into a genius? Perhaps, say Shenk. "The interaction between genes and the environment is a dynamic process that none of us has complete control over."

But our talents are in large part determined to the time and energy we invest in them. "We have to figure out how to do what we do better. That's what Michael Jordan did. He didn't practise the shot he could already do, he practised the shot he was not good at - and he would do it 10,000 times. You can stay within your comfort zone or you can try to improve. Rather than give up when you stumble you can accept this as a valuable part of the process that ultimately leads to success."

'The Genius in All of Us' is published by Icon Books at £14.99

    Last updated: 12:59pm, October 5 2010