Big Think Interview With David Shenk

A conversation with the author of “The Genius in All of Us.”
  • Transcript


Question: What is genius, and what does it mean to say we all have it?

David Shenk:  Well genius is an amorphous term to be sure and I actually try to stay away from it in the book.  What I talk about in the book mostly is this idea of high achievement, so people becoming great at stuff, becoming really, really good at stuff.  I don’t think it’s really important to make a dividing line to try to figure out you know when you’ve crossed over into genius.  The point is gathering your resources, doing the best you can, pursuing whatever it is you love to do with an intensity and a resilience and a passion and just going as far as you can possibly go. 

Question: Why do you believe the “nature-nurture” distinction to be a false one? 

David Shenk:  Sure, so this is a big part of my book and it has a long history.  We’ve been living with this myth for about a hundred, hundred and fifty years, going back to the time of Darwin, although I’m not blaming Darwin for this.  If the blame resides anywhere it’s really with Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton.  We can get into that if you’d like, but so the idea is that we think that it’s nature versus nurture, that there is genes that have all this information that kind of want to push us in a certain direction and then there is the environment, which is nurture, which is obviously different and kind of an opposing force and it’s kind of either or and there are all these studies that are constantly trying to figure out well how much is nature and then add onto the nurture.  You know is it 60% nature, 40% nurture depending on what trait you’re talking about?  Well it turns out that genes don’t work that way.  Genes don’t get you part of the way there you know to the point you’re born or the point shortly after that or before that.  Genes are always interacting with the environment, so the new way to think about this is that it’s not nature plus nurture on nature versus nurture.  If anything it’s nature interacting with nurture if you have to use those words, so one of the phrases that scientists are using now is G Times E, that is genetics times environment as opposed to G plus E.  They call it an additive model.  The additive model is well, you have so much inborn intelligence and then plus what you get in the environment.  That would be the you know nature plus nurture.  The new model is you can’t separate them.  You just absolutely cannot separate the effects of genes from the effects of the environment, so all we can do of course is to identify the resources that we have in our environments and maximize them as best we can.

Question: How does research with lab mice demonstrate the fallacy of the nature-nurture distinction?

David Shenk: Right, so there have been some…  The science that I’m describing in the book is really lots and lots of different pieces of science from different realms of science and if there is any contribution in this book it’s really putting them together.  It’s bringing all these different disparate pieces together and it’s giving a voice and some phrasing and some metaphors to what scientists have been really trying to say for a long time and just haven’t quite…  They know what they’re trying to say, of course.  They understand the stuff, but they haven’t quite been able to interpret it well for the public.  So one of the studies is… goes back to 1957 or ’58, where these two guys were looking at rats that had been genetically designed, genetically bred that is, to be intelligent, and in generation after generation they were incredibly intelligent in you know as seen in mazes and things like that.  So then they wanted to see, well, what if you subject them to different environments, extreme environments like sensory deprivation kind of thing or extra treats and you know so called intellectual stimulation for rats if you can imagine what that is.  Basically it’s lots of toys and different textures and sounds and sights and colors and things like that.  And they wanted to see well what is the additive difference of the environment if you take these mice that have been bred to be smart compared to these mice that have been bred to be not so smart.  Well turns out that when you subject them to these different environments actually the mice that have been supposedly bred to be unintelligent quite often intersect with the intelligence, the performance of the mice that have been bred to be intelligent and the reason is that you’re getting these interactions, which you couldn’t have predicted if you were looking at the old additive model of G plus E, so that was one of the very early clues that we we’re looking at a whole new model of genes and environment, that it was this interactive model.

Question: Why do you believe autistic savants prove the inherent potential of all brains, not the genius of a select few?

David Shenk:  Yeah, I actually took that cue from Darryl Trafford who is probably the world’s foremost authority on autistic savants and this is a really interesting idea.  We look at savants you know Rainman and things like that and we think well that’s obviously evidence of innate gifts because these guys are obviously born with different sorts of brains and it’s these…  They’re born with these gifts that enable to you know remember every calendar date going back to the year 1200 or whatever.  Well when you actually look at what is going on yes, these people are born with birth defects if that is what you want to call them.  Their brains are certainly wired differently.  There is no question about that, but it turns out that the actual skills that they acquire then come after that and that we can actually manipulate our own brains.  I mean the word is plasticity.  Everyone watching this has heard the term plasticity.  There isn’t really any…  There is a difference in quantity between what these savants are born with and what we can do with our own brains.  There isn’t really a qualitative difference.  We can alter our own brains and you don’t actually develop the skills to do what the guy in Rain Man did or these other amazing savants do until you have… those differences are already in place, so in other words it’s the process of developing these skills, not just being born with the skill or the gift and if I’m trying to do anything in this book it’s trying to help people understand that the old notion of innate, the old notion of giftedness, the notion that we are born with a certain quantity of intelligence or a quantity of talent it really isn’t there.  We’re all born with differences, no question about that.  We have genetic differences, but what those differences turn out to be in the end result, how those genetic differences actually lead to differences in traits that’s a dynamic process that we are all very much involved with on the family level, as parents, as kids ourselves, culturally, nutrition, environment.  Everything we do and everything we are is an ongoing interactive process, which affects how those genes are then going to be subsequently going to be turned into the traits that work for us and against us.

Question: How can parents develop a child’s talent without squashing it?

David Shenk:  Yeah, big question, hard to give you a, you know, a catchall answer, obviously with sensitivity.  I can give you a couple…   I can give you a couple thoughts.  Obviously I want parents to read the book.  There is a lot of background here that I think will help inform how a parent applies this stuff to their own lives, so it doesn’t really come down to like five easy steps, but I would say that first of all monumentally important is a parent who wants their child to be great at something, absolutely cannot put love out there as kind of a reward for becoming good at something.  It actually works in the short term.  You can get a child to be really, really good and really, really motivated by saying, you know, I’m not going to show affection until you get to be really good at you know cross a certain skill level, but it’s a disaster emotionally for kids and it gets even worse as they grow up.  Parents need to help their kids understand that first of all whatever they are is okay.  Secondly, it’s not only okay to fail at stuff.  It’s actually good to fail at stuff.  You cannot learn until you fail. Every time you fail it’s if you are open to that being a learning experience, why you failed at something then that is the gateway into learning and then you combine that with persistence, with this idea that you know the people who get great at stuff it requires just pushing and pushing and never stop pushing, kind of enjoying the process and embracing the failure as I said and never being quite satisfied, you know having a certain contentment with the process, enjoying who you are and wherever you are…  wherever you’re at skill wise, but also knowing that there is more to do and that over time you will get better at stuff if you push yourself.  I know that sounds kind of mundane, but that turns out to be true.

Question: Why do some child prodigies burn out early, and how can their talent be preserved longer?

David Shenk:  Sure, so why do child prodigies fizzle out?  Well there are a couple of reasons.  One is that it’s very important to realize that when kids are immensely great at something, playing the violin or particularly good at a sport, of having some sort of what looks like a gift in another art or skill they’re never performing at an adult great level.  They’re only sticking out from what other kids can do, and the reason that’s really important to point out is that they’re great at a technical skill, and I’m not trying to take away from what they do, because obviously it is amazing to watch and when you have… particularly when you’re a parent and you’ve seen all these kids, your kids and other kids performing at a relatively average level in some way, and then you see some other kid just doing something amazing you’re blown away by it, but it’s important to realize that, you know, for example, when you look at Mozart yes, he was performing for kings and queens when he was 5, 6 years old, but his performances then were not… could not be compared to great violinist of 25 or 30 years old.  It couldn’t be then and it certainly couldn’t be now.  Another point to make is that with the Suzuki method and other methods now there are many, many, many performers now who are performing at that age, 5 and 6 years old, 7 years old as good or better than what Mozart did when he was a kid, so we tend to think of…  We tend to hold Mozart up on this pedestal as having this God-given gift and being one in a zillion in terms of his early musicality, but in actuality it’s fairly easy if you look at his life to explain where he got the skills that he got and to identify them as skills, not as some sort of supernatural power, and to see that now our culture has actually learned a lot of the trade secrets that at the time maybe only Leopold and Mozart knew and we’re applying them left and right to very young kids.

Question: Can Suzuki and similar teaching methods “create” child prodigies, and do they help kids fulfill their long-term potential?

David Shenk:  Yeah, I think the Suzuki method, the Suzuki school is really exciting as long as everything is in perspective.  You want to follow the child’s lead.  You know, you want to introduce them to great teachers and expose them to music as early as possible.  That’s a wonderful thing and leads to all sorts of other benefits in life, but you don’t want to push them unnaturally.  You want to…  You know, you want to try pushing them a little bit and see if they push back and say, “You know what?”  “I’m not ready for this.”  Or, “Yeah, this is something I really want to do.”  You want to kind of take their temperature as to what their passions are and their persistence.

Question: If persistence divides mediocrities from successes, why do some people stand out even among the ultra-persistent?

David Shenk:  Yeah, that’s a great question.  So people…  You’re right.  People look at people we call geniuses, people who are at the very, very top of their field and think what do they have?  They must have some kind of quantity that all these other people don’t have and they must have been born with that because you can’t see what it is, so that’s what this researcher named Anders Erickson wanted to know, and it’s been now kind of made not only his own lifetime of study, but has kind of built this army of researchers to study what the invisible processes of our… of talent and of acquiring skills and going from mediocrity to being really good at stuff.  It turns out that it’s a kind of persistence and a way of embracing failure, which Erickson calls deliberate practice, so the idea is you push yourself slightly beyond your skill level and you want to fail.  You want to… comparing say a violinist who is practicing, it’s not just…  The idea is when you’re practicing you’re not just trying to reinforce what you already can do.  You are reinforcing what you already can do and then trying to do it faster or better or with more emotion or more dynamism or whatever you’re shooting for and you’re pushing yourself until you can’t… until you find a place where you can’t quite get there and then you work at that and you work at that and you work at that and it’s not the enjoyable.  Erickson really emphasizes it’s not the enjoyable part of practice.  You have to somehow, and the difference I think this is one of the keys and the difference of personalities between people who get good at stuff or get great at stuff is the people who get great at stuff really enjoy, not in a fun way, but they really find this kind of satisfaction in this constant pushing process.

Question: So people who achieve greatness enjoy failing and pushing themselves further?

David Shenk:  That’s right or they find a motivation in failing.  They wouldn’t necessarily say, “Well yeah, I love to fail.”  “I love to screw that up.”  But when they fail that’s when they get their motivation, and they’ll practice for another hour or another three hours and they’ll just come back the next day and they’ll say no, I want to get that better and then they get… they do get to that next level, but they’re not satisfied with that.  You’re never really satisfied, so philosophically it’s this challenge if you do want to become great at something to have that resilience to want to become great, to push yourself to failure, but to also find some sort of satisfaction in the process because you don’t want to be perpetually unhappy in your life.  You don’t want to spend 20 years getting to the point and never be happy because if you’re not happy in that process I guarantee you’re not going to be happy when you get there either.

Question: Are modern intelligence tests accurate?

David Shenk:  Yeah, I think we do have good tests of intelligence.  The key is to not misinterpret what those tests are telling us.  We are living under this… I think this really dangerous and oppressive myth of IQ, that is that IQ tests are identifying some kind of quantity of intelligence that we are born with and that we have this static amount of intelligence that we’re going to carry with us throughout life and that if you have a hundred IQ you’re going to be average, you have an average intelligence and that is just the way you were born and that’s the way you’re going to be.  If you have less than a hundred IQ you’re never going to be above average.  It’s just what you’ve got.  That’s not what IQ is divining at all.  IQ tests and every other sort of intelligence or achievement tests are revealing skills that you have, capabilities.  This is what intelligence experts now say.  Robert Sternberg who is now at Tufts, was at Yale for many years, who is arguably the leading thinker in intelligence now articulates that intelligence is not a set of innate capabilities that is static.  It’s a set of skills that we acquire.  Some of us acquire more of those skills, some of us acquire less.  Obviously genes do play a role.  I’m not going to say that we’re…  it’s a blank slate and we could… we all have exactly the same potential to have exactly the same level of skills, but we don’t know what our limits are in terms of how smart we can be, what skills we can have until we expose ourselves to the right resources. 

That’s what is coming through in the science and there are all sorts of different types of intelligence, everyone knows that by now, but the type of intelligence we have and the amount of intelligence and the skills that we display at age 4 aren’t going to be the same at age 6 and age 8 and age 20.  Obviously we’re all going to get more intelligent.  What IQ… The mistake that’s been made in IQ tests is that because some tests are revealing a certain stability over a population, that is if you have… if you score a hundred, an average on a certain test when you’re 10 the chances are that the people who score at that level are going to score roughly at that level when they’re 15, 18, 20.  Because that stability is there we’re misinterpreting that as this idea that you have some sort of fixed level of abilities.  All it is, is just kind of showing where you are in the population and of course most people in any sort of race, in any sort of contest over time most people are going to be roughly in the same order.  That’s what a population sorting tool does, so it doesn’t really tell us anything about what your individual abilities are, and every measure that we have and every piece of science that we have that divines what individual potential is basically just tells us the same message over and over again, which is that we with the right resources, cultural, family, teaching, persistence, all these things, there is no telling what our individual potentials are.  We don’t know what they are until we apply that persistence and all those resources over many, many years’ time.

Question: How can we take better advantage of the plasticity of our brains?

David Shenk:  Well the most important thing is just to keep that plasticity in mind, to understand that this is a dynamic situation whether you’re 2 years old or 10 years old or 50 or 80 years old.  The brain is plastic.  It’s obviously slightly less plastic as we get older, but there are wonderful opportunities and when you apply yourself to a skill you are not only developing muscles in your fingers, your hands or whatever it is.  You are actually…  Most of the changing is actually going on in your brain and those are physical changes that can be mapped out.  It’s amazing if you look at that science that looks at cab drivers and their knowledge or violinists or Braille readers you see that as people apply themselves to a certain skill over many, many years time the correlation of their abilities can be seen in the physical adaptation of their brain, which is an amazing idea and if we keep that idea in our heads and we apply that just philosophically to this idea of what can I do and what can’t I do and kind of push out this idea that we’re born with a certain fixed quantity of musical talent or artistic talent or mathematical intelligence, just kind of push that out of the way and also at the same time look at these great achievers and realize that if you look at how they became great it’s not that they just suddenly were great or they were born great.  There is a process over time of how they persevered and pushed beyond their ability, had the right teachers, had the right attitude and got there.  It’s a process, not a thing.  That’s what I say over and over in the book is that talent and intelligence are not things.  They’re processes that we apply in our lives.

Question: What interests you about genius as a subject?

David Shenk:  Yeah.  I’ve always been interested in this question of what is the difference between people who are mediocre at something and the people who are great at something, and I think a lot of us are and it’s my good fortune as a writer to be able to follow my curiosities and I’ve done a lot of science writing, so I read a lot of science and I try to be the guy who is going to explain a scientific concept to the general public, so that’s just what I do in a lot of my work.  What got me on the road to this book is that I noticed that there were a lot of different pieces of science kind of pointing in this certain direction, but no one had ever really put it together.  There is this…  You know there are all these people saying, well, blank slate is dead.  We’re not all born the same and that’s obviously true, and then there’s all these people pointing out all these… all the power of genes, which is also obviously true, and there’s all this neat stuff about intelligence, which we’re learning more and more about, so I saw that all these different pieces of science could be woven together and tell a story that in newspapers and magazines and so far other books wasn’t being told.  I think partly because they were from so many different eras of science and different arenas as well.

Question: Do you have any “heroes” whose gifts you find particularly admirable or fascinating?

David Shenk:  Great question.  My mind goes in a lot of different directions there.  My writer heroes are people like John McPhee who and Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe and E.B. White who are able to… were able to take nonfiction to a whole new art, particularly John McPhee, who does a lot of science writing and does that trick of taking things that scientists understand, but aren’t quite able to articulate for the general public, and just thinks about them and pushes them in all these different metaphorical ways and comes up with stories so that he can put the stuff into a format that people would enjoy reading and find a way for non scientists to kind of put this knowledge in their own brains and then of course apply it to their own lives. 

Other heroes, I mean there are heroes in the book.  Alfred Binet who came up, who invented the concept of IQ and developed the first IQ test before it was basically stolen by Lewis Terman and not really stolen, but adapted it in this kind of manipulative way so that by the time it got to America it was thought to be this test that revealed this innate intelligence whereas Alfred Binet actually invented the test to expose weaknesses in learning that were going on in young children and say, “Hey, what can we do about this?”  This is before all the science that came out.  This is more than a hundred years ago.  His whole concept of intelligence was this set of skills and that if we come up with a good test to divine what people… what kids aren’t learning well we see their weaknesses, we can show that to the teachers and say, all right, let’s figure out how to build up these other skills as opposed to this school which then, dominated unfortunately intelligence for many decades, which is this idea of this innate endowment, which we now know to be false.

Recorded on January 19, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen