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Talent: “A Process, Not a Thing”

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

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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.

Recorded on January 19, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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The sheer plasticity of the brain often contradicts our ideas about what we "can" or "can’t" do.

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