According to David Shenk, no one is born a genius. Nor are special talents the result of inspiration or to be attributed to "giftedness." His premise, backed by a plethora of impressive studies in disparate disciplines, is that outstanding performance in any field is mostly the result of practice. Think of the cute and amazing child violinists, graduates of the Suzuki Method.
Perhaps that is too simplified. Outstanding achievement, he explains, is the result of a process, the interactions of genes and their environments: G x E, with the emphasis on the interactions. He says most all of us can display genius, thus firing up the Human Potential Movement once more.
But first, a word about what contributes to the aura of authenticity surrounding Shenk's new work. The text covers less than 134 pages of the 302-page production by Doubleday Publishing. It may well win a prize for the highest back-matter-to-text ratio, as well as the longest subtitle of the year award. There's no denying the great effort that went into assembling and assimilating research studies from education, psychology, biology, and genetics reported in books, journals, and online. Even from television and conversations.
Shenk says it took him about three years to track down this material, develop his "new paradigm" of thinking and present it in book form. Three years is not a long time to research, review, and write a nonfiction book, especially one involving the leading edges of scientific topics. But one must wonder about the author's claim to "routinely write and rewrite a sentence, paragraph and/or chapter 20, 30, 40 times" seeking satisfaction. Or is it perfectionism?
I've never rewritten anything more than three times, but then I'm not great, only cursed with the label "gifted" and familiar with others who have high IQs. My first reaction to reading about Shenk's book was to wonder how fellow Mensans would react to the "new paradigm" — two words that he uses ad nauseum. Giving up the identity of being "gifted" might be difficult, especially for those who have nothing else going for them.
Worse yet, he demolishes some of the foundations of my higher education in Psychology as recent as 1993 when professors still taught that intelligence was an inherited trait, just like eye color and height. Worse yet, some insisted that intelligence varied by race, a shock to my liberal left leanings.
Shenk approaches the issues surrounding talent, giftedness, IQ as if most of us were born as equally clean slates, full of potential only needing development. But it is a special kind of a process that produces the high achievers (or any achievement?) If anyone can develop any talent (like one for taking IQ tests, no matter if they measure nothing definable) by dint of a lucky coincidence of genetic and environmental interactions, then anyone can qualify for Mensa — but they don't. Less than 98% of any population that takes any standard IQ test measures higher than the arbitrary cutoff score for membership.
Shenk might argue that they just didn't try hard enough — needing the special training and "deliberate practice" he lists as key factors in developing high achievers, along with a mysterious superdrive like Ted Williams had for practicing hitting baseballs. He might also suggest that those who don't hit the 98th percentile in IQ just haven't tested their limits yet. (How many IQ tests would it take? How do you study for an IQ test?) And how does this notion of limits square with Shenk's initial arguments that most all of us have endless potential?
Indeed, after demolishing the ideas that outstanding talent and IQ are inborn, then describing how anyone can achieve greatness, he ends with this cryptic statement:
"Somewhere in a freshman writing class, a kid with more ability than I'll ever have is wondering if he could ever write books for a living. The answer is yes, if he never gives up and is lucky enough to get with the right people." (Italics mine.) It seems that words like "ability" and "limitations" have rather vague, shifty definitions, given their various uses.
Many disbelievers in Shenk's theory are disputing it and arguing with him online. On the book's page at Amazon, you'll find an amazing array of customer reviews and a video that you can link to directly. A Google Search on the author's name will lead you to many sites where these issues are debated. Some people accuse Shenk of misinterpreting the studies he used and others point to faulty logic. The blizzard of data cited in the book tends to obscure the reality that he is theorizing a posteriori or post facto (after the facts), a practice frowned upon in research.
Despite all the high level scientific mumbo jumbo cited in the book, it is easy to read. Shenk writes in a very approachable everyday conversational style, which may have been just what the publisher wanted. Apparently with no advanced degree to boost credibility and no authoritative co-author, Shenk has pulled off a good one. The end notes are a fascinating read, and the bibliography provides a long term reading list.
Too bad he came to an inaccurate conclusion. All my 66 years of experience with giftedness, achievement (or lack or it), and people at the far-out end of the IQ spectrum provide a strong gut feeling of wrongness about The Genius in All of Us.
Perhaps journalists should stick to reporting the news from areas like epigenetics and cognitive science and the psychology of high achievement instead of creating a mashup that offers false hope and clashes with the realities of human life.