How to Raise a Genius
A conversation with David Shenk.
by Rufus Griscom
March 10, 2010
Here’s a meaty question: What are the circumstances that make it possible for us – and for our children – to achieve greatness? What ignites the genius that enables people to hit baseballs out of the park, bring audiences to tears with a violin, or perhaps just as challenging, build a career that is deeply gratifying and well-paid with a short commute?
David Shenk, author of Data Smog, The Immortal Game, and The Forgetting, tackles this issue head-on in one of the most important books on the subject in years: The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You Have been told about Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong, which just hit bookstores yesterday.
The book draws on fresh science to make the following core point: The broadly accepted view that people are born with a given intelligence or musical ear or athletic ability is flat out wrong – in fact, we all have genetic potential that is far greater than what most of us realize in our lives. For the last century, the nature / nurture debate has been missing the point – human skills are the result of a subtle interplay between genes and environment (GxE), and precious few of us push the limits of that potential. Without exception, geniuses are made not born – they are people who refine skills through extraordinary dedication and persistence.
Not possible, you say – Yo Yo Ma and Beethoven were dazzling crowds by age 4, Ted Williams could hit the skin off a baseball as a boy; some people are clearly born special. Shenk disagrees – he examines each of these “child prodigy” cases, and shows that without exception the children engaged in extraordinary amounts of practice from a very early age. The upshot: talent is a process, not a thing. No one achieves world-class greatness without a combination of genetic potential and a deep, abiding drive to succeed.
Of course this poses as many questions for parents as it answers. How do we encourage our children to develop passions and persistence? Is it a good thing to be a child prodigy? How do we expose our children to the right size challenges at the right time? I sat down with David Shenk, whom I have known for several years, to discuss Genius and his own experience as a father.
– Rufus Griscom, co-founder, Babble.com
Your new book, The Genius in All of Us, takes down the “child prodigy” myth, suggesting that slave-driving your kid to be a chess grandmaster at age eleven is not necessarily going to result in a happy or fulfilled child – or even one who is successful in the long term.
Yeah, I really hope that is the message that people get, that this is much more of a long-term process. Don’t rush it and don’t feel like you’ve lost out if by age “x” your child doesn’t seem truly superior.
You were a precocious violinist as a child. How did that experience inform or affect your approach to this book, and do you think that was a net positive experience for you?
I think it was a big net positive.
How did you start?
I come from a pretty musical family, so there was a lot of interesting music of all kinds from my parents and grandparents. I don’t remember any special interest on my part until 4th grade when a music teacher of mine literally measured the size of our hands. She was just a very ambitious, kind of pushy teacher. She wanted to tell you what string instrument you were going to play, based on how big your hand was. I was always small so I was a violin player. [Then] I just took it and ran with it. I worked so hard at it, and I got very good for my grade.
Looking back, I got out of it exactly what I put into it. I put in a ton and I got a lot out of it, and if I had put in more, I’m sure I would have gotten out more. Reading all the science, it’s not only the amount of practice, but also the type of practice, and [whether] you are very dedicated and persevere, and turn failure into motivation [rather than] discouragement.
Looking at my kids, I want them to have a certain level of intensity in their pursuits, [but] that intensity comes completely from within. How I can I get my 1st-grader or my 7th-grader to get up and really, really want that? The answer is I really can’t. I can teach her intellectually that certain kinds of practice and intensity are what you need to get really good at some things, such as piano. But I can’t create that intensity.
Parents want their kids to understand that there is a direct relationship between practice and working at a skill and developing that skill.
It’s just one of those fundamental values that you want to instill in kids, whether they become great at something or truly ambitious at something: the idea of persistence and turning failure into a positive virtue and understanding that good skills take a long time to develop and are very slow. All these things are abstract ideas, but I do have a strong sense both from the science and personal experience that this stuff does sink in and have good effects over the years.
I like the way you say “sinks in” — it seems like so much of parenting occurs through osmosis. Modeling the right behavior may end up being more effective than anything else you could possibly do.
Maybe it is just being in proximity of them, being in their lives and just having them see how you do stuff: how you work, how you relax, and how you apply yourself to problems. Maybe the actual putting it into words is not relevant at all.
Your kids are how old?
13 and 7.
So, have you found yourself trying to implement the book’s lessons with them? New science shows genes and environment are deeply intertwined – read the excerpt here.
I believe I have. Writing the book helped me clarify a few things about parenting. Something that comes from my parents, particularly from my dad, is the idea that there is absolutely no limit to what I could achieve if I set my mind to it and applied myself. I think you always want to convey that to your kids, and along with that, the corollary is that you will not be disappointed if they do not become president of the United States or something crazy like that. It’s not like you want them to be an important person in society, you just want them to have high dreams and hopes and to enjoy great passion in life.
The core thrust of the book, that “there is no limit to what you can achieve,” is exciting because it can apply not only to kids but to 42-year-olds or 62-year-olds or 82-year-olds. You say in the final two sentences of the book, “We’ve known this to be true through intuition, faith, and experience for generations” and now there is science to back that up.
That is my reading of the science.
But your book also raises the expectations for what is possible, so it can be viewed as an opportunity and a burden as well. In a world where anyone can be a billionaire, everyone is confronted with the question, “Well, then why aren’t you a billionaire?”
Yes, a lot of people would see this message as more of a burden than an opportunity.
You say that the cultures that produce the highest levels of achievement have historically been those who embrace competition. Meanwhile, a huge majority of the New York City schools I’ve spoken to (for my 5-year-old) told me that children learn better in environments where they feel safe, where they don’t feel threatened. To them, that means avoiding competition. I wonder whether you think there’s a balance somewhere. What’s a healthy amount of competition?
A classroom is a difficult situation; you want to find the stuff which gets them excited and motivated, and you want to shy away from the stuff which makes them feel bad about themselves.
You say one of the key roles is for parents to feed children challenges that are not too big and not too small at the right time.
One of the great things about all of this is that it doesn’t take that many breakthrough moments for a kid to really start rocketing on his or her own. Just because some kid isn’t shining in first grade or third grade or seventh grade doesn’t mean that that kid doesn’t have incredible potential in a particular area. It just means that they may not have found their prime motivation. There are lots of different things that may have not have happened for that kid. It does not mean that they have missed out permanently on an opportunity for their life’s greatness.
The same thing I think goes for parenting. You don’t have to be an inspired, perfect parent constantly. You just need to be nurturing, and you need to try to find opportunities where your kid is open to being inspired and challenged, and give them that seed that they’re going to run with.
See also two excerpts from The Genius in All of Us on Babble:
Click here to buy
Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong
- 4 Ways to Guide Your Child Toward Excellence: The New Science of Success
- There Is No Nature/Nurture Distinction: Studies Show Genes and Environment Affect Each Other
- Tough Luck, Kid: Why I Never Let My Four-Year-Old Win at Games
This article was written by Rufus Griscom for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.