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“Genius at Birth” basically a myth

3 September, 2010

One of the first things that we have to get out of our heads when we start looking at the formation of genius is the idea that people are born brilliant, or born average, or whatever the case may be (illnesses aside, of course).  Physically, we may be big or small, but the genetics of size don’t apply in anything like the same way as it might to any ‘genetics of the brain’.

In fact, we have very little basis on which that belief may rest.  Even in the human body, there is certainly a canvas, but the way each person lives will dictate where the canvas goes – a person can get a tan, for example, or can bleach their hair or work out at the gym.  The same principle applies to thinking – if anything, moreso.

Ericsson, Prietula and Cokely stated exactly this in their 2007 article, The Making of an Expert .  There, they provided support for the claim that expertise comes primarily through years of intense practice and dedicated coaching, through constant performance above and beyond what is currently possible – even comfortable – for that person.  This is something that is beyond a particular sport – managers, surgeons and musicians all had the common trait of deliberate, long-term focus on not-yet possible tasks and changing what was faulty in technique.  Ericsson (et al) makes clear that this takes at least a decade to reach expert performance, requiring another expert to give (often unpleasant) feedback.

K Anders Ericsson , Michael J Prietula, Edward T Cokely. 2007. The Making of an Expert. Harvard Business Review 85, no. 7,8 (July 1): 114-121.  Accessible through proquest.com .

This means something very particular for us: we cannot throw up our hands in despair whenever we hit a problem in our lives, whenever what we are doing just isn’t good enough.  If we want to be experts in a particular area, we must understand from the outset that it will take a lot of work, often painful work, and that it will be over a long time – about a decade’s worth of work, for starters.

That’s really hard.  It’s really daunting.  But, in my understanding, the most daunting part is that it’s all our choice .  We are able to choose to be experts in a given field, to be operating at that level.  As any expert can tell you – such as dancer-choreographer Twyla Tharp – it’s not through personal talent and innate genius alone.

Tharp’s interview was in: Diane Coutu 2008. Creativity Step by Step. Harvard Business Review 86, no. 4 (April 1).  Accessible through proquest.com .

It’s all about our choice – what we choose to do with our lives.  The one thing that we can change, no matter what stage or status of life we are in, is our selves.

Originally posted on The Genius Project.

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