blog spotlight: we can all be geniuses


David Shenk, author of numerous popular books on talent and creativity, has a new blog called “The Genius in All of Us.”  Shenk’s hypothesis is simple: most people, with the *right* training, can become highly skilled at a huge range of tasks. Here are a few quotes from recent posts:

What I’ve read so far, combined with my personal experience, tells me that we are born with some important biological distinctions, but that their influence often pales in comparison to the dramatic variety of stimuli we experience from the first moment of our lives.

For example, most research on musical ability shows that the real difference between musicians is the amount and type of practice. The best musicians have some innate talent and presistence, but research shows that they also have methodical training (carefully crafted lessons that consistently push people to the next level). It is no use to endlessly practice without guidance on improvement:

“Deliberate practice” is qualitatively different from ordinary experience. In ordinary experience, an individual is exposed to certain task demands, spends time attaining proficiency at that task and then plateaus, more or less satisfied with his/her level of competence. Under these passive circumstances, more time spent with the same task after the plateau will not significantly increase skill-level. The skill level becomes autonomous and stable. In contrast, under a regime of deliberate practice, the individual is never quite satisfied and is always pushing a little bit beyond his/her capability, actively and incrementally expanding that capability. (Ericsson, 2006, chapter 38).

Connection to orgtheory: Which organizations adopt this attitude toward expertise, that most people can attain high levels of competence? Not us. The academic system is notorious as a weeder, not a trainer. Most professors are content to let students flail by themselves, with a handful sheepishly showing up to office hours around midterms.

The organization that has best absorbed this lesson? I’d vote for the Marines. Ever talk to a Marine trainer? The idea is pretty simple. Conditional on basic health and psychological fitness, any person can become an expert in hand to hand combat, sharp shooting and survival skills. Not just the jocks in high school – even the posers, the metal heads and the nerds. If you ever read accounts of Marine training, such as Thomas Ricks’ Making the Corps,  you quickly realize that the organization’s assumption is that any willing person can be made into a killing machine. It’s a lesson, with qualifications, that can be better absorbed in other areas of life.


Written by fabiorojas

January 31, 2007 at 4:04 am

5 Responses

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  1. Via MR I ran into the blog last week…A favorite from a recent post is this Springsteen quote (pitching multiple intelligence rather than ‘g’ I guess):

    “I wasn’t quite suited for the educational system. One problem with the way the educational system is set up is that it only recognizes a certain type of intelligence, and it’s incredibly restrictive — very, very restrictive. There’s so many types of intelligence, and people who would be at their best outside of that structure [get lost]. Most of the schools, they’re aiming to build you up and get you into the machine.”



    January 31, 2007 at 5:32 pm

  2. An interesting sociological issue however, is whether fields that attempt to foster and reward creativity can organize their training Marine style. One might make a “contigency theory” argument, that training regimes and reward structures will be attuned to the type of human output that the organization aims to produce: one efficient (but also command obeying) killing machines, the other autonomous (and presumably creative) intellectual producers.

    It seems that the laissez faire attitude of most academic training may have to do with the fact that while the Marines have figured out how to predictably create good soldiers, where good sociologists (or economists, or physicists, etc.) come from and how you predictably and reliably produce them beats the heck out of even the smartest people in the world.



    January 31, 2007 at 6:30 pm

  3. Interesting example. I’ve read elsewhere about “strong” military basic training as the triumph of treatment over selection effects.

    On the academic formation side, one pragmatic contribution might be to discover or create ways to build conceptual thinkers. It sometimes seem like many core research methods seminars jump straight into the nuts and bolts of the research process, assuming that conceptual thinking skills are absorbed somehow along the way.



    February 1, 2007 at 3:24 am

  4. […] I agree with Ben that reading and writing more is necessary – but it is not sufficient! Why? As discussed a few weeks ago on this blog, expertise does not come from simply doing more of an activity. It comes from doing […]


  5. “The organization that has best absorbed this lesson?”

    Please also consider the Suzuki Method of Music Education, which holds that all children are born with enormous potential for reaching a high degree of excellence.



    August 21, 2007 at 6:50 pm

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