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Archive for May 6th, 2009

David Brooks wrote an interesting article in the April 30 NY Times on the nature of “genius” (“Genius: The Modern View” — and thanks to Jon Barlow for the heads-up). Following two recent books (The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle; and Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin) Brooks draws this conclusion:

“The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.”

I haven’t read the books Brooks refers to, but the point seems to me to be unarguable. The willingness to sacrifice and work at a skill is the key to becoming highly accomplished. Of course, you must have God-given gifts, but, I’ve known people with little (apparent) natural ability, who became outstanding artists and artisans through intense training and plain ole hard work. Brooks suggests that “genius” is more a product of dedication and practice than it is of any outstanding level of natural (God-given) gifting, “it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.”

Now, maybe this is a tad too “works” oriented and slights the importance of grace and gift, but I think it hits on an element we’ve almost completely forgotten (as Daniel Coyle reminds us): it’s not so much who you are, but what you do. Disciplining yourself to act lovingly transforms you into one who loves. Working hard at learning a skill makes you skillful.

Most would be astonished over the amount of work, sacrifice, and effort professional musicians, athletes, and artisans give in order to perform and produce the results they display on the stage, in the field, or in the museum. I used to think I could play major college basketball and blamed my failure upon a lack of ability. In reality, my failure was much more the consequence of not being willing to sacrifice the time and effort that my friends (who did play major college basketball) were willing to put into it. They devoted themselves, pretty much year-round, to basketball. They were practicing dribbling while I spent time playing baseball in the summer and flag football in the fall (and doing all sorts of things in between). They excelled. I was never good enough. Greatness is as much the fruit of practice and devotion as it is of gifting (think Tiger Woods).

Most of us are not “geniuses” — and we are not primarily because we haven’t been willing to devote ourselves intensely to one thing. And, I should say, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It does mean, however, that we must admire the “geniuses” in our midst not as those “luckily gifted” with natural ability, but as those who have given up hours to painful practice and hard training in order to be able to do what they do so amazingly well. Gifts by themselves do not geniuses make. Without the sweat and exhausting labor, they would be as ordinary as the rest of us.

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