Here is a portion of a mini-interview featured by Amazon during which David Shenk responds to questions about his latest book, The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ.
Photo © Alexandra Beers
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Q: You assert in the book that everything we’ve been told about genetics, talent, and IQ is wrong. Everything? How so?
It is a bold statement, and it reflects how poorly the public has been served when it comes to understanding the relationship between biology and ability. The clichés we’ve been taught about genetic blueprints, IQ, and “giftedness” all come out of crude, early-20th century guesswork. The reality is so much more interesting and complex. Genes do have a powerful influence on everything we do, but they respond to their environments in all sorts of interesting ways. We’ve now learned a lot more about the developmental mechanisms that enable people to get really good at stuff. Intelligence and talent turn out to be about process, not about whether you were born with certain “gifts.”
Q: You also state that the concept of nature versus nurture is over. Scientists, cognitive psychologists, and geneticists are moving towards an idea of ‘interactionism.’ What does this mean? If the battle of genes versus environment is over, who has won? Which is more important?
They both won, because they’re both vitally important. But the new science shows us that they do not act separately. Declaring that a person gets X-percent of his/her intelligence from genes and Y-percent from the environment is like saying that X-percent of Shakespeare’s greatness can be found in his verbs, and Y-percent in his adjectives. There is no nature vs. nurture, or nature plus nurture; instead, it’s nature interacting with nurture, which is often expressed by scientists as “GxE” (genes times intelligence). This is what “interactionism” refers to. A vanguard of geneticists, neuroscientists, and psychologists have stepped forward in recent years to articulate the importance of the dynamic interaction between genes and the environment.
Q: You describe genes and environment as a sound board. How so?
In the past, we’ve been taught that each distinct gene contains a certain dossier of information, which in turn determines a certain trait; if you have the blue-eyed gene, you get blue eyes. Period.
It turns out, though, that the information contained inside genes is only part of the story; another critical part is how often genes get “expressed,” or turned on, by other genes and by outside forces. It’s therefore helpful to think of your genome as a giant mixing board with thousands of knobs and switches. Genes are always getting turned on/off/up/down by hormones, nutrients, etc. People actually affect their own genome’s behavior with their actions.
Q: How do these new findings affect the concept of the “The Bell Curve”–that we live in an increasingly stratified world where the “cognitive elite,” those with the best genes, are more and more isolated from the cognitive/genetic underclass? Is that idea now completely obsolete?
Yes, it is obsolete. The idea that there is a genetic super-class that has a corner on high-IQ genes is nonsense. This comes out of a profound misunderstanding of how genes work and how intelligence works, and also from a misreading of so-called “heritability” studies. I am not saying that genes don’t affect intelligence. Genes affect everything. But by and large I think the evidence shows that people with low intelligence are missing out on key developmental advantages.
Q: Lewis Terman invented the IQ test at Stanford University in 1916. He declared it the ideal tool to determine a person’s native intelligence. Are IQ tests accurate? What are the benefits and fallout of the IQ test?
IQ tests accurately rank academic achievement. That’s quite different from identifying innate intelligence, which doesn’t really exist. Tufts intelligence expert Robert Sternberg explains that “intelligence represents a set of competencies in development.” In other words, intelligence isn’t fixed. Intelligence isn’t general. Intelligence is not a thing. Instead, intelligence is a dynamic, diffuse, and ongoing process.
The IQ test has valid uses. It can help teachers and principals understand how well students are doing and what they’re missing. But the widespread belief that it defines what each of us are capable of (and limited to) is disabling for individuals and society. People simply cannot reach their full potential if they honestly believe that they are so severely restricted.
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David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including The Forgetting, Data Smog, and The Immortal Game. He is a correspondent for The Atlantic.com, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper’s, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS. His new book, The Genius in All of Us, has been called “engrossing” by Booklist (starred review) and “empowering…myth-busting” by Kirkus.
Shenk’s work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting, and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. He has advised the President’s Council on Bioethics, and is a popular speaker. His original term “data smog” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2004.
To visit David’s Amazon page, please click here.
How and why “the craftsman mindset is the foundation for creating work you love”
Curious, I checked on the etymology of the word “career” and learned this: Origin in 1530s, “a running, course” (especially of the sun, etc., across the sky), from M.Fr. carriere “road, racecourse.” Only centuries later (early 1800s), through the evolution of usage, did the word’s meaning emerge as the “course of a working life.” I mention all this because one of Cal Newport’s primary objectives is to help his reader select the most appropriate career course and remain on it while achieving near-, mid-, and long-term goals; then, if and whenever necessary, adjust the course, pace, and focus to accommodate unforeseen changes. Viewed as a journey, Newport also calls it a “career mission” that serves as “an organizing principle to your working life. It’s what leads people to become famous for what they do and ushers in remarkable opportunities that come along with such fame.”
Years ago during a commencement address at Stanford, Teresa Amabile urged the new graduates to do what they love and love what they do. I think that is excellent advice. I also agree with Newport that it is also very important to develop capabilities, skills that will “trump passion in the quest for work you love.” That is why Newport focuses on what he calls “the craftsman mindset,” one that focuses on what you can offer to the world. Unlike “the passion mindset” that focuses on what the world can offer you, the craftsman mindset “asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is ‘just right,’ and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it — and the process won’t be easy.”
Here are a few of the dozens of passages that caught my eye:
o Rule #1: ”Don’t Follow Your Passion” (Pages 3-26)
o The Science of Passion: Three Conclusions (14-19)
o Craftsman Mindset vs. Passion Mindset (49-55)
o Rule #2: ”Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You” (29-101)
[Note: Newport explains that this comment was made by Steve Martin during an appearance on "The Charlie Rose Show."]
o “The Career Capital Theory of Great Work” (42-57)
o Rule #3: ”Turn Down a Promotion/or Control” (105-143)
o “Control Traps” (115-131)
o “The Law of Financial Liability” (137-141)
o Rule #4: ”Think Small, Act Big/The Importance of Mission” (147-197)
Newport devotes the final chapter to a brief but revealing discussion of his own “quest” to (a) answer the question, “How do people end up loving what they do?” and (b) obtain a faculty appointment at a university. He explains how he achieved both objectives. Near the end of the book, he observes, ”Once you build up the career capital that these skills generate [and others value highly], invest it wisely. Use it to acquire control over what you do and how you do it, and to identify and act on a life-changing mission. This philosophy is less sexy than the fantasy of dropping everything to go live among the monks in the mountains, but it’s also a philosophy that has been shown time and again to actually work.”
No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of the information, insights, and counsel that Cal Newport provides. However, I hope that those who read this review will have at least a sense of what his purposes are and how well he serves them. Presumably he agrees with me that it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to act upon, immediately, all of his suggestions. Read strategically, highlight whichever passages are most important, formulate a “game plan,” and then proceed with both determination and patience during your own journey of self-discovery. Bon voyage!
“All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this negative trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastination does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things such as gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it…The procrastinator can be motivated to difficult, timely, and important tasks, however, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.
“Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. In your mind, or perhaps written down somewhere, you have a list if things you want to accomplish, ordered by importance. You might even call this your priority list. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower on the list. Doing those tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure the procrastinator be comes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.”
One of these days, I may give some serious thought to these observations….
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John Perry is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford University. His essay “Structured Procrastination” won a 2011 Ig Nobel Prize in Literature and he was then able to complete the book by putting off grading papers and evaluating dissertation topics.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jonathan Schlefer for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
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One of the best-kept secrets in economics is that there is no case for the invisible hand. After more than a century trying to prove the opposite, economic theorists investigating the matter finally concluded in the 1970s that there is no reason to believe markets are led, as if by an invisible hand, to an optimal equilibrium — or any equilibrium at all. But the message never got through to their supposedly practical colleagues who so eagerly push advice about almost anything. Most never even heard what the theorists said, or else resolutely ignored it.
Of course, the dynamic but turbulent history of capitalism belies any invisible hand. The financial crisis that erupted in 2008 and the debt crises threatening Europe are just the latest evidence. Having lived in Mexico in the wake of its 1994 crisis and studied its politics, I just saw the absence of any invisible hand as a practical fact. What shocked me, when I later delved into economic theory, was to discover that, at least on this matter, theory supports practical evidence.
Adam Smith suggested the invisible hand in an otherwise obscure passage in his Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776. He mentioned it only once in the book, while he repeatedly noted situations where “natural liberty” does not work. Let banks charge much more than 5% interest, and they will lend to “prodigals and projectors,” precipitating bubbles and crashes. Let “people of the same trade” meet, and their conversation turns to “some contrivance to raise prices.” Let market competition continue to drive the division of labor, and it produces workers as “stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
In the 1870s, academic economists began seriously trying to build “general equilibrium” models to prove the existence of the invisible hand. They hoped to show that market trading among individuals, pursuing self-interest, and firms, maximizing profit, would lead an economy to a stable and optimal equilibrium.
Leon Walras, of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, thought he had succeeded in 1874 with his Elements of Pure Economics, but economists concluded that he had fallen far short. Finally, in 1954, Kenneth Arrow, at Stanford, and Gerard Debreu, at the Cowles Commission at Yale, developed the canonical “general-equilibrium” model, for which they later won the Nobel Prize. Making assumptions to characterize competitive markets, they proved that there exists some set of prices that would balance supply and demand for all goods. However, no one ever showed that some invisible hand would actually move markets toward that level. It is just a situation that might balance supply and demand if by happenstance it occurred.
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To read the complete post, please click here.
Jonathan Schlefer is author of The Assumptions Economists Make (Belknap/Harvard, 2012). The former editor of Technology Review, he holds a Ph.D. in political science from MIT and is currently a research associate at Harvard Business School.
To read more more blog posts by Jonathan Schlefer, please click here.
Morten Hansen is a professor at University of California, Berkeley, and at INSEAD, France. He was previously a professor at Harvard Business School for a number of years. Prior to joining Harvard University, Hansen obtained his Ph.D. from the business school at Stanford University. In addition to his academic career, Hansen was a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group in the London, Stockholm and San Francisco offices. He was part of the research teams for the international best-selling books Built to Last and Good to Great. Hansen’s research on collaboration has won several prestigious awards, including the best article awards from Sloan Management Review and Administrative Science Quarterly, the leading academic journal in the field. Several of his Harvard Business Review articles have been bestsellers for a number of years. He regularly consults with companies on collaboration and gives keynotes at leadership conferences. His new management book is Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results (Harvard Business School Press, 2009) and, more recently, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, co-authored with Jim Collins (HarperBusiness, 2011). A native of Norway, Hansen holds a Master’s degree in finance from London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in Business Administration from Stanford University where he was a Fulbright scholar.
To watch an interview of Morten during which he shares his thoughts about “How Great Leaders Make Their Own Luck” please click here.
To read my interview of Morten and Jim Collins, please click here.
How and why your brain can help you to become the best person you can be
Note: I recently re-read this book, first published in 2010, and value what it offers even more now than I did then.
Opinions vary as to how much (on average) people use of their brain’s capacities but there seems to be almost unanimous agreement among neuroscientists that it is possible to increase those capacities through a combination of mental and physical exercises, nutrition, and an increasing understanding of what the brain is, does, and can do. Hence the great value of this book. With Liz Neporent, Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske identify and then rigorously examine eight strategies that great minds use to achieve success (however defined) and what those with less-than-great minds can learn from them.
As they explain in the Introduction, “Our definition of Winners encompasses the usual conception: people who meet with extraordinary success in the particular aspects of life they value most…The kind of Winners we are talking about revel in the journey toward their goals almost as much as the destination itself, and they strive for the type of success that helps make the world a better place.” This is precisely what Teresa Amabile had in mind years ago when offering career advice during a commencement address at Stanford: “Do what you love and love what you do because what you love is what you’ll do best.” Brown and Fenske include dozens of such Winners in this book, telling their stories that (whether they realize it or not) “illuminate the science and the theories” on which the eight strategies are based.
These are among the passages that caught my eye:
o On how and why a Winner’s Brain operates differently than the average brain
o Five essential elements of success
o “The Winner’s Profile Quiz”
o Five BrainPowser Tools
o The Eight Win Factors
o How and why thinking about yourself can help you to become a Winner
o How to cultivate the drive to win
o How to make emotions work in your favor
o The role of ”remembering: when developing a Winner’s Brain
o How to ”bounce back” into success
0 How to reshape your brain to achieve greater success
o How to maintain, protect, and enhance your Winner’s Brain
Brown and Fenske selected a diversified group of Winners who generously share, as indicated earlier, personal stories that (whether they realize it or not) “illuminate the science and the theories” on which the eight strategies are based. Their diversity demonstrates that Winners can be found at all levels and in all areas of society. Of even greater significance, this diversity offers a reassurance that Winners [begin italics] can be developed [end italics] at all levels and in all areas of society.
Long ago, Oscar Wilde observed, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske agree, extending that insight to suggest, “And here’s how you can become the best person you can be.” In other words, a Winner.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Scott Witthoft and Scott Doorley for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
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Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” The places we work and the ways we think are inextricably linked: a few changes to one inform the other. It’s possible to shape an environment to encourage creativity and collaboration. And changes to a workplace need not be complicated: simple changes are often the most effective, if only because they will actually be implemented. If your office space is dampening creativity and your company’s facilities department isn’t a resource, there is hope. Here are [two of] five tactics you can use to improve a less-than-ideal work environment.
1. Begin with your own mindset. Reframe what you can’t do into what you can do. This is a cunning approach to making the most impact with the fewest resources: it is guerrilla warfare. You need to take small immediate steps toward change, instead of retreating from seemingly insurmountable infrastructure.
2. Focus on a few basic variables. Posture, orientation (of people relative to each other), and ambience (the intangibles of a room, like lighting) are easy to tweak in any environment. For example, we’ve noticed time and time again that an upright posture encourages people to stay alert and engaged in problem solving, while a comfortable, “lean-back” posture often turns people into passive critics. Critique is important at times, but it can get in the way of idea generation. At the d.school we use tall stools gathered in small circles for many work sessions. The stools aren’t selected for comfort; they’re tall and upright to keep students alert and prompt them to get up and move about.
Ambience has huge impact while often receiving little attention, or credit. Be aware of how a room feels, and act like a good host. Simply adding multiple sources of warm light (e.g. floor lamps) and opening some windows can change the tone of a meeting space — and of the meeting itself — from institutional and routine to refreshing and special. If your culture can bear it, add in a little music as people enter to perk people up.
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The bottom line: take small actions. Be opportunistic, make easy changes, and invite others to work with you.
[Editor's note: For more insights on designing spaces for creative collaboration, listen to this interview with Scott and Scott.]
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To read the complete article, please click here.
Scott Witthoft and Scott Doorley are co-directors of the Environments Collaborative at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school) at Stanford University and the authors of Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration. To check out more blog posts by Scott Witthoft and Scott Doorley, please click here.