The Genius In All of Us by David Shenk

The Genius In All Of Us

Neuroscientist Dr. Robert A. Burton has said in his book On Being Certain – Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not: We do not need and cannot afford the catastrophes born out of a belief in certainty.[i] (1). David Shenk’s book, The Genius In All of Us – Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong, lays out all the evidence to unmask the myths masquerading as what we think we most certainly know about being born with finite limitations regarding our capacity to develop as human beings.

One of the central themes of this book is, “Everything shapes us and everything can be shaped by us. The genius in all of us is our built-in ability to improve ourselves and our world.” (p.131). It’s a book about permission – permission to move beyond the myths that heretofore have hampered our ability to imagine the plausibility of becoming more than we are, by virtue of the common knowledge that is broadly distributed regarding intelligence, genetic predisposition and talent. Listen to Shenk: “But the new science suggests that few of us know our true limits, that the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call our “unactualized potential.” It also  suggests a profound optimism for the human race.” (P.9). Now that’s empowering!

David Shenk is a national bestselling author with five previous books, including The Immortal Game, Data Smog and The Forgetting –  is also a correspondent and contributor to NPR, PBS, The New Yorker, The New York Times, National Geographic and The This guy is incredibly insightful and an incredible researcher. This book has appendices (“Sources, Notes, Clarifications and Amplifications” that run some 160 pages) that are an integral part of the sumptuous fare provided for the reader – and comprise the body of evidence that support the authors arguments….don’t overlook these.

Shenk argues: “We need to replace “nature/nurture” with “dynamic development.” (P. 27). What does he mean?

Dynamic development is the new paradigm for talent, lifestyle, and well-being. It is how genes influence everything but strictly determine very little. It forces us to rethink everything about ourselves, where we come from, and where we can go. It promises that while we’ll never have true control over our lives, we do have the power to impact them enormously. Dynamic development is why human biology is a jukebox with many potential tunes not specific built-in instructions for a certain kind of life, but built-in capacity for a variety of possible lives. None is genetically doomed to mediocrity.” (Pp.27-28.)

Once again, a myth-busting – empowering insight. His thesis is that “talent is not the cause but the result of something.” (P.49)

He doesn’t stop there. Listen to the following excerpts that evidence additional dimensions of his arguments:

What we do know is that our brains and bodies are primed for plasticity; they were built for challenge and adaptation. This is true from life’s earliest moments.” (P.106).

each of us is a dynamic system, a creature of development.” (P.17).

“No one knows. We do not-and cannot-know our own limits unless and until we push ourselves to them. Finding one’s true natural limit in any field takes many years and many thousands of hours of intense pursuit. What are your limits?” (P.58).

In a world that is desperately yearning to empower people to explore frontiers that will contribute to ameliorating current societal ills and providing new pathways to a better future, Shenk’s argument obliterates our tendency to become complacent and/or accepting or mediocrity, when he writes:

“But the new science tells us that it’s equally foolish to think that mediocrity is built into most of us, or that any of us can know our true limits before we’ve applied enormous resources and invested vast amounts of time. Our abilities are not set in genetic stone. They are soft and sculptable, far into adulthood. With humility, with hope, and with extraordinary determination, greatness is something to which any kid – of any age – can aspire.” (P. 10)

Solid journalistic research, powerful prose, and penetrating arguments in habit this work by David Shenk. However, this particular book is actually much, much more than that. From time to time certain literary works unmask the fallacy behind “common knowledge” masquerading as “certainty.” The Genius In All of Us – Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong, is one of those.

The thinking and the collective consciousness that any society tends to develop over time has an inertia behind it – an energy that maintains the body of widely held beliefs and assumptions about “what we think we know,” including all the rationalizations behind our “certainty. However, as it pertains to genetics, talent and IQ (like a myriad of topics every society comes to be “certain” about) – this “certainty” has unconsidered consequences. What do I mean? Listen to David Shenk: “I believe the answer lies in the profound inertia of human thought. When an entire society believes something is impossible, it suppresses, by its very way of life, the evidence that would contradict that belief.” p.123

In David Shenk’s The Genius In All of Us – Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong he provides a new inertia that unmasks the myths masquerading as talent, intelligence and genetic predisposition. It’s a book written in a way that can be consumed by a broad audience. It’s a book about permission – permission to embrace the new inertia contained in the following truth:

The genius in all of us is our built-in ability to improve ourselves and our world.” (P.131).

Buy this book! One of my favorites for 2010. Required Reading.


[i] Burton, Robert A. M.D. On Being Certain – Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, St. Martins Press, New York, NY Copyright © 2008 by Robert A. Burton, M.D. p.223-224

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