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Thursday, October 9, 2014
Brain / Mind ... Psychology ...

There was an article on Slate the other day about Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” for success (i.e., Practice Does Not Make Perfect, by David Z. Hambrick, Fernanda Ferreira, and John M. Henderson). Well, actually the article started off about Gladwell and his notion that personal success is mostly an issue of drive and a willingness to put the energy into mastering something — anything, really. But after that, the three authors took an interesting look at recent research about the relationships between genetics, human abilities and ultimate achievements in life. They basically concluded that Gladwell was wrong in that success is much more dependent upon inborn abilities than upon desire and discipline. While practice and drive certainly are a necessary part of any achievement, the bottom line is that people who don’t have the right bodies and brains (and history and environment) just aren’t going to become concert pianists or NFL quarterbacks or theoretical physicists or jet fighter pilots.

It’s starting to look like “we either have it or we don’t” in terms of being able to get somewhere in life. The classic arguments on what drives our lives and who we are often come down to nature versus nurture. In regards to what we can or can’t accomplish in life, modern research seems to be putting more and more stock in “nature”, i.e. genetics.

So, someday (probably soon), you might take a swab test and have a lab determine what you would be good at; i.e. what fields or endeavors that you would be a “natural” for. Hmmm . . . is this really a good thing? In some ways yes — sure, it makes sense that young people should be directed into fields where they can excel, and not waste time going up a career dead-end. But then again, some cross-training is also a good thing; artists need to learn a bit more science, and scientists need a bit more exposure to poetry. Philosophers need more athletic training and team sports, while football jocks need more literature. Computer geeks need more glee club singing experience . . . etc. Maybe this won’t happen so much if everyone stays on one track all their life, the track they can (theoretically) go farthest on.

AND really, can the studies that correlate genetics with abilities that lead to success and achievement in various fields truly cover all of the routes to “making it”? Perhaps some people can and do find other ways to the top. Would someone with the potential to find a “road less traveled” to success be discouraged when a gene test tells her or him not to go into music or entrepreneurship or whatever?

AND another thing — do we really want to eliminate all ‘career tragedy’ in the world, prevent all instances of people struggling but never really making it (or barely getting by) in the field that they had a passion for? What if someone really has a passion to be an opera singer, but just doesn’t have the pipes, genetically . . . do we really want to keep them from even trying? Sure, time and effort are wasted, but are we sure that there aren’t some subtle benefits to taking the shot even if you lose? Would human kind and life in general really be as interesting if everyone has a sure track to “excellence”? Isn’t there something to say for “having loved and lost”?

AND finally, what if some people get reports saying “you’re completely mediocre, you don’t have any particular skill or ability that will make you a star in any field at all?” I doubt if genetic science will become completely comprehensive anytime soon, and it may well be that a lot of people would fit into a “gray zone” where their genes don’t correlate with any known pattern that correlates with success in any particular field. Wouldn’t this be kind of discouraging? Wouldn’t it throw cold water on people who might still have lived interesting lives by pursing their dreams, even if it never leads to excellence?

Personally, I like the new emphasis on genetics in explaining why one person made it and another didn’t. As an older fellow looking back, as someone who never really did “grab the brass ring” in any of the various career and hobby fields that I have been involved in, all of this is a good palliative; it provides an excuse. I.e., I never became great because I didn’t focus myself in the area that I really had a knack for (whatever that might have been — maybe I should have been some sort of scientist or researcher).

But as to whether I should have missed all the interesting stuff that I did in fact get involved in over the years because I knew at age 16 that I would do well in one particular field, versus all the diddling around that I did do (e.g., engineering school, law school, a masters in economics, working for a non-profit community agency, designing small databases, etc.) — if I could do it all over again with the benefit of a gene test — boy, that’s a tough question. I certainly would have been “a different me” had I taken that test. Not sure at all though if that would have been a happier me.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:22 pm      

  1. As a general rule, people should choose careers where they have both an interest and an aptitude. Any test that would help in that regard would be a good thing both for the individual and society. At the same time, i recognize that this issue is more complex than that. How the test results is presented would be critical. You are right – it won’t be a good thing for someone to receive a report that someone is mediocre at everything.

    Comment by Zreebs — October 10, 2014 @ 6:08 am

  2. Jim, So now “they”’ve got genetics that tell people how to “make it” or “who” will make it? I find myself wondering how “making it” is defined. Does that mean everybody must be famous, the top in his/her profession? How precisely are Hambrick, Ferreria, and Henderson defining “making it”? I should specify here that my “argument” is with the authors of this study rather than with you. I find nothing really to disagree with you about at all. So back to the authors:

    Actually, I don’t care for their definition (of “making it”), altho, admittedly, the authors do not actually use the term “making it”; it’s implied. Somehow getting to the top in a particular sport or profession, or whatever particular area of expertise is considered is supposed to be simply understood as being at the top, which I think is a very poor way to consider “success”.

    I find myself wondering exactly what it means by what is implied as “being able to get somewhere in life”. It seems to me that there are lots of “somewheres” to be in life and lots of different *levels* of being in life. I wonder why precisely does success have to mean either (I’m presuming here as it is not defined) making a lot of money, being fantastically famous, having a lot of power, or all of them combined with some others someone may consider “getting somewhere in life”, being “successful” etc.

    Another question: Do these authors mean to say that everybody (for example) who wants to be a “A-list celebrity” might actually become an “A-list celebrity” — or only those with the “right genes”? First of all, I find myself asking if every celebrity is an “A-list” one, then what will distinguish the A-list-ers from the B- or C- or D- listers. Second, in this question is: Who is to say that someone who lives a good life, is productive and adds something to society in a good way is not making an extremely valuable contribution to society as a whole and/or the planet?

    Furthermore, in line with my question in the above paragraph, who is to say that those people who may not even do as much as I mention in the second part of the question (live a good life, be productive, etc.) in their own way still do not make some contribution to society as we know it. For instance, people who carry the gene for Down Syndrome: While these individuals may not “make it” in life or even “be productive” (as I mention), I have never known one of them who is not considered to be making a wonderful contribution to family, friends, and those who know the person. Again, how does one define “making it”, being successful, etc.?

    And when it comes to those who have put effort into something and don’t “make it”: I’ve found that just the experience of having actually participated in playing music, dancing, playing sports, (fill in the particular place the effort is expended but does not reach the peak of fulfillment). . . just having tried something is a very worthwhile thing for the individual as it gives an appreciation for the actual experience of the thing involved – a treasure that cannot be learned/experienced by reading books nor can that treasure be forgotten.

    I may be showing my age here, but years ago teachers were giving their students tests that showed “what they’d be good at” (now I guess it’s find out what genes someone has, but I digress) and then the students were given counseling regarding what likely profession, sport, work he/she should consider as life’s work. I myself took the test (while administering it to others) to see if I was in the “right” profession.

    Two things: I seldom saw any of those who were “counseled” to go into a particular area of life actually *do* that. Most people managed to find a way of living and continued on, test or no test recommending this or that. Second: Regarding my own “choice” of profession: If I remember correctly, the test showed I was not in the “right” profession. However, I absolutely loved what I did, earned decent a living for me and my loved ones, was blessedly happy doing what I did, and considered that I had made some positive contribution to those I worked with. OK, I didn’t “make it”. Who cares? I don’t. It seems to me that my life perhaps was not all that bad. I don’t even find it a “tough question” – if I had a chance to do it all over again, would I do it the same way? The answer, as far as I’m concerned is a 100% yes.

    And yes, I also have known people who have been unhappy and hated their work. Yet, those I have known in this “category” led productive lives, earned decent and good livings, and generally found some area of life which made them happy; in short they lived productive lives. Who is to say that every part of life is supposed to be categorized as “making it”, “happy”, productive, successful, etc.? I know one person who seemed to live a “nothing” life; yet he fought in combat in WW II and made many sacrifices for his country. Who is to say that was not “worthwhile”?

    In fact, I’ve looked back on my life and been amazed at how I seemed to have been born at just the right time for certain things to have happened in my life that enriched it; if I’d been born at another time when I could have “made it”, I’d have missed all I lived through.

    It seems to me that “making it” needs a definition. Further, it seems to me that dismissing all the “little stuff” in life that makes plain old individuals (not individuals who can say, “do you know who I am?”) is a mistake of massive proportions that would deprive the life and living of every person on the planet. What a waste *that* would be –genes or no genes. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 10, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

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