For all the unpleasant noise in Amy Chua's Tiger Mom roar, she's spot on about one very big thing: Children do have enormous potential. The concept of innate talent is simply wrong; our brains and bodies are designed to adapt to environmental conditions. Genetic differences do matter, and we all have different levels of potential; but the vast majority of us don't actually get to know what those limits are. For that, we need great mentoring resources, an eagerness to fail and learn from those failures, and an awful lot of time. Talent is a process, not a thing.
Plenty of good science now reinforces this message. And, when you look closely, so do the actual lives of our most impressive achievers—whose success is often deeply misunderstood. Here are five corrective ideas:
1. Mozart was actually a slow learner
"People make a great mistake who think that my art has come easily to me," Mozart once wrote to his father. "Nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I." As impressive as it was that little Amadeus attempted to compose at an early age, his early work was far from extraordinary. His first seven piano concertos, written from ages 11 to 16, "contain almost nothing original," reports Temple University's Robert Weisberg, and "perhaps should not even be labeled as being by Mozart." Over about 10 years, Mozart voraciously incorporated different styles and motifs and developed his own voice. Critics consider his Symphony No. 29, written 10 years after his first symphony, to be his first work of real stature. His first great piano concerto is widely considered to be the No. 9, Jeunehomme, written at age 21. It was his 271st completed composition. Looking at Mozart's works chronologically, there is a clear trajectory of increasing originality and importance leading up to his final three symphonies, written at age 32, which are generally considered his greatest.
All tests are achievement tests—they reveal not inborn ability but the skills a person has acquired up to that point.
2. Michael Jordan played JV
As a youth, Jordan was not the best athlete in his family (his older brother Larry was); not the most industrious (of five siblings, he was by far the laziest); and not very mechanically inclined (a prized family skill). "If Michael Jordan was some kind of genius, there had been few signs of it when he was young," writes David Halberstam in his biography Playing for Keeps. In his sophomore year of high school, after attending summer basketball camp with his friend Roy Smith, Jordan didn't even make the varsity basketball squad. Smith did.
It was around then that Jordan seemed to develop a new rebounding attitude toward failure. For the remainder of his basketball career, no one within Jordan's orbit ever practiced or played as hard. "All top athletes are driven," writes Halberstam, "and no one made the [University of North] Carolina roster unless he was by far the hardest-working kid in his neighborhood, his high school, and finally his high-school conference, but Jordan was self-evidently the most driven of all."
And yes, drive can be an acquired trait.
3. Ted Williams' eyesight wasn't so special
Baseball legend Ted Williams was one in a million, widely considered the most "gifted" hitter of his time. "Ted just had that natural ability," said Hall of Fame second baseman Bobby Doerr. Among other traits, Williams was said to have laser-like eyesight, which enabled him to read the spin of a ball as it left the pitcher's fingers. "Ted Williams sees more of the ball than any man alive," said Ty Cobb said.
But tests actually showed his eyesight to be well within ordinary human range. The real story of Ted Williams talent was a surreal work ethic that started when he was 5 or 6 and continued until his retirement. As an impoverished kid, he paid his friends to shag balls. He refused movies, dates, and other sports. As a young professional, he practiced after practice was over, hit balls until they disintegrated, and swung bats until they splintered.
4. Usain Bolt doesn't have the sprinting gene
After Jamaica's terrific Olympic sprinting success, journalists reported that their "secret weapon" was the gene variant called ACTN3, responsible for a protein that drives forceful muscle contractions which can be found in 98 percent of Jamaicans. It sounded impressive until someone did the math. Eighty percent of Americans and 82 percent of Europeans also have at least one copy of ACTN3—a total of 737 million potential sprinters. "There's simply no clear relationship between the frequency of this variant in a population and its capacity to produce sprinting superstars," concluded geneticist Daniel MacArthur.
That's because genes don't determine complex traits like speed, or intelligence, or even height. Genes influence, but only in the context of their interaction with the environment. "[Genes] are devices for extracting information from the environment," explains Matt Ridley in his book Nature via Nurture. "Every minute, every second, the pattern of genes being expressed in your brain changes, often in direct or indirect response to events outside the body."
5. Famous genius Richard Feynman didn't have a genius IQ
It's comforting to assume that great geniuses are simply born that way (and that's what the early promoters of the IQ insisted). But they're not. They develop, like the rest of us. In the popular understanding, there are two different kinds of tests: "ability tests" like IQ that show a person's innate limits, and "achievement tests" like the SAT II. In fact, all tests are achievement tests—they reveal not inborn ability but the skills a person has acquired up to that point. "Intelligence," says Tufts' Robert Sternberg, perhaps our foremost expert on the subject, "represents a set of competencies in development."
We were all taught to believe in the paradigm of innate intelligence and gene-given talent, "gifts, and no one is going to be convinced otherwise by a few micro-biographical fragments. I go into much greater depth about gene expression and the nuances of the new developmental model of talent (Hint: It doesn't mean we all control our own destiny, or that it all comes down to hard work). Over time, we'll learn to think past the black and white notion of nature vs. nurture. And the world will be a richer place for it.
David Shenk is author, most recently, of The Genius in All of Us: New Insights Into Genetics, Talent, and IQ, which was just shortlisted for the Bristol Festival's 2011 Best Book of Ideas.