Can You Turn a Child into a Genius?
Can you create genius and talent in kids? Do we come into the world as "blank slates" or are brilliant people born that way? In his book Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, Matthew Syed explained why he believed he became a table tennis champion.
His parents bought a table tennis set when he was a child. He had a brother who loved the game, so they spent hours playing together. He went to a school that had a table tennis program. Syed believes a lot of "accidents" happened that turned him into a successful athlete. Without all these "accidents" he may have taken a very different path in life.
Practice Versus Genes
Malcolm Gladwell believes brilliance is created. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success he claims the key to succeeding in any field is deliberate practice. It takes 10,000 hours to properly master a task. This is known as the 10,000-Hour Rule. Take Mozart as an example. He was born into a musical family and took an interest in playing instruments at a young age. His father was a composer, so Mozart was exposed to music practically from birth and practiced for many hours. Even if he had some innate talent, could practice rather than natural ability explain why he became so great so soon?
David Z. Hambrick, Fernanda Ferreira, and John M. Henderson disagreed with Gladwell in their Slate article Practice Does Not Make Perfect. They claim genes are far more important than environmental factors. In a study of chess players the amount of hours of deliberate practice required to reach "master" status ranged from 728 hours to 16,120 hours. This was a 22 times difference in required practice time. In their view, Mozart was born into a musical family, so he had the right genes to become great. Practice, while important, is not why he became so successful. He was born great.
Does this mean some of us are born to be great scientists, some to be great business people, some to be great at sports, some to be great musicians, some to be great writers, and some to be good at nothing at all? However one big flaw with their argument is the chess players filled out a questionnaire in the lobby of a chess club in Buenos Aires. So, the 728 hours versus 16,120 hours to become a master chess player may be wildly inaccurate.
But there's no doubt some people are born with natural talent. Child geniuses and prodigies are very real. Some even come from low income homes raised by parents without much education or the skills their kids have a natural talent for. However, these kids often talk of having a strong passion for something that makes them want to practice it over and over. It's hard to know to what extent their natural talent versus their time spent practicing contributes to their ultimate greatness. John Nunn, a child genius who went on to become a college professor and professional chess player said:
"I don't like this child prodigy/genius thing. OK, you're a bit ahead of other people in one particular subject, but there is just this spectrum. Human abilities are multifaceted. With all the conflicting claims on children's time now, it's easy not to develop a particular talent which you might have done if you devoted more time to it."
And not all brilliant people appear to have been precocious. There's a lot of complexity involved in what makes people great and it may be difficult to always pinpoint. Is a person born to be a great violinist? If not, what makes one person a better violinist than another? Is it simply passion, focus and persistence along with thousands of hours of deliberate practice where an individual constantly pushes the limits of what they can do? If passion, focus and persistence are what separates the great from the good from the mediocre, the question then arises how much of these traits result from environment versus genes.
It seems that a confluence of factors have to come together to make someone great. Going back to Matthew Syed, if his parents had never bought that table tennis set, if he didn't have a sibling to play with, and if he attended a school that didn't have a table tennis coach, he may have taken a very different path in life. It was likely a combination of opportunity (all those accidents), genes, physical characteristics, passion, and persistence that made him a champion.
When you look at the backgrounds of great people, you see very different stories. Malcolm Gladwell says the Beatles played 1,200 shows from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of practice. It may have been constant practice rather than innate brilliance that made them great. Lennon and McCartney are some of the most respected songwriters in popular music. Yet when the Beatles started out their songwriting was so bad they mostly played cover songs according to John Lennon. They released their first album in 1963 and admitted their songwriting mimicked the style of popular songs at the time like those of Buddy Holly. Songwriting appears to have been a skill they had to learn, practice and constantly improve to reach their status as one of the most respected bands in the world.
The Slate authors sum up their article with this:
"Pretending that all people are equal in their abilities will not change the fact that a person with an average IQ is unlikely to become a theoretical physicist, or the fact that a person with a low level of music ability is unlikely to become a concert pianist. It makes more sense to pay attention to people’s abilities and their likelihood of achieving certain goals, so people can make good decisions about the goals they want to spend their time, money, and energy pursuing. Moreover, genes influence not only our abilities, but the environments we create for ourselves and the activities we prefer. Pushing someone into a career for which he or she is genetically unsuited will likely not work."
However, this may not be so simple. A musician may be great at playing classical music but unable to play jazz. Scientists who are brilliant in one area of science may be clueless in another. A successful CEO in one industry may not do so well trying to manage a company in a different industry. Brilliance in one area doesn't automatically lead to brilliance in similar fields. Great people are often great only at the things they've spent years training to do.
Can Parents Create Greatness?
Earl Woods is often cited as the reason his son Tiger became a great golfer. He introduced his son to golf at the age of two and Tiger became a child prodigy. Did Tiger just happen to be born with the right genes to become a sports star or was his early start the main reason he became great?
It's hard to say because as Scientific American points out there are many paths to success:
"By definition, very few people reach excellence in a domain, and no two paths are exactly the same. Some people actually invent a whole new path of deliberate practice for others to follow! The fact that two people can obtain the same result through a very different route opens up a new can of questions.
The topic of greatness is one of the most fascinating in all of psychology and has relevance for every single human being on this planet. As it turns out, the truth is far more nuanced, complex, and fascinating than any one viewpoint or paradigm can possibly reveal. It’s time to go beyond talent or practice. Greatness is much, much more."
-- Scientific American, The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent or Practice
How Einstein's Brain Is Different Than Yours
What does this mean for parents? First of all, someone doesn't need to be brilliant or the best-of-the-best to be successful. Many people who aren't musical geniuses have had successful careers in music. Many dancers, sports stars, scientists, business people, and on and on have still done well for themselves even if they never make it to elite status in their field.
Starting your child at something when they're preschool age may be beneficial. Both of my kids started piano lessons at age 4. While you shouldn't force kids to practice something for hours a day in the hope you'll make them great, continuing an activity for years may help them develop persistence and focus. It gives them an opportunity to become great at something. The Slate authors acknowledge that early learning may play a role in future success.
"...[chess] players who started playing early reached higher levels of skill as adults than players who started later...There may be a critical window during childhood for acquiring certain complex skills, just as there seems to be for language."
Which do you believe is more important for success?
Parents should also encourage their children's interests and take active involvement in them. Both of my kids are creative types who love making videos. I've bought design software, cameras, drawing books to create background scenery, and the other things they need to make their videos. I've shown my eldest how to write simple film scripts, how to use video editing software and how to find public domain music, sound clips, and images. I've sent her to drawing and stop motion animation classes. Will she become a film making genius someday? Who knows but that's not even the goal. I want my kids to develop expertise at something, which may open up opportunities down the road they may not otherwise have.
As parents, perhaps we shouldn't want to create geniuses like Einstein, or famous sports stars like Tiger Woods, or great musicians and composers like Mozart. What we should do is give our kids opportunities to become great at something without pressuring them too much. We should give them plenty of free time to develop their own interests and encourage those interests. Then we should let them decide for themselves what they want to do in life. Because ultimately with so many often uncontrollable factors and complex mixtures of genes and environment leading to greatness, there probably is no recipe you can follow to ensure your child will become exactly what you want them to be.