The dark side of the new theories of success.

Reading between the lines.
May 7 2010 10:04 AM

Give It a Rest, Genius

What the new success books don't tell you about superachievement.

Success begets success. Sociologists call this phenomenon the Matthew Effect, after the parable in the Gospel of Matthew that concludes, "For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance" (and the corollary, "from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away"). Nothing succeeds like a theory of success, too, it seems. Call it the Malcolm Effect: When Malcolm Gladwell challenges what he sees as the popular myth of inborn genius and champions the cultural contributions to extraordinary achievement instead, you can be sure that versions of the idea will soon be everywhere.

Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Successwas not, appropriately enough, a bolt of original genius when it appeared in November 2008. Geoffrey Colvin's Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Elsehad come out a month earlier.The following spring brought Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. (Outliers rose straight to the top of the best-seller list and has stayed there; Colvin and Coyle's books both made it onto the extended list.) This spring David Shenk's The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wronghas gotten several raves. Hot on its heels arrives Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, by Matthew Syed, a former Olympic ping-pong player turned journalist. A book that openly plunders from its predecessors, it plainly aims to enjoy some, well, bounce.

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This highly successful wave of wisdom itself illustrates the "story of success" that the authors converge in telling. The outline goes like this: There is no such thing as solitary genius, springing forth out of nowhere from innate gifts and often against great odds. Check out the backstory of such wondrous legends, and you discover that social context and historical timing are crucial in enabling unusual achievements to flower. An awesome, and roughly contemporaneous, example of prowess in a given field can be an especially important impetus to similar accomplishment. Bobby Fischer, for example, spurred a chess renaissance in the United States. Gladwell, as publishers will tell you, has had a catalytic effect on journalists.

The formula fits the recent flurry of books about success: Start with two urgent social concerns—that America is falling behind in the global talent race and that inequality is rising at home. Add some nifty research from cutting-edge labs (about neurons, genes, and the acquisition of expertise). Factor in the Gladwellian model of publicizing such findings in mega-best-sellers that blend upstart argument, cool data, and irresistible anecdotes—and you have a boomlet. It would almost be a surprise if eager popularizers hadn't converged to ride a pendulum swing away from the view that talent is hereditary. And these authors, naturally, are hoping for a peak achievement themselves in the process.

If the times help explain the resurgence of genius-isn't-in-your-genes proselytizers (they have been around before), the writers in turn shed light on the times. In particular, they call attention to our conflicted views of a crucial ingredient of this current "talent code": hard work. In their calculus of success, these books endorse perspiration over inspiration as the key to extraordinary performance. The prevailing term is "deliberate practice," introduced by K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist cited in every one of these books for research that has led to the "10,000-hour rule." That's how much intensely focused training it takes to reach the expert level, in any field. Coyle's more New Age coinage is "deep practice." And that adjective, so much less stodgy than deliberate, gives us a clue to a certain ambivalence these authors display about effort. This literature is torn about just how taxing the travails it urges really are.