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.

Even as these books debunk the romantic and elitist belief in "giftedness," they don't always do realistic justice to the grunt work they champion. Gladwell tends to gloss over the sweaty specifics in favor of an emphasis on the larger cultural forces that enable the doggedness so key to extraordinary achievement. He reaches for the exacting Chinese tradition of rice cultivation, for example, to explain Chinese students' top showing on international math exams.

His epigones, aiming for the self-help shelves, do put those 10,000 hours of "effortful study" front and center. But in their zeal to tout this kind of practice as a tool for all, they can't resist glamorizing its intensity (Ted Williams, out tirelessly hitting balls from boyhood onward) and distracting us from how arduous, tedious, and dependent on adult pushiness it can be. (Talk to Andre Agassi!) They also skirt the question of whether producing the requisite 10,000-hour grinds may prove to be as inegalitarian and hypercompetitive as the emergence of geniuses ever was.

Colvin, a Fortune editor and the first out of the gate, is the hardest-headed about the rigors entailed by that word deliberate. Along with a dose of upbeat business rhetoric about how "to really turbocharge the benefits of deliberate practice," he devotes wonky prose to conveying the exhausting degree of focus. To practice effectively requires tackling a carefully mapped course of ever-rising challenges, assiduously responding to fine-tuned feedback, and sucking up failure again and again. It demands true obsessiveness. At the close, Colvin admits that the price of such super-intense perseverance is high. Dedication on this scale strains relationships and calls for relentless, far from immediately gratifying toil (which you better start when you're young and otherwise carefree—or you'll never catch up on all those hours).

Coyle, a sportswriter and Lance Armstrong chronicler with an effortless Gladwellian writing style, leavens The Talent Code with more excitement: He has lab secrets to spiff up the mundane labor involved. Channeling neuroscientists, he announces a mantra: myelin. That's the sheath of dense fat that insulates nerve fibers, allowing impulses to travel more speedily along them. Layers of it coil ever more thickly thanks to deep practice, a key to success that he often describes as rather like a miracle diet: Do it right (as in the "hotbeds" that produce great crops of particular talent, as Russia does tennis players), and mastery can require less time. Moscow's Spartak Tennis Club propels its students onward with a special method called imitatsiya, miming rallies in slow motion without a real ball. In whatever the field, almost "without your realizing it," ungainliness—physical, mental, artistic—is transformed into grace as a result of myelin-building deliberate practice. Coyle is in no way deterred by the fact, reported by the more cautious Colvin, that "research on myelin is still in its early stages." In a hurry to make his mark and get Americans myelinating with their "master coaches," he's not about to wait around while scientists amass more hours of painstaking experiments.

In The Genius in All of Us, Shenk supplies a talent secret too: the "new dynamic model of GxE (genes multiplied by environment)," which renders obsolete the old "catchy phrase 'nature/nurture' " with its crude dichotomizing. He tries for a catchy jingle of his own as he promotes a "new paradigm for talent, lifestyle, and well-being," which promises no short cuts but has a whistle-while-you-work tone: "Every day in every way you are helping to shape which genes become active." There is no inborn destiny, and DNA responds to disciplined effort. He calls it "dynamic development" and reaches for the imprimatur of a group of geneticists, neuroscientists, and others. These scientists, whom Shenk christens "the new interactionists," might be surprised at being pressed into popular, pep-rally service so soon. After all, they face plenty of hard work exploring the possible human applications of their view that genes are best understood not as blueprints but as "knobs and switches [that] can be turned up/down/on/off at any time—by another gene or by any minuscule environmental input."

Shenk acknowledges that the gene-environment interactions are all very complicated but skims over the darker implications of his message that we have more control than we think we do over how great we can become. If acquiring disciplined habits and learning to defer gratification end up influencing genes—if, as he rather wildly speculates, "a twelve-year-old kid could improve the intellectual nimbleness of his or her future children by studying harder now"—that would seem to multiply the Matthew Effect, for ill as well as good. That 12-year-old's tweaked genes would make him or her just the focused parent/mentor Shenk says children need to cultivate such concentration themselves. Doesn't that mean his or her progeny would thus get a double chance at super-focus? Advantages quickly get compounded down the generations this way. Meanwhile, those who lag behind risk getting blamed for laziness and lack of discipline, not just bad genetic luck. And that's a legacy that lasts, too. It's an ethos in tension with Shenk's generous hope that the "genius in all of us is that we can all rise together."

Higher expectations can indeed work wonders for anyone, but truly relentless drive is a rarity. Amid all the recycled material in Bounce, Syed offers a sobering firsthand reminder from the sports front: The necessary fanatical commitment to mastery is most commonly inspired by competition, which has a way of winnowing ruthlessly. But in an era when plenty of American workers feel we're running in place and just barely keeping up, the mixed message of this genre is one we're understandably more eager to hear: Maybe we don't have to become magnitudes more frenetic than we already are—just a whole lot more focused—and we, too, stand a chance of zooming ahead.

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