Author David Shenk

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The Genius in All of Us author explains the role of genetics in everyday abilities and how our environment shapes our genius.

David Shenk is a best-selling author, whose titles include Data Smog, The Forgetting—the inspiration for PBS' Emmy-winning documentary of the same name—and, his latest, The Genius in All of Us. He's also a correspondent for He's penned cover stories for The New Republic and The Nation, written for Slate, where he created the popular "Survivalist" series, and worked as a producer for NPR. Shenk frequently lectures on Alzheimer's disease and has advised the President's Council on Bioethics on dementia-related issues.


Tavis: David Shenk is a best-selling author whose previous books include “The Forgetting,” which served as the basis for a documentary here on PBS, in fact, back in 2004.
His latest text is called “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong.” David Shenk, good to have you on the program.
David Shenk: Oh, so glad to be here, thanks.
Tavis: Why is everything we’ve been told about genius wrong?
Shenk: It’s crazy, because scientists are in this 21st century world of understanding all these nuances about genetics and how they translate into abilities, and the general public is still kind of stuck in an early 20th century understanding of genes as being these blueprints which have this very specific information of what our traits are supposed to look like.
In fact, genes interact with the environment so it’s everything that we end up becoming. It’s not that genes don’t have influence – of course they do and of course we all have genetic differences – but the actual traits that end up becoming who we are are a product of this constant interaction, which starts from the very first moment we’re conceived. Obviously, since it’s an interaction we can impact that interaction, so the more we learn about it the more we can do about it.
Tavis: So that means, then, that I’m not any more doomed to a life of mediocrity than I am guaranteed to be a genius just because of my genes.
Shenk: Exactly right, and my message is not that we can control this stuff absolutely or there’s a recipe to create a genius or any sort of super-success, but we’re learning more and more about this.
The book really combines this new understanding of genes, which I am just helping to translate from all these wonderful scientists that I got to talk to, and this whole other body of science which is talking about how people get good at stuff. It’s called expertise studies.
So we’re learning more and more about the intricacies of that moment-to-moment process from very early on in life, where we develop the attitudes and the practices which give us the skills to be good.
Tavis: So we see folk all the time and we say, “He’s a genius at that, she’s a genius at that.” How do we, to your point now, become geniuses at X, Y, or Z?
Shenk: Oh, boy. Okay, so now you want the recipe.
Tavis: Yeah.
Shenk: Well, okay. One of the big themes that emerges in the book is that we – all of us – I’ll talk about two of them real quickly.
First is you have to have – you talk about have the faith, keep the faith – you have to have faith that even though you in any individual particular moment are only so good at something and your ambition might be to be so great at something, so far off, and you can’t see that distance, that it is about this process, and that’s part of what this book is about.
It’s showing people how there’s a science to the process and exists, explaining how people get really good at stuff do it through this process so that people have the faith early on.
If you don’t have that faith, then it’s not going to happen. If you think of yourself as being doomed to mediocrity –
Tavis: Is that process, in a word, “practice,” or more than that?
Shenk: It starts with this idea that you actually can get there, that it’s possible, and of course parents have been doing this for generations, for longer than we even know. There are some parents who say, “You can be anything.” Well, that turns out – the science really ends up bearing that out.
The second thing I’ll say is that it’s about learning to have an interaction and an appreciation for failure. So actually, you can’t get great at stuff, and I’m sure this is going to resonate with you, you cannot get great at something unless you on purpose push yourself to the edge of your ability, a little bit beyond, and then look at what didn’t go quite right, and get up the next day – “Okay, I’m going to master that little step up and then the next day I’m going to push myself a little bit further.”
So there’s a whole group of people out there who experience failure as this message that you’re only going to be so good at something. It’s revealing something about your innate limits. Then there’s this whole other crowd of people who are experiencing failure somehow as this insight into just what they haven’t learned to do yet, and it’s that second group of people, we need to bring that message to as many people as possible to build talent and skills.
Tavis: Let me flip this dramatically. I wonder whether or not part of what holds people back from even being greater than what they are, greater than they think they are, has to do with being told that they’re a genius at X, Y, or Z.
So my point is if somebody says to me over and over and over again, “Oh, my God, you’re the best -” I never get told this, but if I were told every day, “You’re the best talk show host on television,” and I got told that everywhere I went, “You’re the best, I watch you, I love you, you’re the best.”
If I internalize that I’m the best at being a talk show host and I never work at trying to become a better talk show host, don’t I mute my growth? Don’t I mute my – stop my genius where it is?
Shenk: There is considerable science to support what you just said. There’s a Stanford psychologist named Carol Dweck who actually took groups of students and she would say to one group of students, “The reason you did well at this” relatively easy test that they gave them, “is because you are innately smart. You’ve got this certain something.
Then she took another group and she said, “The reason you did well at this test is that you worked hard. It’s all about building skills.” Then she offered them each a new test. “Do you want to take an easy test or do you want to take something a little bit harder?”
Well, the group they told they were innately smart were not nearly as ambitious and they didn’t do nearly as well. The group that was told that it’s all about work and effort and accumulating skills are more ambitious. They understand.
So understanding that it’s malleable, that intelligence and talent and all these abilities are malleable and that they’re a series of skills that you’re building is an empowering thing that does raise people up in and of itself.
Tavis: You say that genius is malleable. Tell me more about how our environment shapes that, impacts that.
Shenk: Right. There’s a culture that just speaks to this in so many different ways, and a part of it is – not to push my own book – but a part of it is changing the conversation. So not using words like “innate” and “gifted” in the sense that you just got this gift from somewhere and it has nothing to do with you.
Now I’m not saying – again, I need to double back and say I’m not saying that there aren’t things out of your control, including genes. Many of these things we don’t understand yet. But we’re learning more and more about how to tap into the psychology of this, about how to build skills in all these different areas.
It’s no accident that the runners, the swimmers, the chess players, any skill that you can imagine in the 21st century, we’re all better as a group at doing these things than 100 years ago, 200 years ago. So we are building the knowledge at how to get better and we need to just transmit this idea everywhere.
Tavis: Parents are going to eat this book up, for all the parents who want their kids to be geniuses or think they are already, because you actually give tips in the book for how to advance the genius process.
We’ve talked about one – it is practice. You’ve got to practice. That notion is still true, number one. But just to pull two others out right quick, you talk about the fact that it’s about how you speak to your child, how you speak to the persons in your universe, and I was fascinated.
It didn’t surprise me because I’ve lived this, but it is fascinating to me to read the science about how there are kids in certain communities, certain environments, who end up having their genius stunted in part because they don’t hear a certain amount of words in their universe.
Shenk: That’s right.
Tavis: The words that they hear are sophomoric, they’re simple, they’re basic.
Shenk: That’s right.
Tavis: If you don’t even hear – I’ll let you explain it, but it’s fascinating research.
Shenk: Well, it is, and this is just one of many things that suggests that all this development begins very, very early on, and you’re talking about a study that showed that actually, the amount of words spoken in a family environment from the very earliest ages, there’s a huge difference between the amount of words and the complexity of words and also the ratio of encouraging to discouraging words very early on.
It ends up being the difference between the groups of people who end up being successful and not successful is millions and millions of words, just in those first couple of years.
So yes, a highly verbal society, highly verbal families, reading all these things that we already know about, the science is now bearing this out that it really makes a difference.
Tavis: This also won’t surprise, I think, anybody with half a brain – when you encourage talent, it grows.
Shenk: That’s right.
Tavis: When you encourage genius, it flowers and flourishes.
Shenk: Having faith and encouraging it and making sure that people understand, have this mind-set that it’s a series of skills, failure is a part of the process, and no one can say what any individual’s going to get, what level. Of course they’re going to hit limits and have disappointments; that’s a part of the process. But it’s all about thinking about it as this kind of accumulation of skills.
Tavis: Now the tricky stuff. There are still people in this society – I think now about Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, now Treasury secretary who got in a lot of trouble for making comments perceived to be pejorative comments about the aptitude of women at Harvard and beyond.
So there’s this notion that genius has to do with gender, and this notion that genius has to do or has not much to do with race. Your thoughts about genius and the intersection with race and gender.
Shenk: Well, I’m going to take the race one because the gender one is tricky and I don’t want to be misinterpreted as saying that there aren’t genetic differences between men and women and that the development isn’t even, in some ways, different.
But what I do want to say about race is that we have this book, “The Bell Curve,” and they read these statistical studies which supposedly divide out genetic influence from environmental influence, and they misread that to think that there is this certain portion of each individual that their intelligence and their abilities are set, really directly set by genes.
If you extrapolate from that, well, then you look at the populations that aren’t doing well, you look at continents that aren’t doing well, and you say, “Okay, so those guys have inferior genes. That’s only going to allow them to get so far.”
Now that we know that it’s this interaction between the genes and the environment and that you can’t really separate them out – even if statistics can, the biology won’t let you do that – we can get past this idea that there are certain ethnicities or populations or even continents that are genetically doomed to mediocrity or below mediocrity.
Tavis: As you can tell, this kind of stuff turns me on – genius and the talk about it, the human genome, all this kind of science fascinates me. If it fascinates you, you’ll want this new text from David Shenk. It’s called “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong.” Brian, my floor director, is so happy that there’s hope for him now. (Laughter) David, good to have you on the program.
Shenk: I really enjoyed it, thanks.

Tavis: Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm