The Genius in All of Us

Monday, March 08, 2010

When you hear the word "genius," you might think of Einstein, Mozart, or Da Vinci. But how they became geniuses is the subject of debate. Where they born that way? Or does it come from sheer tenacity? 

We begin a week-long conversation about genius and how any of us can get that way. David Shenk, author of "The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told about Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong," tells us about some surprising research about what it takes to, as he puts it, "get good at stuff." Turns out it's not as hard as you might think.

Segment : [2F]      SLUG: [GENIUS]              [CH] leads

Guest:        David Shenk, author of “The Genius in All of Us”.   

Location:    IN STUDIO


Please pay attention to the arc – it’s important that we hit on Mozart at the end.  Also please note that there is a lot of audio pulled to pepper in over this series – a well of “geniuses on genius” to draw from.


ROLES (if they exist)


David Shenk will intro the ideas behind the book/the week - a debunking of “genius” as an inborn trait, in favor of the idea that high achievement comes from the interplay of genes and experience.


Betty Hart (prerecord) will support this claim with her research.  She discovered that early intelligence is *highly* correlated with the number of words spoken in the home.


Jim Flynn (prerecord) will support this claim with his research.  He discovered that, in the last century, the average worldwide IQs rose dramatically.




--straw man (genius is from god/genes)

--genes aren’t destiny - state thesis (genes x experience)

--intelligence can grow - support thesis (pre-record audio)

--practice is key - (Mozart)

--tomorrow, we’ll talk to a genius.







We can all agree on who the geniuses are - Einstein, Mozart, Da Vinci, Edison.  But where does that genius come from?  Is it a gift from god?  Is it in our genes?  And - here's the question that's important to all of us - are only a select few chosen to excel, while the rest of us are doomed to mediocrity?  Not so, says David Shenk.  He’s the author of “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong”.  This week, all week long, David Shenk will join us in a conversation, here and on the website at, about how we can *all* tap into our own extraordinary abilities.  




David, you don’t hear so much, anymore, about talent coming from God.  But you do hear a lot about genes.  When my child was born, people said, oh, he’s got your eyes, or your nose, and when he does something great, I’m tempted to say, oh, he got that from me.  But your book seems to say that that idea isn’t *quite* right.


[yes, genes are nothing without expression – without experience.]


So, when people visit the sperm bank and choose a smart man… does that ensure they’re going to have a smart child?


[not really.  There is no *smart*ness in genes.  It’s a lot about how you help those genes be developed]


But it’s true that some kids just do better in school, right from the start.  We recently talked to a researcher you mentioned in her book.  Her name is Betty Hart, and she was trying to figure out what happened in the years before pre-school that made some students much better prepared.




“we observed for an hour a day and recorded all the talk that went on.  some parents talked very little to the kids, some parents talked huge, huge amounts, as you can see from the numbers...”


David, what were those numbers, and why do they matter?


[it’s not about smart people inheriting smart genes, it’s about early exposure.]


So, just how smart can we get?  David, in your book you speak to a researcher named Jim Flynn.   We talked to him earlier about some work he did, comparing IQ scores over the last century – and here’s what he discovered.




 “IQ gains were moving at about 3 points a decade. well, over a hundred years, that would be thirty points, wouldn't it?  well, if our grandparents were 30 points below us, that would put them at 70.  and 70 is the cutoff point for mental retardation.  and that hardly seemed to make any sense..”


David, what does he mean by that?


[our brains are plastic, the parts we use get much bigger and better.] 


So, if genius isn't something that's just *given*, what does it take to *attain* genius?


[well, not so much.  Mozart got his gift from quite a lot of practice]


For more on this idea, visit our website where you can read an excerpt from the book.  Or you can email us with questions, at TKTKTK.  David will be answering those on the site.


Well, tomorrow we’ll talk to someone who really took that challenge to heart.  We'll speak to Sarah Chang, a concert violinist who first picked up the violin at age 4. 






“and the solution that I hit on was that it's not so much that we're brighter than they are, but that we've put on scientific spectacles.  you see if you asked a kid in 1900 what dogs and rabbits have in common, they'd say you use dogs to hunt rabbits.  well that's the wrong answer.  you're supposed to say they're both mammals.”






 “if you mean are we exercising parts of our brain that we didn't exercise in 1900, for example the parts that deal with abstractions and logic, then probably under a microscope would look a little different.”





 “it's an important message.  that people realize that they can't count on capacity.  they've got to do their part!  tell the kids about things..”




FACTS (if any)


page #s


p 35-37 Jim Flynn’s study

p 37-39 Betty Hart’s study

p 50-51 Mozart story


ARTICLE (if any)

David Shenk answers your questions all week in our blog.

Read the first chapter of "The Genius in All of Us."

Excerpted from THE GENIUS IN ALL OF US by David Shenk Copyright © 2010 by David Shenk. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


David Shenk

Hosted by:

Miles O'Brien

Produced by:

Posey Gruener

Comments [7]

Peter G

I haven't read the book yet (just ordered it), but based on the interview here and the bloggingheads TV interview, the author does not claim that a parent can turn their child into a Mozart - he even cites the fact that Mozart had an older sister who did not turn out to be a great composer yet received similar parental guidance (overbearance, if you want to call it that). Neither does he recommend that any parent do this (wouldn't want his own children to be Mozarts, for example).

And in defense of Mozart, he died neither an alcoholic, a pauper, or alone. Or perhaps that's a defense of his father.

Mar. 09 2010 03:32 PM
gina rudan from Miami

I spent the last 2 years researching and exploring the notion of inner genius and have come to the conclusion that genius is actually the interaction between a person's soft assets (creativity, passions and values) with their hard assets (skills, expertise and strengths). I refer to this notion as Practical Genius and am also writing a book to encourage everyone to realize we all possess genius. The trick is to learn how to identify, express and exude it.

Mar. 08 2010 09:03 PM
Matt Siegel from Brooklyn

The discussion on the radio segment focused on whether genius was innate or learned. I have a feeling it's a little more complicated. A peson starts with a reasonable amount of skill at thinking about a certain subject, but an innate feeling that the subject is somehow uniquely important, or endlessly interesting to the person. Her mind then turns to that subject whenever it has the chance -- because she just enjoys thinking about it so much. In the shower, when most people are singing to themselves, she's thinking about her problem. Before drifting off to sleep, same thing. Pretty soon, she starts making incredible strides in that field, because she just enjoys thinking about it so much. Perhaps I shouldn't even say that she "enjoys" thinking about it -- she is *driven* to think about it. True, many others might realize the very same accomplishments as she does if they were to focus on the subject as singlemindedly. But they won't, because they are not built that way. In other words, to me, "genius" is not about unique skills, but about adequate skills, coupled with an obsessive love for a particular kind of thinking or an obsessive desire to achieve a particular result. I strongly doubt that this obsessive desire can be taught. It's probably innate.

Mar. 08 2010 06:31 PM

Thank you for your response. I will look at your book. I imagine there is more nuance. Perhaps, I am most troubled with the way it was presented on the program that made the issues seem more sensationalist than thoughtful.


Mar. 08 2010 02:01 PM

Hi David.

I'm looking forward to reading your book and perhaps using some of the research you cite in my seminar (in a month I begin teaching a psychology seminar on intelligence, expertise, and genius).

I wonder if you reviewed research on the relationship between intelligence and expertise. Many expertise researchers downplay the role of intelligence, saying practice is more important, but my reading of the literature suggests intelligence is important, perhaps as important as enough of the right kind of practice.

I'd appreciate reading your thoughts on this.


Mar. 08 2010 11:39 AM
David Shenk from Brooklyn

Hi Pam,

Respectfully, I think you are over-interpreting my very brief comments. I'm actually very sensitive to the burdens of parenthood, and very mindful of limitations across the board.

Why don't you take a look at my book (on which I spent three years of research and writing), and let me know then if you still think I've acted irresponsibly. This is not a sales pitch. Start with the free excerpts on Amazon and the Wall Street Journal. Take a look at the review. If you still think I'm being irresponsible, send me a note on my blog ( and we can discuss.


David Shenk

Mar. 08 2010 08:55 AM
Pam from Brooklyn

I think your comments are irresponsible. First of all, what you are saying is that if every parent was as overbearing as Mozart's father, any child can be a Mozart. I agree that culture has an enormous effect on children's intellectual development. But I also know that each child is born with his own drives, personality, sensitivities and capacities.

Parents are crazy enough as it is thinking they have sole responsibility for their child's successes and failures. Let's also remember that Mozart died an alcoholic, a pauper and alone. Perhaps his father was responsible for that, too.

Mar. 08 2010 08:04 AM

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