Research continues in a pursuit of the how, why and where of who we are. A new book, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong, by David Shenk is reviewed by Annie Murphy Paul in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

And for some reason I can’t resist reading whatever shows up on this topic. Genius is a curious thing, to be sure. (I have long been a fan of the optimistic world view reflected in the quote from John Kenneth Galbraith, “Genius is a rising market.”) But the attraction to this line of scientific inquiry is more than simple curiosity about why some minds are so extraordinary. Perhaps it is an underlying, often unstated but primal question that anyone who makes a painting or a poem or performs is constantly coming up against, like one’s face pressed against the glass: What makes it work? What makes it NOT work?

No hard, fast answers are available from Mr. Shenk, says Annie Murphy Paul. But some of his findings sound a lot like the moral code of my fearlessly hard working, tenacious pioneer ancestors—“put your shoulder to the wheel”, “try, try again”—but on steroids.

The secret to success? From Paul’s review:

The answer has less in common with the bromides of motivational speakers than with the old saw about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving, as Ericsson put it, “repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,” which results in “frequent failures.” This is known as “deliberate practice,” and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible. Behold our long rumored potential, unleashed at last! Shenk is vague about how, exactly, this happens, but to his credit he doesn’t make it sound easy. “You have to want it, want it so bad you will never give up, so bad that you are ready to sacrifice time, money, sleep, friendships, even your reputation,” he writes. “You will have to adopt a particular lifestyle of ambition, not just for a few weeks or months but for years and years and years. You have to want it so bad that you are not only ready to fail, but you actually want to experience failure: revel in it, learn from it.”

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