We’ve traditionally regarded superior talent as a rare and mysterious gift bequeathed to a lucky few. In fact, Shenk writes, science is revealing it to be the product of highly concentrated effort. He describes the work of the psychologist Anders Ericsson, who wondered if he could train an ordinary person to perform extraordinary feats of memory. When Eric sson began working with a young man identified as S.F., his subject could, like most of us, hold only seven numbers in his short-term memory. By the end of the study, S.F. could correctly recall an astonishing 80-plus digits. With the right kind of mental discipline, Ericsson and his co- investigator concluded, “there is seemingly no limit to memory performance.” Shenk weaves accounts of such laboratory experiments, conducted on average people, with the tales of singularly accomplished individuals — Ted Williams and Michael Jordan, Mozart and Beethoven — who all worked relentlessly to hone their skills.
Bring these two domains together, and a new vision of achievement begins to come into focus. Shenk’s “ambitious goal,” he tells us, is to take this widely dispersed research and “distill it all into a new lingua franca, adopting helpful new phrases and metaphors” to replace old and misleading ones. Forget about genes as unchanging “blueprints” and talent as a “gift,” all tied up in a bow. “We cannot allow ourselves to think that way anymore,” he declares with some fervor. Instead, Shenk proposes, imagine the genome as a giant control board, with thousands of switches and knobs that turn genes off and on or tune them up and down. And think of talent not as a thing, but as a process; not as something we have, but as something we do. (NYT)