The Wisdom of David Shenk

One of the best books I have read in the last year is The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk, which came out yesterday. I have had the good fortune of knowing David for several years, and I was privileged to read an early draft of the book. The book’s core message — that every individual’s genetic potential is elastic, and very few of us realize that genetic potential — is powerful stuff, and has implications for our kids as well as our early-middle-aged selves.

Many of my favorite non-fiction books of recent years have been in different ways about the process of human improvement – Non-Zero by Robert Wright (from a species perspective), The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris (from an individual perspective), Good to Great by Jim Collins (from a business perspective). All quite different, but all share that theme. I would add The Genius in All of Us to this list — it’s the kind of book that could substantially change how you view human behavior and approach your life.

I interviewed David for Babble — you can read the interview here — and we also ran two excerpts from his book as Babble special features. This passage, four ways to guide your child towards excellence, contains some exceptional parenting advice.

David and I spoke at some length about the implications of his book for early (indulge me) middle aged folk like ourselves. I particularly enjoyed this portion of our conversation, but it was edited out by our wise, merciless Babble editors. I am including a portion of it below for your middle-aged amusement and edification.


David: When it comes to intelligence and talent and abilities, there’s every evidence that at many different points in your life, possibly every point in your life, you could do something about your capabilities in all these different areas. If you have the time, the perseverance and all these different resources and you could go from mediocrity, or even less than mediocrity, to extraordinary achievement.

Rufus: Well, I’m very happy to hear that. Watching the free-style skiing in the Olympics last night I thought, Maybe it’s not too late for me.

David: You know, you made a passing reference before about being middle-aged as I am too, although I am very much your senior. I think I am almost two years older than you. I really should be talking down to you, almost like you’re a little brother. To me, one interesting thing about being middle-aged, or whatever you want to call this, is that yeah our brains are less plastic and of course we’re less limber physically. We could not become Andre Agassi now or anything like that; physically obviously there are all sorts of limitations. But overwhelmingly, the things that keep us from making some kind of enormous new stride, as opposed to advancing incrementally, is our life circumstances. We have no time to do something different. We’ve either got kids at home or we have something else to do. We’re really really busy or feel like we’re really really busy. When you’re a kid you can develop a habit of practicing three or seven hours a day on something because you can carve out that time for yourself. You can still do that as an adult but you’re now in a 42-year-old’s rut of having a certain kind of life. The idea of changing from spending fifteen minutes on your guitar in the afternoon to spending seven hours on it — it’s almost unthinkable. Everyone would think you’re a crazy person if you’re turning your life around like that.

Rufus: There’s a combination of factors — particularly if you have a family and kids, and need to put food on the table. One factor is that we become less desperate to prove ourselves. We become less emotionally needy for evidence of our greatness. Which may be good or not good. I’ve often found it quite depressing to see how few musicians create their greatest work in their sixties or seventies. With novelists, there are a few better examples. But still, so many of the great works of the novelists occur earlier in their careers. I think this is something you speak of a little bit. It does seem like this is a combination of access to time and then access to hunger. Once you won a Pulitzer Prize for your novel, do you still have the burning, burning appetite to prove yourself?

David: I think it’s an important thing to identify. I think one of the challenges for us is in mid-life—I mean it’s nice to be calmer. I don’t know how you feel to be past forty, but I think it’s kind of nice to have calmed down a little bit and just be less anxious about all these existential questions. At the same time I think it’s also really really important to constantly be trying to step outside yourself and say, Okay. Is this really the life I want to leading? Is there something else I want in life? Can I or should I be shaking myself a little bit? Should we be selling the house and moving to the country so we have less economic pressure and more artistic freedom? Should I be pivoting to this kind of subject matter as a writer or this kind of new genre as a writer? Not to say that I will actually take myself up on all those challenges but if you don’t ask those questions, of course it will never happen. I think that’s what we need to do as middled-agers, is to re-ask ourselves those questions that may become more naturally to us as we’re yearning to become something in  the first place as teenagers and “twenty-something’s. “

Rufus: In other words, we have to pretend that the only way we are going to  actually have sexual congress with the female is by spending thousands of hours obsessing, like learning a musical instrument.

David: Exactly, just become obsessed all over again with some unobtainable person and put the delusion in your mind…

Rufus: Or just ask your spouse, “Honey, please refuse me until I can produce X, Y, and Z.”

David: A nice marriage of Nerve and Babble if you don’t mind me saying.

Rufus: Something I am hopeful about Is, it seems to me, that hopefully in the next many decades, that our generation will find that there is more opportunity for 2nd, 3rd and 4th acts than previous generations have found.  It seems to me maybe for a few reasons; one is that we are living longer, careers are a little more fungible, there is more entrepreneurship and less of a sense that you work at IBM for 50 years.  Also, we are seeing this evidence, as 40 year-olds are winning Olympic events.  I think the importance of books like these and examples of people achieving at older ages is that it does fundamentally affects what people think they are capable of.

David: Yes well, I appreciate the compliment and I absolutely agree with you.  My anxious answer to that is, the one thing I really worry about, all those things you mentioned are working in our favor-but I worry about,-maybe it is not worse than it was before, but it might be a little worse, is this combination of economic pressure and material comfort that you and I, and a lot of people in our circles find themselves in.  There are so many good things to have in life, there are so many great foods to eat, and neat places to live, and places to vacation and cool tools to use, and amazing schools to pay for, that the rut a lot of us find ourselves in, a lot of us, and me included in many respects, is that we find a way to pay for this stuff and we take fewer risks and we therefore then find ourselves less free or we feel less free creatively.  That’s the rut I worry about most with myself, and with a lot of my friends. And I don’t know what to do about that, but I constantly think about that, I have to admit to you.  I constantly think about, “is there some radical way to breakout of this?” This is even in the context of me doing relatively well right now, but I just think, “is there a way to kind of get off this train? Or get off it for a while?” Maybe even drag some friends along with me where, instead of having to earn X a year I would only have to earn 1/10 of X.

Rufus: We can take over a town in the Catskills.

David: Exaclty, you’re laughing but I have thought about all of this.  And if we did manage to do that, just think of what we can do.  Now, you can argue and I do argue this with myself, “well maybe the economic pressure helps somehow create this stuff?” Maybe there is a synergy that is going for some or all of us, but that is one of the things I really wrestle with.  Is it ever time to get off this train or maybe try to temporarily get off it and do something as a middle-ager to become creatively rejuvenated and not have to pay for private school and all this stuff.

Rufus: Well, this is one of the great advantages of youth that we hope we can tell our sons and daughters to appreciate hopefully, which is, the ability to be happily impoverished for a decade or more is a huge advantage in terms of the possibilities it opens up.  You don’t appreciate when you’re 22, you’re not thinking, “Oh, it is so great that I can live on $18,000 dollars a year.” You don’t think of that as a privilege, but it is a privilege.

One thought on “The Wisdom of David Shenk

  1. Pingback: Kids and Happiness « Moments In Succession

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