The Genius in All of Us

THE GENIUS IN ALL OF US David Shenk Baseball legend Ted Williams was one in a million, widely considered the most ‘gifted’ hitter of his time. ‘I remember watching one of this home runs from the bleachers of Shibe Park,’ John Updike wrote in The New Yorker in 1960. ‘It went over the first baseman’s head and rose meticulously along a straight line and was still rising when it cleared the fence. The trajectory seemed qualitatively different from anything anyone else might hit.’

In the public imagination,  Williams was almost a god among men, a ‘superhuman’ endowed with a collection of innate physical gifts, including spectacular eye-hand coordination, exquisite muscular grace, and uncanny instincts. ‘Ted just had that natural ability,’ said Hall of Fame second baseman Bobby Doer. ‘He was so far ahead of everybody in that era.’ Among other traits, Williams was said to have laser-like eyesight, which enabled him to read the spin of a ball as it left the pitcher’s fingers and to gauge exactly where it would pass the plate. ‘Ted Williams sees more of the ball than any man alive,’ Ty Cobb once remarked.

But all that innate miracle-man stuff –  it was all ‘a lot of bull’, said Williams. He insisted his great achievements were simply the sum of what he had put into the game. ‘Nothing except practice, practice, practice will bring out that ability,’ he explained. ‘The reason I saw things was that I was so intense… It was [super] discipline, not super eyesight.

Is that possible? Could a perfectly ordinary man actually train himself to be a dazzling phenomenon? We all recognise the virtues of practice and hard work, but truly, could any amount of effort transform the clunky motions of a so-so amateur sportsman into the majestic swing of Tiger Woods or the gravity defying leap of Michael Jordan? Could an ordinary brain ever expand enough to conjure the far-flung curiosities and visions of Einstein or Matisse? Is true greatness obtainable from everyday means and everyday genes?

Conventional wisdom says no,  that some people are simply born with certain gifts while others are not; that talent and high intelligence are somewhat scarce items in the gene pool; that the best we can do is locate and polish these gems – and accept the limitations built into the rest of us.

But someone forgot to tell Ted Williams that talent will out. As a boy, he wasn’t interested in watching his natural abilities unfurl passively like a flower in the sunshine. He simply wanted – needed –  to be the best hitter baseball had ever seen, and he pursued that goal with appropriate ferocity. ‘His whole life was hitting the ball,’ recalled a boyhood friend. ‘He always had a bat in his hand… And when he made up his mind to do something, he was going to do it or know the reason why.’

At San Diego’s old North Park field, two blocks from his modest childhood home, friends recall Williams hitting baseballs every waking hour of every day, year after year after year. They describe him slugging balls until their outer shells literally wore off, swinging even splintered bats for hours upon hours with blisters on his fingers and blood dripping down his wrists. A working-class kid with no extra pocket change, he used his own lunch money to hire schoolmates to shag (chase and catch) balls so that he could keep swinging, From age six or seven, he would swing the bat at North Park field all day and night, swing until the city turned off the lights; then he’d walk home and swing a roll of newspaper in front of the mirror until he fell asleep. The next day, he’d do it all over again. Friends say he attended school only to play on the team. When baseball season ended and the other kids moved onto basketball and football, Williams just kept hitting balls in North Park field. In order to strengthen his sight, he would walk down the street with one eye covered, and then the other. He even avoided movie theatres because he heard it was bad for the eyes. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from being the best hitter I hoped to be,’ Williams later recalled. ‘Looking back… it was pretty near storybook devotion.’

In other words, he worked for it, fiercely, single-mindedly, far beyond the norm. ‘He had one thought in mind and he always followed it,’ says his high school coach Wos Caldwell.

Greatness was not a thing to Ted Williams; it was a process.

This didn’t stop after he got drafted into professional baseball. In Williams’s first season with the minor league San Diego Padres, coach Frank Shellenback noticed that his new recruit was always the first to show up for practice and the last to leave at night. And something more curious: after each game, Williams would ask the coach for the used game balls.

‘What do you want to do with all these baseballs?’ Shellenback finally asked Williams one day. ‘Sell them to kids in the neighbourhood?’

‘No sir,’ replied Williams. ‘I use them for a little extra hitting practice after supper.’

Knowing the rigours of a full practice day, Shellenback found the answer hard to swallow. Out of a mix of suspicion and curiosity, he later recalled, ‘I piled into my car after supper [one night] and rode around to Williams’s neighbourhood. There was a playground near his home, and sure enough, I saw The Kid himself driving those two battered baseballs all over the field. Ted was standing close to a rock which served as [home] plate. One kid was pitching to him. A half dozen others were shagging his drives. the stitching was already falling apart on the baseballs I had [just] given to him.’

Even among the pros, Williams intensity stood so far outside the norm that it was often uncomfortable to witness up close. He discussed the science of hitting ad nauseam with teammates and opposing players,’ write biographers Jim Prime and Bill Nowlin. ‘He sought out the greatest hitters of the game – Hornsby, Cobb and others –  and grilled them about their techniques.’

He studied pitchers with the same rigour. ‘[After a while], pitchers figure our [batters] weaknesses,’ said Cedric Durst, who played on the Padres with Williams. ‘Williams wasn’t like  that… Instead of them figuring Ted out, he figured them out. The first time Ted saw [Tony] Freitas pitch, we were sitting side by side on the bench and Ted said, ‘This guy won’t give me a fast ball I can hit. He’ll waste the fast ball and try to make me hit the curve. He’ll get behind me on the count, then throw me the curve.’ And that’s exactly what happened.’

Process. After a decade of relentless effort on North Park field, and four impressive years in the minors, Williams came into the major leagues in 1939 as an explosive hitter and just kept getting better and better and better. In 1941, his third season with the Boston Red Sox, he became the only major league player in his era – and the last in the twentieth century – to bat over 0.400 for a full season.

The next year, 1942, Ted Williams enlisted in the navy as an aviator. Tests revealed his vision to be excellent, but well within the normal range.

Something crazy happened to the world’s violinists in the twentieth century: they got better faster than their peers had in previous centuries.

We know this because we have lasting benchmarks, like the effervescent Paganini Violin Concerto no. 1 and the concluding movement of the Back Violin Partita no. 2 in D Minor  – fourteen minutes of virtually impossible violin work. Both pieces were considered nearly unplayable in the eighteenth century but are now played routinely and well by a large number of violin students.

How did this happen? And how have runners and swimmers become so much faster, and chess  players become so much more skillful? If humans were fruit flies, with a new generation appearing every eleven days, we might be tempted to chalk it up to genetics and rapid evolution. But evolution and genes don’t work like that.

There is an explanation, a simple and good one, but its implications are radical for family life and for society. It is this: some people people are training harder – and smarter – than before. We’re better at stuff because we’ve figured out how to become better.

Talent is not a thing; it’s a process.

This is not how we’re used to thinking about talent. With phrases like ‘he must be gifted’, ‘good genes’, ‘innate ability’, and ‘natural-born’ [runner/shooter/talker/painter]’ our culture regards talent as a scarce genetic resource, a thing that one either does or does not possess. IQ and other ‘ability’ tests codify this view, and schools build curricula around it. This gene-gift paradigm has become a central part of our understanding of human nature. It fits with what we have been taught about DNA and evolution: Our genes are blueprints that make us what we are. Different genes make us into different people with different abilities. How else could the world end up with such varied individuals as Michael Jordan, Bill Clinton, Ozzy Ozbourne, and you?

But the whole concept of genetic giftedness turns out to be wildly off the mark – tragically kept afloat for decades by a cascade of misunderstandings and misleading metaphors. In recent years, a mountain of scientific evidence has emerged that overwhelmingly suggests a completely different paradigm: not talent scarcity, but latent talent abundance. In this conception, human talent and intelligence are not permanently in short supply like fossil fuels, but potentially plentiful like wind power. The problem isn’t our inadequate genetic assets, but our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have.

This is not to say that we don’t have important genetic differences among us, yielding advantages and disadvantages. Of course we do, and those differences have profound

THE GENIUS IN ALL OF US David Shenk consequences. But the new science suggests that few of us know our true limits, that the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call ‘unactualised potential’. It also suggests a profound optimism for the human race. ‘We have no way of knowing how much unactualised genetic potential exists,’ writes Cornell University developmental psychologist Stephen Ceci. Therefore it becomes logically impossible to insist (as some have) on the existence of a a genetic underclass. Most underachievers arevery likely not prisoners of their own DNA, but rather have so far been unable to tap into their true potential.

This new paradigm does not herald a simple shift from ‘nature’ to ‘nurture’. Instead, it reveals how bankrupt the phrase ‘nature versus nurture; really is and demands a whole new consideration of how each of us becomes us. This book begins, therefore, with a surprising new explanation of how genes work, followed by a detailed look at the newly visible building blocks of talent and intelligence. Taken together, a new picture emerges of a fascinating developmental process that we can influence –  though never fully control – as individuals, as families, and as a talent-promoting society. While essentially hopeful, the new paradigm also raises unsettling new moral questions with which we all will have to grapple.

It would be folly to suggest that anyone can literally do or be anything, and such is not the book’s intent. But the new science tells us that it’s equally foolish to think that mediocrity is built into most of us, or that any of us can know our true limits before we’ve applied enormous resources and invested vast amounts of time. Our abilities are not set in genetic stone. They are soft and sculpt-able, far into adulthood. With humility, with hope, and with extraordinary determination, greatness is something to which any kid – of any age – can aspire.

From The Genius in All of Us, available from Cygnus Books