Since childhood, people are told that they can become whatever they want, but only recently has that been described as scientific fact. In his book, "The Genius in All of Us," journalist and author David Shenk '88 describes greatness as a thing to be achieved by anyone, not an inherent genetic gift.
The book is about "how people get good at stuff," Shenk said. It aims to "help people understand that talent and intelligence are really much more about a developmental process" than something innate, he added.
The first and last chapters of the book address genetics specifically in relation to achieving one's true potential. These chapters are intended to inform people in a new way about how genes work, Shenk said.
"Genes are not like blueprints that have specific information about what a trait is supposed to be like," he said, but "have information on proteins and how proteins are to be built."
The activation and inactivation of these genes is a process that can be influenced by many factors, including environmental ones, he said, adding that "they are more like switches."
The reason only some people become the Mozarts and Einsteins of the world is not genes, then, but "a lot of things," Shenk said.
To believe that talent and intelligence are limited, fixed resources is both wrong and very inhibiting, he said. People can't develop an ability if they believe it is impossible or must "come from within," he added.
Even if someone is considered gifted, that is not a "recipe for success," Shenk said, because people tend to rely on what they are good at without attempting to push beyond it.
The goal of this book is to let readers "have a truer understanding of talent and intelligence" and eliminate the use of descriptions like "gifted," "natural-born" and "hard-wired," he said. Shenk aspires to "make the world a better place" by helping children, parents and teachers better understand talent, he added.
Becoming great at something "takes hard work and a lot of curiosity," Shenk said, as well as being "open to all sorts of different ideas."
In addition, achievement requires "having gigantic dreams and huge ambitions," he said. It does not matter if a person achieves his or her biggest dream, he added, because just having one is "a very fulfilling way to live," makes people constantly try to improve themselves and can lead to meeting "lots of people who are doing the same thing."
Inspiration for the topic of this book came from his last book, "The Immortal Game: A History of Chess." While studying scientific research about what makes chess players great, Shenk stumbled upon a new branch of science called "expertise studies," which focuses on the biological, psychological and cultural bases of becoming an expert and "thought that would be interesting to write about," he said.
Shenk added that he has always been "fascinated by the idea of getting good at stuff," a topic that "everyone is interested in and thinks about."
He said he uses the advice he gives in his book in his everyday life. "I constantly think about these things as a parent," he said.
"I am not trying to turn my kids into super geniuses," Shenk said. Still, he tries to expose them to many things and give them the tools to reach their goals. "I want them to want to be great at something," he said.
"Many of the things in the book resonate with me very strongly," Shenk said, adding that he tries to lead his life in a way that makes his children understand the bases of talent and intelligence.
Shenk's beliefs about talent and intelligence pan out not only in his family life but also in his work. "My career as a writer has been very challenging and rewarding," he said. Some have tried to define him as a science or technology writer, he said. But even though his book has a lot of science in it, he tries to take an interdisciplinary approach.
"I am basically just a writer," Shenk said. "There isn't anything I'm not interested in."
Shenk traces this fascination back to his time at Brown, which taught him "how to be a curious person," he said. "Brown had a profound impact on me," he said. "I can't imagine anything I do now as a writer and a person without having been at Brown for four years."
"The students are interested in so many different things," and often are interested in more than one, "finding commonalities" between different worlds, he said. Brown students are always "bouncing between these worlds of study and thought," he added.
Shenk added that he still spends time with many other Brown alums, who are good to "be with and learn from and talk to."
"Brown is a great factory for ambition and success," he said.