Thursday, 3 November 2011

Nature vs. Nurture - The making of excellence

Wow dare I really interject in the long debated area.....well of course I do.

So having recently read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and The Genius in All of us by David Shenk (with Bounce by Matthew Syed waiting patiently in the antilibrary), I thought it only fair to impart my acquired knowledge.....

The Talent Code goes in to considerable detail to discuss and emphasise "deliberate practice". The relatively well-known 10,000 hour practice model (which essentially discusses that to attain expert level at anything, sports, music, etc. you need  to have been practising for 10,000 hours). The term "deliberate practice" relates to the level or quality of practice needed; better defined by Vince Lombardi:

"practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect"

What we're talking about here, is both understanding the processes required in the performance and continuously challenging ability. One of the elements is best described by failing and trying again. Coming short must be the ultimate in motivational experiences. As a basketball coach it is easier to coach the appropriate technique in shooting a ball if the player has missed as opposed to if the player has scored. Imagine a child shooting a basketball, and by chance it goes in, the child would struggle to understand why there is a need to change the technique when they just watched the ball go through the hoop. Alternately children struggling to score might better listen to directions and challenge themselves to perform the directed actions. Indeed, Coyle talks about the correlation between some of the best sprinters in the world and their birth in relation to their siblings. In order of most recent, here are the 100m world record holders and the place of their birth:

1. Usain Bolt (2nd of 3)
2. Asafa Powell (6th of 6)
3. Justin Gatlin (4th of 4)
4. Maurice Greene (4th of 4)
5. Donovan Bailey (3rd of 3)
6. Leroy Burrell (4th of 5)
7. Carl Lewis (3rd of 4)
8. Leroy Burrell (4th of 5)
9. Carl lewis (3rd of 4)
10. Calvin Smith (6th of 8)

The relationship here being that in play the younger children have to work harder, or fall short and thus try again to catch their elder (and thus likely faster) siblings. Of course this is not a scientific study, but it is an interesting observation. It compares well to the analogy of rough play and strength; the older child wrestling with his younger sibling barely applies any effort, where the younger child has to work as hard as possible in an effort just to keep up.

The Genetics equation
Of course nothing so far seems too irrational, or anything less than obvious to be honest. However, at this point we generally assume that these sprinters have the genetics to allow them to be that fast to begin with, whereas you might argue that you might not be blessed with those same genes.....or are you!?

 
The world is littered with those exceptional people that just could. You know, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Shakespeare, Mozart, and the like; as well as child prodigies who were born with amazing gifts; e.g. Beethoven. Or so the fairy-tales would have us believe. The reality is a little different. These people worked, no, really they worked to achieve any degree of greatness. They worked like you cannot imagine working. Their achievements are a product of their efforts. Shenk makes the brilliant comparison that "to assume Mozart or Beethoven could just play is like assuming a clown could just juggle". The reality in fact is that Beethoven was beaten as a child, forced up on to a step stool to reach the keys of the piano, and allowed time off only to pick up the violin. Musical theory was everything in his life, he was forced to play, his 10,000 hours came early, and as a product he excelled as a musician.

Self Belief
So the reality that these authors are hinting at is that everyone might have these genetics. You might have been (and still might be) capable of being an amazing poet, tennis player, cellist, or chess player. But another of the missing ingredients is self belief (unless of course you're young enough to not have had an option). Both Shenk and Coyle discuss Roger Bannister and his achievement of breaking the 4 minute mile. Perceived by physiologists, athletes and coaches to be simply impossible! Coyle states "Bannister systematically attacked the record; how he broke the mark by a fraction of a second". Without doubt, a personal self belief that he can achieve this impossible feat. Both authors continue to discuss what most people do not know about the weeks following.....an Australian runner John Landy also broke the four-minute barrier. The next season many more did, and within 3 years of Bannister's accomplishment the four-minute barrier had been broken no fewer than seventeen times. Ultimately very likely a result of the change in perception that this was not impossible, and more; "if he could do it then so could I".


Indeed for many it is the challenge of great competitors that drives greater accomplishments; Michael Jordan had to overcome Magic Johnson and Larry bird, Leaonardo Da Vinci was in constant competition with Michaelangelo, the reality is that the nature of competition that drives us, drives excellence, drives excellent performance. This is not new thinking, Friedrich Nietsch, the 19th Century philosopher wrote:

"Every natural gift must develop itself by contests"

Epigenetics
Charles Darwin, apparently most famous for his arguing for the "survival of the fittest", should have been known for a far more appropriate quote; "it is not neither the strongest who survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most adaptable to change". But what are epigenetics and how does this effect our traits, or our abilities. Consider; Epi is Latin for above or outside, research has found made some interesting discoveries:

  • Mouse colour is hereditary; it passes through the DNA, genes, and so forth.....unless it eats a certain diet. A pregnant yellow mouse eating a diet rich in folic acid or soy milk would be prone to experience an epigenetic mutation producing brown-fur offspring. And even with the pups returning to a normal diet, that fur could be passed to future generations.
  • In 2004, Michael Skinner at Washington State University discovered that exposure to a specific pesticide in rats spurred an epigenetic change that led to low sperm counts lasting at least four generations.
  • In 2005, New York University's Dolores Malaspina, et al., discovered age-related epigenetic changes in human males that can lead to lower intelligence and a higher risk of schizophrenia in children.
  • In 2006, Marcus Pembrey presented data from Swedish medical records to show that nutritional deficiencies and cigarette smoking in one generation of humans had effects across several generations.
  • In 2007, Megan Hitchins, et al., reported a link between inherited epigenetic changes and human colon cancer. 
The reality then; that what we do might not only effect our genes by switching them on or off, by proteins, timing, etc. but also effect that of future generations. 


Summary
So ultimately we come back to the same question; nature or nurture? Well previously it's been thought that they interact in a way described by Shenk as Genetics + Environment (G+E). In reality, we might all have the genes to become great at any one thing, or another, or in fact any number of things, with the right hours and type of practice, as well as motivations and self belief. Shenk considers the simple formula to be better described by G x E (Genetics x Environment), giving E a far larger effect in the equation. So we might all have the right genes to be highly skilled with the right practice but it is our environment that ultimately allows us to switch on or off those genes, that provides us with the right proteins, at the right times, and the right experiences to encourage the development of our excellence.

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