Mozart was nothing special, and Michael Jordan doesn’t have magical powers. They just worked really, really hard. That’s the thrust behind this science-meets-self-help book, which joins Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers in encouraging people who don’t usually fall for personal-development shtick that they, too, could realise their wildest dreams.
There’s some fresher material, too. Shenk’s bête noire is the idea that it’s our genes that make us who we are, and that everything that happens after birth builds on that basic blueprint. But rather than championing nurture and downplaying nature, he paints a picture in which genes and environment interact in a much more complicated way. We’re jukeboxes, he says. Our genes don’t programme us to play just one tune; and it’s what happens after birth that picks the record.
If you’re sceptical that we can upgrade the goods we’re born with, read up on epigenetics: the science of the tiny proteins bound up with our DNA, which, scientists say, can be altered by lifestyle and subsequently pass on traits to the next generation. It’s why an older dad has a greater risk of a child with schizophrenia, according to one NYU study, and it could be why mice living in a stimulating environment give birth to brighter offspring.
Geneticists reading the book as a piece of novel theory can browse the book’s second half, devoted entirely to sources and notes, to check that all this stands up. The rest of us can focus on the uplifting message: none of us are born mediocre, and while it can be difficult to change habits and cultivate motivation, it’s not impossible.
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer,” Einstein is quoted as saying, and that’s something anyone can work on. The philosopher William James is also cited for the book’s opening epigram, which is worth taping to the fridge if you’re wrestling with new year’s resolutions. “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake,” he writes. “The human being lives far within his limits.”