David Shenk, author of “The Genius In All of Us: What Science and Super Achievers Teach Us About Human Potential,” argues that the genius drive is far more earned than bestowed. “Fundamentally it is a developed trait,” he says, and like Lehrer and James he asserts certain environments are better for that development. Sociologists who study the “sports geography” of places such as Jamaica and Kenya conclude that runners are produced not by fluke but systemically, and properties such as climate, demographics, nutrition, economics and folklore help create them.
So does competition. Friedrich Nietzsche believed that cultures with high achievement in specific areas are commonly marked by relish for rivalries. In ancient Greece, rivalry was not only expected on the playing field, but in drama, oratory and music. In the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo, Michelanglo, Raphael and Titian were pitted in civic art contests and, in 1500, the public literally watched Michelangelo and Leonardo paint walls side by side.
Athletics is becoming to American society what cooking is to the French or painting was to the Italians. How you feel about this depends on how much worth you assign to sport and competition. The jealous artist or academic may consider it a matter for unease, a lunatic and sinister obsession, even evidence of the Great American Crackup. But that doesn’t get us anywhere.
Why should the aspiration of the athlete be less useful than the aspiration of the poet? The Greeks didn’t make such a nonsensical distinction. Athletes are prospering and overpaid in the United States — at the very same time that they are understudied and underused. Critics rail against the excesses of the athletic scholarship. But maybe that’s because as Shenk told the British Observer, “We tend to quietly give in to the suspicion that some people are not as capable of being educated as others.”
In fact, great athletes know something critical the rest of us don’t: how to acquire genius through work. “If you look very carefully at those who end up being the best you discover — by doing intensive tracking of them — that they do practice more, and better, than those in the class below them,” Shenk says. If we look at the quantitative and qualitative difference in the habits of great athletes we can then extend them to achievements in other fields. We might start with staging more science contests.
An intriguing young neuroscientist named Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago is studying how athletes both choke and excel, so that we might all learn from them how to perform better. At NASA, human performance experts are doing the same.
What’s important, Lehrer argues, is to figure out what to do with this genius, how to use it for good. “What can we learn about how human talent develops,” he asks, “and how can we do it at a collective level?”
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.