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Recently, the endurance and hard work part of the achievement equation has gotten a lot of attention, and the role of raw talent and intelligence has faded a bit. The main reason for this shift in emphasis is the work of Anders Ericsson, a friendly rival of Simonton's who teaches psychology at Florida State University. Gladwell featured Ericsson's work prominently in Outliers. (See the top 10 non-fiction books of 2008.)
Ericsson has become famous for the 10-year rule: the notion that it takes at least 10 years (or 10,000 hours) of dedicated practice for people to master most complex endeavors. Ericsson didn't invent the 10-year rule (it was suggested as early as 1899), but he has conducted many studies confirming it. Gladwell is a believer. "Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good," he writes. "It's the thing you do that makes you good."
Simonton rather dismissively calls this the "drudge theory." He thinks the real story is more complicated: deliberate practice, he says, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating genius. For one thing, you need to be smart enough for practice to teach you something. In a 2002 study, Simonton showed that the average IQ of 64 eminent scientists was around 150, fully 50 points higher than the average IQ for the general population. And most of the variation in IQs (about 80%, according to Simonton) is explained by genetics. (See pictures of Bobby Fischer, chess prodigy.)
Personality traits also matter. Simonton writes that geniuses tend to be "open to experience, introverted, hostile, driven, and ambitious." These traits too are inherited — but only partly. They're also shaped by environment.
So what does this mean for people who want to encourage genius? Gladwell concludes his book by saying the 10,000-hour rule shows that kids just need a chance to show how hard they can work; we need "a society that provides opportunities for all," he says. Well, sure. But he dismisses the idea that kids need higher IQs to achieve success, and that's just wishful thinking. As I argued here, we need to do more to recognize and not alienate high-IQ kids. Too often, principals hold them back with age-mates rather than letting them skip grades.
Still, genius can be very hard to discern, and not just among the young. Simonton tells the story of a woman who was able to get fewer than a dozen of her poems published during her brief life. Her hard work availed her little — but the raw power of her imagery and metaphor lives on. Her name? Emily Dickinson.
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