Geniuses Are Made, Not Born

In a 2011 academic album, Professor Gaga made the bold empirical claim that we are just Born This Way. This set off intense debates among academic psychologists about the role of nature and nurture in determining genius. Was Gaga right?

In one sense, Gaga was on the right track. If there's anything we've learned from over 25 years of twin and adoption studies -- conducted on over 800,000 pairs of twins and more than 50 different samples -- virtually every single psychological trait -- from IQ to persistence to artistic ability to schizophrenia to autism to marital status to television viewing -- is heritable. The heritability of human characteristics is so robust that Eric Turkheimer named it the First Law of Behavioral Genetics.

These findings vindicate Gaga -- they counter the belief that we are born into this world as blank slates, completely at the mercy of the external environment. There's such a thing as individuality, at least partly rooted in our biology. But much to the dismay of many scientists, Gaga left out some important technical caveats. She didn't mention the fact that heritability has very little to do with the potential for change. At the now infamous "On the Veracity of Gaga's Empirical Claims" Conference held in Venice Italy, one insightful young scholar raised the point: What if you're born with some tendencies you don't want to be born with? Are you just stuck that way?

This caused a flurry of discussions, and it was generally agreed upon that just because a trait is heritable (and virtually all of our psychology traits are heritable), doesn't mean that the trait is fixed or can't be developed. After all, the tendency to watch reality television is probably heritable, but parents can exert enormous control by banning their children from watching Snooki destroy her life.

Psychologists also realized that the actual heritability estimate isn't all that informative either. Eric Turkheimer came along and showed everyone that the heritability of IQ is quite high in enriched environments, but extremely low in poorer households. This showed environment matters and that you can't take the heritability estimate of a trait at face value. What's more, you can't make inferences about an individual based on heritability calculations -- which are based on large populations of people at a particular point in time.

Researchers eventually agreed that it was time to take the major insights they gleaned from decades of twin and adoption twins and move on. Next stop: the search for tiny molecules. Unfortunately, things turned out to be trickier than anticipated. No single gene could be found to explain more than a fraction of the variation in any trait. Even when potential genes were found, they rarely replicated. Twin studies showed that the genes were there somewhere, but modern genomics research suggested that it would be no simple matter figuring out how a very large number of interacting genes (which are always interacting with the environment) influence the development of complex psychological traits.

What has become evident is that none of our traits come prepackaged at birth. Baby M.J. didn't pop out doing a windmill dunk. All traits are developed -- no exceptions. This does not mean, however, that people don't differ in the rate at which certain abilities are developed. The precocious feats of prodigies and prodigious savants show loud and clear what one can achieve when you have what Martha J. Morelock refers to as a "rage to learn". Prodigies appear to be the ones pushing their parents; not the other way around.

But while getting a perfect score on the SAT at age 12 is impressive, precocity is no guarantee of later success. Likewise, a lack of early precocity is no guarantee of failure. We must stop referring to the precocious as "geniuses" and see their feats for what they are: early signs that the child may be ready to start the long, arduous path to acquire the expertise required to learn, or even change, existing paradigms.

One thing is for sure: there's far more possibility we could be getting out of all children than we are even close to realizing. So many children are tuned out, because we aren't appreciating the path they want. Instead, we give everyone the same preset path to follow and expect them to be naturally motivated to deliberately practice down that path. This goes against everything we currently know about what it takes to succeed.

Genius involves figuring out who you are, and owning yourself. It's about amplifying your best traits and compensating for the rest. Geniuses grab life by the horns, and persevere amidst setbacks. They take control of their lives, instead of waiting for others to open up doors. In this very important sense, greatness is completely, utterly, made.

That's what Lady Gaga realized -- and you can, too.