Is true greatness obtainable from everyday means and everyday genes? Conventional wisdom says no, that a lucky few are simply born with certain gifts. The new science of human potential suggests otherwise. Forget everything you think you know about genes, talent, and intelligence, and take a look at the amazing new evidence. Here, interweaving cutting-edge research from numerous scientific fields, David Shenk offers a new view of human potential, giving readers more of a sense of ownership over their accomplishments, and freeing parents from the bonds of genetic determinism. As Shenk points out, our genes are not a “blueprint” that dictate individual destinies. Rather we are all the product of interplay between genes and outside stimuli—a dynamic that we can influence. It is a revolutionary and life-changing message.
Excerpt from The Genius in All of Us, pages: 139-143:
Can persistence be nurtured by parents and mentors?
Boston College’s Ellen Winner insists not. Persistence, she argues, ‘must have an inborn, biological component.’ But the evidence indicates otherwise. The brain circuits that modulate a person’s level of persistence are plastic — they can be altered. ‘The key is intermittent reinforcement,’ says Robert Clonjnger, a Washington University biologist. ‘A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.’
This jibes well with Anders Ericsson’s finding about deliberate practice and with the ascetic philosophy of Kenyan runners: an emphasis on instant gratification makes for bad habits and no effective long-term plan. The ability to delay gratification opens up a whole new vista for anyone looking to better herself.
It also conjures up a classic study by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, who in the early 1970s offered a group of four-year-olds a choice: they could have one marshmallow immediately or wait a short while (until the researcher got back from an ‘errand’) for two marshmallows. The results:
- One-third of the kids immediately rook the single marshmallow.
- One-third waited a few minutes but then gave in and settled for the single marshmallow.
- One-third patiently waited fifteen minutes for two marshmallows.
“At the time, it impressed Mischel and his colleagues that so many very young children had the self-discipline to wait indefinitely for a larger reward. But the real lesson came after fourteen years of Mischel’s own waiting — until his original subjects had taken the SATs and were finishing high school. Comparing the SAT scores of the original nonwaiting (instant gratification) group to the waiting (delayed gratification) group, he found the latter scored an average of 210 points higher. Those with an early capacity for self-discipline and delayed gratification had gone on to much higher academic success. The delayed-gratification kids were also rated as much better able to cope with social and personal problems.
The marshmallow study also demonstrated the ability to develop such skills. In side experiments, researchers transformed kids’ wait times by suggesting how to think of the rewards. When kids staring at real marshmallows were encouraged to imagine them as pictures of marshmallows — making them more abstract in their minds — it lengthened their ability to wait from six to eighteen minutes. (The reverse was also true — kids imagining pictures as real marshmallows had their waiting ability shortened.)
Strategics like these prove that a kid’s mode of gratification can be altered by parents and teachers. Overall, what emerges about the study of delayed gratification is that it is a skill set — and the skills can be acquired. Kids can learn to distract themselves from objects of desire, learn to abstract those desires, learn to monitor their own progress, and so on. ‘Children will have a distinct advantage beginning early in life,’ Mischel concluded, ‘if they use effective self-regulatory strategics to reduce frustration in situations in which self-imposed delay is required to attain desired goals.’
Any parent can adopt basic strategies to encourage self discipline and delayed gratification. Here are two:
- Model self-control. Behave as you’d want your child to behave, now and in the future. Don’t buy, eat, or grab whatever you want whenever you want it. The more self-control you demonstrate, the more your child will absorb.
- Give kids practice. Don’t immediately respond to their every plea. Let them learn to deal with frustration and want. Let them learn how to soothe themselves and discover that things will be all right if they wait for what they want.
There’s no single pathway to achieve these desired results as a parent, of course. Each parent must chart his or her own course. Any philosophy, religion, or practical exercise that reinforces that principle is going to work well for parents and children.”