Genius, Genes and Gusto: How Passions Find You

A lot of factors contribute to creative success.

By Scott Barry Kaufman, published on November 1, 2009 - last reviewed on November 21, 2011

As a young teenager on the main line of Philadelphia, I had big hoop dreams. I practiced my layup for hours at my school auditorium, imagining myself as the next Michael Jordan. That is, until a classmate named Kobe Bryant came along and I saw what the next Michael Jordan really looked like. Let's just say that when ESPN dropped in to film Bryant playing against his school pals (and killing us) it became crystal clear to me: No matter how hard I practiced, I'd never be like Kobe.

When I was 16, I decided to take up the cello. Though my grandfather, Harry Gorodetzer, was an accomplished cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, I'd never touched the instrument. When I asked Harry to start giving me lessons, he was thrilled and we went to work. Right away, I became obsessed. I started practicing during each lunch hour, and after just a few months of playing I got a higher ranking in the school orchestra than a student who had started years earlier. My progress was so rapid that at graduation I was awarded the music department prize. What a contrast from my performance on the court!

Lately, research such as K. Anders Ericsson's work on the importance of "deliberate practice"—strategic training that focuses on improving one's weak spots as well as building on one's strengths—has been getting a lot of play, giving the misguided impression that anyone could be a top musician or athlete if they put in the immense amount of time it takes to master a complex skill. While that may be technically true, it's not always realistic. To engage in deliberate practice you need a huge helping of motivation. And where does such passion to improve come from? Often it's in our genes. Merely inheriting some of my grandfather's string prowess wasn't enough—I had to do the work. But would I have been willing to callus my fingers if my music-ready mind weren't so completely enraptured by cello playing? I doubt it.

Innate proclivities (such as Michael Phelps's incredible wingspan, or Einstein's powers of visualization) really do exist, and while deliberate practice certainly matters—and is often necessary—genes can facilitate the rate of learning to a considerable degree. Case studies and research have repeatedly shown that many accomplished and creative individuals learn the requisite knowledge and skills of their domain faster than less accomplished individuals.

Take child prodigy Michael Kearney, who is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest person in history to have graduated college, at the age of 10. Michael started talking at four months and reading at eight months. He burned through elementary school lessons at the age of four, and entered college at six. Describing his son's behavior, Kevin Kearney said it was as if young Michael had a "rage to learn." Martha J. Morelock at Vanderbilt University, who has worked with exceptionally gifted children including Michael, is convinced that "the kind of intense engagement these children exhibit is a reflection of a brain-based need to learn—a craving for intellectual stimulation matching their cognitive requirements in the same way that the physical body craves food and oxygen."

By pulling us in certain directions, genes subtly and indirectly influence our attention and fascination. The interplay between talent and motivation is mutually reinforcing. When learning is difficult, there is often less motivation to pursue the task. But when our brain enjoys engaging with particular material, whether it's breakdancing moves or math theorems, the neurotransmitter dopamine gets released—increasing our energy and drive toward further activity in that domain. Through repeated engagement, even small genetic advantages can quickly convert into big ability advantages, resulting in what some call the Matthew Effect ("the rich get richer, the poor get poorer").

And for the first time ever, the contribution of genes has even been quantified using sophisticated statistical techniques: Dean Simonton at the University of California at Davis estimates that between 22 percent and 36 percent of the differences in creative achievement in the arts and sciences may be explained by natural endowment.

Note that this leaves most of the differences to be explained by environmental factors such as deliberate practice, encouragement, and access to resources. (Though I didn't start as early as most musicians do, I grew up in a home filled with classical melodies. Prominent musicians often visited my grandfather and used their orchestral lingo—all of which granted me additional points as a budding cellist.)

The delicate dance between nature and nurture is far more beautiful than one-sided alternatives. Instead of sweeping genes under the rug of deliberate practice, we should celebrate the genetic diversity that does exist. Letting yourself follow your own unique interests is almost as satisfying as a Kobe slam dunk.