Friday, November 19, 2010

Nature vs Nurture

The topic of the cultivation of talent has been a popular subject as of late.  Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Outliers, remains a best seller two years after it was first published.  Similar books such as Matthew Syed’s, Bounce and David Shank’s, The Genius in all of Us: Why everything you have been told about IQ is wrong, also explore the Nature vs. Nurture question with new insight.  This issue is important as one evaluates sports or any activity for their children.

We all want the best for our kids.  We, therefore, look to introduce them to activities where they will be successful and have fun.  It’s probably not a good idea to hand a particularly large kid with mitts for hands a violin. One could easily, however, see the same kid riffing away on the tuba or trumpet.  Such an observation is a generalization but fact.  Talent scouts in all endeavors focus on the identification of specific traits to help them discover the next Yo Yo Ma, Andre Aggasi or Alicia Keys.  Yet, as the aforementioned authors note, the genes matter but how we cultivate the genes matters just as much.

My wife and I watch a lot of sports on TV.  There are times an athlete will strike our curiosity, so we will do an Internet search or go to Wikipedia to learn more about the person.  Inevitably, the path to the US Open Final or an Olympic Medal began when the person was merely a child.  Andre Agassi’s father bought the family home because the backyard was big enough to build a regulation size tennis court.  People want to label Aggassi as a prodigy but he was trained from infancy to be a tennis player.  The time and effort he put into tennis was unrivaled by most of his opponents.  This commitment breads a confidence and sense of entitlement that provides a further edge against the competition.  Every early advantage a young athlete has against the competition is magnified as the year’s progress.  A child who started an activity at three will have done it for half his life by six.  The child who begins an activity at six will be twelve before it has consumed half his life.  Those three years can be huge.

All this is to say those who are exceptional have worked damn hard.  There is no such thing as a pure shooter, a natural.  “Sheer genius” is a label given by those who choose to ignore the work it took to reach the heights which have been praised.  I recall once in a writing class we were assigned to describe an event/process in a paragraph.  Our papers were handed in and numbered.  Each paper was read and critiqued by the class.  The first five papers reviewed missed the mark.  Mine was number six.  I nailed it.  The professor asked me how long it took to do the assignment.  I was kind of embarrassed to admit it took me four to five hours to write the paragraph.  The professor replied, “That’s how long it takes.”

How does all this color the way I raise my boys?  As I noted, sports will have a large place on our kids’ lives.  People openly comment, “Your kids are such great athletes but look at you and your wife.  What else would you expect?”  The observation is somewhat valid but it fails to recognize the environmental contributions to why my kids already run circles around their peers.

Imagine you are a child and you see your mother going out to run four, five times a week.  This is what my children see.  My wife's behavior, subsequently,  makes physical activity acceptable and natural to my boys.  My family lives in New York City.  We walk or take public transportation just about everywhere.  Can you imagine the number of miles my kids have walked compared to the kids in the suburbs who are driven everywhere.  It is not uncommon for my five and seven year olds to walk two miles home from school with their caregiver.  I call this stealth training.  You don’t train children.  You let them play.  You get them out of the house.  You walk them like a dog.  This is training that can take on an Agassi.  It’s a foundation that is stronger and more easily built than grinding and tormenting a child to do something they don’t even understand.

At the kids’ last check up the pediatrician noted the musculature of the boys.  I gather not many of his patients are so cut.  It is easy to say, “Well, look at their parents.  They are lean and fit.  Of course their boys will be.”  Indeed, but don’t overlook the environment.  They could just as easily be statistics of the childhood obesity crisis if we let them.

A comment on the union of a couple whose progeny represents some Orwellian experiment may appear politically incorrect but it is hard to ignore.  Do you recall Flo Jo, the golden girl of the 1988 Olympics?  You know she married an Olympic triple-jump champion, Al Joyner, Jackie Joyner’s brother.  They had a daughter, Mary.  Imagine the gene pool.  Yet, Mary never did anything of note in athletics.  It is said the burden of her heritage prevented her from even exploring her expect gift.  I would say she wasn't nurtured properly.

On the other hand, Mike Conley, another Olympic triple-jump champion has a son who plays professional basketball.  The difference is that Conley Sr. trained his son to make the NBA.  He nurtured the gift and taught him how to harness and appreciate it.  You see, Conley Sr. would have traded his Olympic gold for a spot on the bench with an NBA team.  He not only passed the genes to his son but also the attitude it takes to be a champion.

Conley Jr. has all the benefits of his father’s passion and knowledge of track and field and basketball.  Imagine the advantage he has over the other kids.  I recall wanting to be ambidextrous when I was little.  My dad didn’t care, so I had no help in making it happen.  Conley Sr. knew one reason he didn’t get that seat in the NBA and had to settle for the lowly triple-jump was because he didn’t have any handle.  Guess what?  Conley Jr. is ambidextrous.  The man can even bowl left handed. 

The general conclusion Shank offers about genius and excellence sums it up the best.  He maintains people undermine and discount the hard work of exceptional people and attribute their accomplishments to this vague notion of genius and genes because it absolves them of not reaching such heights themselves.  Genius is in all of us.

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