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The Genius In All Of Us

David Shenk

Head Start program in US - aims to intervene at very young age to prevent underachievement. Reasonably well run and generously funded -- about $7billion annually - but analysis of results shows only very small improvement in 3 or 4 year olds reading and vocab, and no improvement in math skills. Problem is not the mechanics of program, it's the timing - need to intervene earlier. To find out why wasn't working, researchers sampled actual number words spoken to young kids in 1)welfare homes 2) working class homes 3) professional's homes. Turned out there were huge differences. Children in the professionals' homes heard an average of 1500 more spoken words per hour than kids in welfare homes. Over a year that amounted to a difference of 8 million words, or, by the age of 4, 32 million words. And there was a direct correlation between early verbal experience and later achievement.

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And the quality important. What is crucial is reading often to child, believing that abilities are malleable and can be improved, and a nurturing attitude. In first 4 years, a welfare child gets 125,000 more discouragements than encouragements.

Baltimore dairy plant where uneducated carton packers revealed remarkable math ability in their everyday work. Though they were the least educated people in the factory, they could easily work out the most efficient way to fill a mixed order. (They used 24 place cartons, and packed orders of various types milk) Instead of trying to fill each order from scratch, they'd look at various part-filled cartons around them, and add or remove types to fill order. They could figure out the most efficient (ie least work) solution even when it only amounted to one unit in a 500 unit order. No sign of this ability showed up on IQ scores, school tests or any other measures. By any conventional measure these guys were unintelligent. Yet when the well educated white collar workers from same depot sometimes had to fill in for floor workers, they couldn't begin to match the expertise of the experienced low-IQ workers.

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Myth of Beethoven as a genius composing masterpieces in a flash of inspiration. But in fact, his notebooks show him working through sixty or seventy different drafts of one phrase before settling on the final one. Mozart dazzled royalty as a precocious pianist. Precocious is the word - he was advanced for his age, but not better than contemporary adults. But today many young children exposed to the Suzuki and other rigorous training methods play as well as the young Mozart. Such achievements are recognized for what they are: the consequence of early exposure, exceptional instruction, constant practice, family nurturing and a child's will to learn and please parents.

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Across the board, two factors are universal and crucial: practice style and practice time. 'deliberate practice' completely diff to just hard work or drill. Not repeating skills already attained, but repeated attempts to reach beyond current ability levels. It also requires enormous, life-altering amounts of time - a daily grinding commitment to becoming better.

Becoming great at something requires right combination of resources....doesn't mean that everyone has access to same resources, or that anyone can be great at anything .... but it does mean can't attribute success to a gene or other natural 'gift'.

A number of studies have turned up the same common number. Truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved in less than 10,000 hours of practice over 10 years time - an average of about 3 hours a day.

Lewis Terman in early 1920's picked out 1500 Californian high-IQ kids in effort to prove his idea that IQ would predict success. But none of them became super-achievers. None earned a Nobel Prize, though two rejected from his original group did. None became world-class musicians, as two other rejects did.

Most gifted kids do not become adult achievers. Two reasons. First the skills are different. Technical perfection wins the prodigy admiration, but an adult needs to create something new. A high-IQ 6 yo who can multiply 3 digit numbers in head gets praised, but as an adult, must come up with new way to solve some problem, or they will make no mark in mathematics. Second, child achievers are often hobbled by the psychology of their own success. Kids who grow up being praised for ability at something often develop an aversion for stepping outside their comfort zone. Instead of taking risks and pushing themselves, they develop a fear of failure from new challenges.

Shinichi Suzuki originally just taught violin to young men. So when a parent asked him to tutor a 4 yo, he initially rejected idea. But then he realized that Japanese kids learn to precisely speak a technically very difficult language - Japanese - very early. Obvious lesson was that through heavy repetition, parental persistence and strong cultural reinforcement, every young child masters this steep challenge. So why not just apply same methods to music?

Britney Spears Syndrome - narcissistic parents who reward their kids with affection after every success and shuns them after failure. As adults they don't have emotional reservoir to fall back on have have trouble forming stable relationships. Flip side is unconditional and unshifting love that isn't connected to achievement.

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Persistence - Albert Einstein said "It's not that I'm smart. It's just that I stay with problems longer." Brain circuits that modulate persistence can be altered by intermittent reinforcement. Instant grat means you stop as soon as rewards go away. Marshmallow expt showed long term self-discipline and postponing rewards. But also showed that could teach kids restraint by getting them to imagine that the marshmallows were just pictures. Lesson is that self-discipline can be taught - don't give in to every demand kid makes, let them learn to soothe themselves and discover that things will be ok if they wait for what they want.

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