Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Making of Genius - hard work.

After I gave up athletics around the age of 20 to concentrate on mountaineering, I  coached athletes for about 10 years and I came to realise that those athletes who put in the hard work, after a number of years. started beating athletes with a lot of natural talent, but skipped by with only light training.
A case in point for me was Neville Cleveland who was in the same year of High School with me in Dunedin, New Zealand and from the age of 13 to 17, I could beat him over every distance, quite easily, including cross-country. Neville lacked speed, was physically large-boned heavy, and landed quite hard on his feet. Being a builder's apprentice, he was used to hard work and he applied the hard work theory to his running and by the age of 18, Neville was turning in to a top cross country runner. After 10 years of really hard work, he was a top New Zealand cross country runner.

Left: Neville Cleveland (right) and Bob McKerrow after a 15 km run in Featherston, New Zealand when we were 28 years of age. Through hard work, Neville had become a top NZ cross-country runner and a very talented long distance runner. He further applied the 'hard work' theory to his profession and rose to the top.

Neville went on to rise from a carpenter, to a quantity surveyor, and then on to Area Commercial Manager for Arrow International Limited Privately with 200 employees and was one of the leaders of the magnificent covered Forsyth Barr Stadium stadium in Dunedin. Neville was part of a team that built a dream stadium for New Zealand — one that provides the best facilities to make every event unforgettable. The construction of this architectural icon has been no mean feat. They have built a space that acknowledges the contribution of visionary citizens.real grass under a transparent roof. Stands that bring you close to the action. Sports, concerts, events and conferences have a new home. Neville got to the top of running and construction through hard world.

Neville, Jim Williamson and I went to a number of athletic training camps run by Brian Taylor  at Karitane in OTAGO New Zealand.  We trained together and competed against each other regularly and Jim wrote the following about Neville and our younger days which helps me understand where we are today.

"I read the story about Neville, and the one about 90% perspiration (which is illustrated by my career - I have so many talents that I am always anxious to explore the possibilities of the next one on the list). I'm really happy for him, glad that he is successful and a great professional. In most ways my life has been a stark contrast to his: on the occupational front I've been a jack of all trades - teacher, painter and marchante, restorer, bar owner, businessman in various ventures... and now translator. I was good at all of them but have always been seduced by new experiences, new adventures, moving on. Like my father, who was an itinerant worker, good at everything he did but always hearkening to the romance of the new venture. But a working career was never the priority (and money less), more a means to an end, and treated him (and me) accordingly. Like you, not a single regret. It's the journey that counts, not the destination, and mine is still a source of fascination - to me if to nobody else. Who I am today is the result of that journey up to this point. Once again I am a talented translator, well established and making a good living, but... I have an ambition to write a novel and I know I will need to concentrate all my resources on that some day and leave everything I have achieved as a translator behind to join the others as just another step along the path. ¿Path? There is no path before we walk it. We make the path by going that way. So there will never be a "final version" of that kid, little Jimmy Williamson who played in the Garston station goods shed in the 1950's and broke his arse falling out of impossible trees, or did the beach olympics with soul-mate Bob McKerrow in the late 60's. Count on it. We have a departure point, but no destination. Thank god (or whatever)."

The magnificent covered Forsyth Barr Stadium stadium in Dunedin. Neville was part of a team that built a dream stadium for New Zealand

This leads me back to the  theory that I have expoused about genius being at least 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. Recently I discovered an article written by Nobel prize winner Eric Kandel , on the making of a Genius and it was good to have my thoughts confirmed..

Despite numerous romantic stories of child prodigies, the hard evidence shows that genius tends to be made, not born. Studies of elite physical and mental performance confirm what is termed “the Decade Rule”. You have to put in a decade at the very least of the right focused work to even approach mastery in any field. And you have to want to do it.

It helps a little, but only a little, if you are born with great talent. It seems to help more if you already have access to some of the in-built software of the brain, but have difficulty learning by conventional methods, as is the case with savants. Albert Einstein for example, is cited as the most famous case of Asperger’s syndrome, or high-functioning autism. Born in 1879, he was reported to be below average at mathematics at school. His mathematical brilliance did not show until age 26, when he worked as a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office in 1905. None of the people who tried to teach him mathematics achieved any prominence themselves, yet, despite them, over 20 years he grew to excel.

Putting in the time occurs not only in science and in sport. The best concert pianists take about 15 years to earn international recognition. Top sculptors and mathematicians put in similar amounts of consistent training. Recipients of MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, popularly called the “Genius Awards” have typically spent more than 20 years in their chosen fields. From 1900 to 2000, the Nobel Prize awards indicate a lifetime of learning. In physics the median age of a Nobel laureate is 51, in literature 63.

A representative example of the Decade Rule in action is the 1985 study of 120 elite athletes, performers, artists, biochemists and mathematicians led by University of Chicago psychologist Benjamin Bloom.1 Every subject in the study took more than a decade of hard training before achieving recognition.

From other research, Olympic swimmers train for an average of 15 years before making the team. Success seems to be only marginally related to talent. The data indicate that the best way to make most Olympic teams is to begin to practice the sport relentlessly - shortly after birth.

The Decade Rule applies even for those few who are born with supreme talent. Mozart for example, was playing the violin at three years of age and received brilliant instruction from the start. By age seven he was writing his own symphonies. But he did not produce the music that made him a genius until his teens.

The same is true for Tiger Woods. He seems magical on the golf course, but was swinging a golf club before he could walk. He got the best instruction and practiced constantly from infanthood. Even today, he outworks most of his rivals. He has laboriously constructed his genius.

Right now ESPN has a piece on the internet on E-ticket, in which they have enlisted a triathlete, Kathryn Bertine to try out in various sports to see if a naturally talented athlete can gain a spot, any spot, in the 2008 Olympics over the next two years. They clearly have not read the research. Kathryn is a talent, and a nice person besides, and calm and laid back and focused, and a lot more good things, but she hasn’t a hope in hell of making the Olympics on these qualities alone. It makes a good story but that is all it is. Olympic level in any sport, and genius in science, music, and art are all built from a lot of hard yards in that in the particular specialty. They are never born.

Spend the Time Right

You not only have to put in the concentrated time in any field, you also have to use it brilliantly. In my work with potential Olympians, I encounter talent aplenty, as parents bring their children to the Colgan Institute for assessment as potential world champions. Even with great parental involvement and consistent training most do not succeed. From studies of more than 1500 of them, and the associated research worldwide, we have extracted some major reasons why, reasons that form the basis of this paper.

A dominant problem is what we call cosseting. The talented child is often indulged, and allowed to behave in weak and dependent ways. Consequently and inevitably, they develop behavior patterns that are the opposite of those required for athletic success.

A second problem is insufficient competition. Often the talented child is competing only against local children. Often they are protected against failure by parents and well -meaning coaches by being entered in only those competitions they are likely to win. Their progress is hampered by others who do not have their talent and do not understand how to develop it. Thus many talented children do not have to work very hard to succeed, and do not apply the focused motivation that is essential to growing the brain networks required for their sport. They also fail to acquire the brain circuits for toughness and resistance to pain that come from fierce competition. For Olympic sports especially, it is essential to develop this toughness early, in order to continue to train and progress through the failures and injuries that inevitably litter the path to the few short years of youthful glory on the Olympic stage.

We have found that the people we have trained, both in sport and in science, who have become elite, work hard every day, year in, year out. They rarely excuse and they rarely complain. From 32 years of working with them, I have learned that the moderately talented but fearlessly persistent, will beat the big but high maintenance talent every time. When I first met Julie Moss for example, she had been training in the three sports of the triathlon for seven years. She had moderate talent in cycling and swimming but was not a talented runner. I trained with her for another six years before she won the World Triathlon championship - twice. And she became a champion runner. She was noble in defeat, modest in victory, but always relentless.

I have been privileged to work alongside two Nobel Prize winners, and in the company of many world-class scientists at Rockefeller University in New York. I am also a long time member of Mensa, the high IQ society. One big difference between these two groups of highly intelligent people is the individual toughness of the elite scientists, the overriding motivation to perfect their work, often against great odds. Because of these experiences, and because the Colgan Institute is in the business of training champions, I prefer to take only students who have demonstrated tenacity, that is the ability to stick to the path, unwavering through failure and injury, disappointment and injustice, every day, for as long as it takes.

Mentors Essential

The third important factor that has emerged from our study of champions is the necessity of a great mentor in order to use the time right. I was privileged to know the genius violinist Yehudi Menuhin who died in 1999. Like Mozart he began to play the violin at age three. Under the tutelage of Sigmund Anker, he presented his first solo performance at age seven. But, restricted by his early instruction from several teachers, Menuhin did not reach prominence until 1947 at age 28, when he performed in Germany as the first Jewish violinist to play there after the Second World War. His playing then improved dramatically to genius level in the 1950s, after meeting and commencing the study of meditation and yoga under the great BKS Iyengar in 1952. He called Iyengar, “my best violin teacher”, even though the yogi does not play. Menuhin was acknowledged for his contributions to music by a knighthood in 1965.

The subjects of Bloom's study above, like most elite performers, almost invariably had great support in their formative years. As I am contending in this course regarding our goal of improving the brain, Bloom came to see genius as less of an individual trait, and more a creation of environment and mentoring. "We were looking for exceptional kids," he said, "and what we found were exceptional conditions."

He was intrigued to discover that few of the study's subjects had shown special promise when they first took up the fields they later excelled in, and most showed no early ambition for stellar achievement. Rather, they were encouraged as children to explore and learn, and then supported in more focused ways as they began to develop an area they particularly liked.

In addition to Bloom, numerous other studies have shown that almost all high achievers are blessed with at least one crucial mentor. A representative example is the work of Rena Subnotnik, of the American Center for Gifted Education Policy. In 1996 she began to compare music students at New York's elite Juilliard School of Music against winners of the high-school Westinghouse Science Talent Search. She found that the Juilliard students realized their potential more fully because they had one-to-one relationships with expert mentors who prepared them for the challenges ahead.2 Subnotnik showed that the most important relationship throughout this developmental process is with the student’s studio teacher, and that most Julliard teachers who work with advanced students continue a talented lineage of descent from earlier generations of music teachers, performers, and composers. In contrast, most of the Westinghouse prizewinners she studied went on to colleges where they failed to find the right mentors to nurture their talent and guide them through the rough spots to shape their careers. Only 50% ended up pursuing science, few with distinction.

In science, Nobel laureates also display a mentor to apprentice relationship that mirrors the one found in music 3 Doctoral students generally continue the work of their professors, and extend their lineage. As in music, reputation is crucial, even when choosing a teacher for a pre-adolescent. Unless the student has an expert mentor that they admire and are motivated by, they are unlikely to excel. Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Now we know it has to be correctly guided perspiration.


In addition to long-term self-motivated study and brilliant mentoring, the research on genius offers one more important strategy that we can apply to improving the brain. That strategy is called chunking, that is the skill of grouping details and concepts into easily remembered patterns. With innumerable details to remember, medical schools and law schools are awash with chunking routines, but chess provides the classic illustration. Show a novice a chess game in progress for a few seconds, and typically they will be able to remember the positions of only five or six pieces. Show Gary Kasparov the same game and he will memorize the board instantly. He can not only recreate it unseen but also detail all the moves open to either side.

Yet chess masters don't necessarily have innately better memories than you or I. Their chunking skills apply predominantly to the chessboard. Show a chess master and a novice a random list of 20 digits for a few seconds, and the memory difference declines dramatically. Neither will be able to recall all the digits in sequence. In a chess game, the master sees not the 20 or more pieces that confront him, but patterns of power relationships, well learned chunks, each of which is already in his memory. By long and correct study he has altered his brain to construct a mental map of chess.

We all use chunking skills when we read. Conventional instruction in reading starts with being taught to recognize letters. Then you learn chunks of letters as words, then chunks of words as phrases, and eventually whole sentences. That’s where most of us stop learning to read, about the end of high school. It is not even close to the capacity of your brain. In fact, as you will see later in this course, conventional methods of learning to read may interfere with some in-built software in the brain, which is capable of processing the skill of reading without most of that schooling.

As you saw in the course DVD, Release the Power of Your Brain, some savants, such as Kim Peek, can read and totally recall whole pages of text in a few seconds. To improve brain function at the Colgan Institute we have taken these findings, plus the work on brain plasticity of Michael Merzenich and his group, and his techniques of Fast For Word, to advance the learning of reading a step further.4 We have successfully taught some of ourselves, and some children with above average IQ, to read by whole paragraphs at the same pace that the average person reads a sentence, and with no loss of comprehension. This level of chunking quadruples reading speed, and provides a great asset for academic studies and personal affairs.

Neuroscience of Genius

The study of elite performance has been based mainly on observational and interview techniques. Nevertheless, its models agree well with recent discoveries in neuroscience about how the brain learns. In 2000, Eric Kandel of Columbia University in New York, shared the Nobel Prize with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greenspan for their work on the neural basis of memory and learning.6 Research worldwide, especially that of the Kandell and Merzenich groups, shows that both the number and strength of the nerve connections that process a memory or skill increase in proportion to how often and how effectively the lessons are repeated.

From this recent research, it is likely that the right focused study and practice can literally growing the neural networks of genius. Genetics may allow one person to build the connections faster than another, but the lessons can be learned by almost everyone. And the lessons do have to be learned. You cannot appreciate the genius of Shakespeare unless you have studied his works.

No matter what age you are now, if you want to improve your thought processes, and with them every aspect of your existence, you should begin today to grow your new brain with the right study and the guidance of an expert mentor. There is no more important task in your life. The new research shows that, within a decade, you may well begin to think like a genius.

1. Bloom, B.S. Generalizations about talent development. In B.S. Bloom (Ed.). Developing talent in young people New York: Ballentine, 1985, 507-549.

2. Subotnik, R.F. The Juilliard model for developing young adolescent performers: An educational prototype. In C.F. M. van Lieshout & P.G. Heymans (Eds.) Developing talent across the lifespan. Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 2000, 249-276.

3. Zuckerman, H. Scientific elite: Nobel laureates in the United States (2nd Ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1996.

4. Kilgard MP, Merzenich MM. Cortical map reorganization enabled by nucleus basalis activity, Science, 1998 279:1714-1718.

5. Merzenich MM, Jenkins WM, et al. Temporal Processing deficits of Language-Learning Impaired Children Ameliorated by Training. Science, 1996 271:77-81.


Marja said...

Fascinating and I agree on all points You need ability to start with and than with a lot of very hard work it is very likely you succeed.
Yes in study knowing how the brain works helps you a lot like working with chunks but also using association braingym etc.

I would also like to throw in passion as without passion hard work is difficult.
Than I would also throw in environment. Are you exposed to the things in life you are good at and would like to work hard for.
It depends on education parenting nutrition etc as well.
I believe everybody has something they are good or reasonably good at
and which they enjoy doing. At the school my kids go to they do just that letting students find out what motivates them and usually this is something they have some ability in. The ones who get in touch with who they are are amazingly successfull. I've seen a boy in year 9 who develops websites for the american market and focusses completely on it. I can give many examples.
A genius is for me relative however. I've worked with children of disadvanteged backgrounds and most just don't "overcome" their past. I think a child who comes from such a very disadvanteged family and is as an adult a good citizen, a good father and husband and provides for his family in a satisfying way,is for me an enormous genius. Just as much as the one who has a top scientific or sports career etc. and had a good upbringing with plenty of support some ability and who worked hard to achieve this. But that's just me. I like the words "It is the journey that counts" I also think it is important how you treat other people on your journey no matter what you are doing.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Thanks for yopur thoughtful contribution. Yes, it seem's there is no substitute for hard work with a sense of strategic direction. step by step, we make it.

Donald said...

Dear Bob

Great post, all good true stuff and well presented.

I've sent the link to my son - delivered him back to Uni. on Sunday. I think it'll be helpful to where he's at, at age 19.

It also got me thinking about timing: In many way hidden and otherwise it too seems a factor. Sometimes we stumble into it, create the space, or the time is trust upon us!



Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Thanks for yr feedback Donald. Agree, timing is important. Additionally, I do not believe in good luck, as we make our own opportunities, often with a little help from our friends.

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