Multiplied by genetics

​Over the summer I had a conversation with my great-uncle. The outcome? I changed my mind. I used to believe that what we were good and bad at was a result of conditioning. I used to believe that, if I wanted to, I could learn maths, physics, ten languages, juggling, marksmanship, writing, coding, horse-riding and dolphin-whispering. You name it, I’d say, “Sure, I could learn that!”

The observation that changed my mind was a simple one. We were talking about people’s ability to learn languages. He’s lived in France for many years and speaks the language fluently, but he’s convinced that not everyone could do the same. Not because people who can learn languages are superior, but because they’re wired differently

My response was to bring up Carol Dweck’s distinction between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Supposedly, people with fixed mindsets believe that they’re good at what they’re good at and bad at what they’re bad at. They believe their skills and abilities are pre-determined, static. People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, believe that their skills and abilities can be altered with hard work and practice.

The most seductive interpretation of Dweck’s work is the one I chose to subscribe to: we can all have a growth mindset which means that everybody can learn anything. But in my uncle’s experience that’s bullshit. He used to think along similar lines, but experience altered his opinion. He’s seen people pick up non-native languages effortlessly, and people be unable to pick them up despite great efforts and intelligence.

A friend who works with young athletes occupies the same position. In his world and work he’s identified the two things that determine whether an athlete will ascend to the peak of their sport. The second most important factor is mindset; an athlete’s attitude and approach to feedback and deliberate practice. The most important factor? Genetics. “Are they born to do it?” This combination of genetics and mindset ultimately determines how good an athlete can be.

I’ll admit, thinking that our potential is capped by our genetic makeup seems cynical. But like many cynicisms, it’s true. How you feel about reality doesn’t change it. What is, is. But it’s not all piss and excrement. Sure, the downside is that there are things that we’re naturally not suited for. And there are some things that we’re never going to be able to grasp. But the reverse is also true. There are things we are suited for, and also, there are things that we’ll find easier than ninety-five percent of the population.

We could compress this whole issue into a spectrum. One side says that genes don’t matter; everyone is capable of anything. The other side says that genetics are the only thing that matters. In the middle is a simple statement: genes are multipliers.

Imagine that every action you could possibly take has a base effectiveness of 1. Your genetic makeup multiplies it. Say someone is painting, and imagine that that person’s biology endows them with a gift for taking an abstract, conceptual image and recreating it in reality. What’s the outcome? Answer: a good painting. This is because the base effectiveness of their action—painting— increases in line with the potency of their genetic suitability. However, if they’re not biologically inclined to be good at recreating abstract images in reality, then their painting is either going to be pre-school good, or it’ll take an excessive amount of time for them to produce something decidedly average. Fitted to a 2×2, it looks like this:

The most typical version of success—accumulation of wealth and hierarchical influence—is attained by finding a place in the upper two quadrants of the 2×2. Getting really good at what you’re made to do is, of course, the fastest route to success, whilst getting good at what you’re not made for trails slightly behind. Naturally, there’s nuance to figuring out what you’re genetically suited to do, and combinations of culture, society, opportunity and exposure often mean that we never discover what we’re made for. But this just puts another arrow in the quiver of arguments against specialisation: how do you know what you’re best at if you haven’t tried everything?