Are we born with certain abilities or can we acquire them through deliberate practice? Myles Downey has a theory about this nurture/nature question of genius. For him, the debate points directly to a tradition of powerful people seeking to retain their authority.
A keen tennis player himself, he explains this with a metaphor from the world of sport.
“If you look at the way sport organizes itself, the people in blazers, it’s all about those people retaining authority and giving license to others… They’re the people who typically subscribe to the idea that some people are gifted, that it came down through the genes, and that not everybody can be [a winner]. It maintains their position of power,” he says.
Scale that up and it gets a bit more serious.
“I would argue that over the last few hundred years, where we need people to be shot at in the trenches and where we need people to be effectively ‘shot at‘ as they work in factories – so cannon fodder and factory fodder… what would not have been helpful to the establishment was if those people saw themselves as geniuses, or having much choice, because they would cease to work in factories and cease to sign up to be shot at,” he contends.
This is the “nature” view of genius: that “people of eminence were eminent as a function of their closeness to other people of eminence.” Downey condemns this as “very, very limiting,” but he doesn’t swing fully to the “nurture” side either.
“It’s not so much about one or the other,” he says, conceding with typical humor, “I think even a six–year–old could have told you that.” Rather, “it’s actually how those two things combine, how nature and nurture work off each other.”
Downey leads the Enabling Genius Project team, a group of researchers who have produced a book looking at this issue in practical terms. It’s called “Enabling Genius, A Mindset for Success in the 21st Century.”
“The best study we could find, and it wasn’t very satisfactory, suggests that [nature and nurture] is just about 50/50. So what you become is about 50 percent of what you’re born with and 50 percent of what you or others make of that,“ he says.
We can bend that ratio to suit our goals, Downey believes. What we lack in talent we can make up for in practice.
In the book, Downey outlines his “pillars of enabling genius,” represented by three interlocking circles – identity, mindset and desire – and where they meet in the middle is learning. He outlines this framework in our Expert Interview podcast.
Identity is about winkling out the real you, getting past the person other people think you are.
“I’ve got to start with what are my gifts, what I’m genuinely interested in, not what I’m interested in because my parents said I should be, and start working with those things,” he says.
Mindset taps into the idea of “flow,” a term coined by the researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe “a mental state in which there are no distractions, no fear, no doubt, and a sense of being slightly stretched but not stretched to the point where you break,” Downey explains. Research shows that people perform at their best when in a state of flow.
The third pillar, desire, started out as drive, in an earlier version of Downey’s framework. By switching from the “masculine notions” of will and drive to the “more benign” desire, Downey shifts his framework towards purpose.
“There’s something about the nurturing of real genius that requires attention but not throttling,” he says. “‘Will’ seems to me to be very often about success in the world in a very materialistic sense. ‘Purpose,’ on the other hand, which is a closer word to ‘desire,’ is much more about an inner sense of doing what’s right for oneself.”
Joining these three pillars together is learning, which is the key to enabling genius for Downey and his team.
So how can we take this theory and use it to achieve genius in our working lives? Downey offers some tips in this clip from our Expert Interview podcast.
Are you using your genius in your daily work? How could you enable more genius in your team? Join the discussion below!