Sunday, March 21, 2010

Practice Makes Perfect

I hate the genre of "science proves Buddhism" story...although, as an applied scientist and a Buddhist I do have a certain fondness for the "this story correlates with Buddhist practice" genre.

And that's what I thought in reading this NY Times Book Review article on "The Genius in All of Us" by David Shenk.

Motivational gurus from Dale Carnegie to Tony Robbins have long promised access to these hidden stores of genius. Now here comes David Shenk with “The Genius in All of Us,” which argues that we have before us not a “talent scarcity” but a “latent talent abundance.” Our problem “isn’t our inadequate genetic assets,” but “our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have.” The truth is “that few of us know our true limits, that the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call our ‘un­actualized potential.’ ” At first it would seem that Shenk, the author of thoughtful books on information overload, memory loss and chess, has veered into guru territory. But he has assembled a large body of research to back up his claims.

Two bodies, in fact. The first concerns the emerging science of epigenetics, the study of how the environment modifies the way genes are expressed. Since the days of Crick and Watson, we’ve tended to see genes as a set of straightforward instructions, a blueprint for constructing a person. Over the last 20 years, however, some scientists have begun to complicate that picture. “It turns out that the genetic instructions themselves are influenced by other inputs,” Shenk writes. “Genes are constantly activated and deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses and other genes.” That means there can be no guaranteed genetic windfalls, or fixed genetic limits, bestowed at the moment of conception. Instead there is a continually unfolding interaction between our heredity and our world, a process that may be in some measure under our control.

The second body of research investigates the nature of exceptional ability and how it arises. We’ve traditionally regarded superior talent as a rare and mysterious gift bequeathed to a lucky few. In fact, Shenk writes, science is revealing it to be the product of highly concentrated effort. He describes the work of the psychologist Anders Ericsson, who wondered if he could train an ordinary person to perform extraordinary feats of memory. When Eric­sson began working with a young man identified as S.F., his subject could, like most of us, hold only seven numbers in his short-term memory. By the end of the study, S.F. could correctly recall an astonishing 80-plus digits. With the right kind of mental discipline, Ericsson and his co-­investigator concluded, “there is seemingly no limit to memory performance.” Shenk weaves accounts of such laboratory experiments, conducted on average people, with the tales of singularly accomplished individuals — Ted Williams and Michael Jordan, Mozart and Beethoven — who all worked relentlessly to hone their skills...

...Forget about genes as unchanging “blueprints” and talent as a “gift,” all tied up in a bow. “We cannot allow ourselves to think that way anymore,” he declares with some fervor. Instead, Shenk proposes, imagine the genome as a giant control board, with thousands of switches and knobs that turn genes off and on or tune them up and down. And think of talent not as a thing, but as a process; not as something we have, but as something we do.

Yep. No fixed essence to us it seems.

And, isn't this really all about Zen Budhist practice or what?

Shenk doesn’t neglect the take-home point we’re all waiting for, even titling a chapter “How to Be a Genius (or Merely Great).” The answer has less in common with the bromides of motivational speakers than with the old saw about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving, as Ericsson put it, “repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,” which results in “frequent failures.” This is known as “deliberate practice,” and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible. Behold our long rumored potential, unleashed at last! Shenk is vague about how, exactly, this happens, but to his credit he doesn’t make it sound easy. “You have to want it, want it so bad you will never give up, so bad that you are ready to sacrifice time, money, sleep, friendships, even your reputation,” he writes. “You will have to adopt a particular lifestyle of ambition, not just for a few weeks or months but for years and years and years. You have to want it so bad that you are not only ready to fail, but you actually want to experience failure: revel in it, learn from it.”

Now, if the reviewer had a notion of "karma," she'd know why some folks instill and cultivate discipline and some do not.

Moreover, of course we probably won't all be Mozart, Ted Williams, or Hakuin. But that's not the point. At least, it's not the point from a Buddhist perspective.

Some folks, from the 12 Step world, I think, have a notion of "Insanity is repeating the same mistake and expecting a different outcome." I think this aphorism should be changed a bit to: "Sanity is repeated practice in the direction of perfection." The thing is, such repeated practice in the direction of perfection will inevitably result in a mistake, the "one continuous mistake" of which Shunryu Suzuki spoke, I think. Moreover, denial of my aphorism in favor of the "insanity" aphorism is itself insanity, since it opposes reality.


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