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Santiago Alvarado
English 100 - 15
Vanderslik
December 3 2014
Mastery: A Genetic Fate or a Pursuer’s Treasure

When we are children, just beginning to grasp ahold of the world around us, we are
asked, ¨What do you want to be when you grow up?¨ Constantly throughout our adolescent
years, like a buzzing fly that keeps coming back, adults inquire us about our future plans, and
every time, they change. Every now and then a prodigy appears and, with his or her innate
talents, they are able to answer this question very early. Others are not so lucky, as the stars did
not provide them with any obvious talents, and so they must work hard in order to yield the fruit
of success. It is because of this apparent filtering of the ¨smart¨ kids from the ¨average¨ kids that
most of us begin to wonder exactly where the smart kids gained their abilities of mastery. Is it
because the Genome Gods blessed them with a harmonious nucleotide sequence, or is it just
because of a good learning environment where education excelled exponentially? Scientists have
already dug into this question of nature vs. nurture, and even with modern technology, the results
seem mixed.
Genetics are often cited as the determining factor in how well a person will perform in life.
Considering that they hold the blueprints of our body, it is reasonable to hold this assertion. In
athletics, especially, the superior genetics will almost nearly win. A person will longer legs will
outrun a short legged person, bulkier people will be able to throw a ball further, and so on. Even
outside athletics, genetic predisposition seems to hold some merit after examining certain
individuals who are at the top of their professions. Albert Einstein, a legendary physicist, was

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advanced in all areas of study at a young age, and proceeded to develop several renowned
theories around space and time. Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion of chess, was also
said to have had an apparent predisposition to problem and puzzle solving at a young age.
Because of genetic predispositions, many people then claim that no one can master a skill that
they do not have the natural ability to do so. For example, Howard Hughes, a famous aeronautics
engineer, enjoyed playing golf and played daily. Despite his obsessive passion for the game, it
soon became apparent that he had hit a brick wall in terms of gaining skill. After realizing that he
would never become a top competitor at golf, Hughes soon quit. Stories like that of Hughes have
prompted several economists have suggested to find out what a person is good at, and then have
them specialize in that skill for potentially the rest of their lives in order to fully capitalize on
their skills. This is basically a micro version of the comparative advantage trend found in world
economies.
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have identified a
specific gene that helps human brains organize things in a logical manner (Sprouse 1). A
discovery as prominent as this suggests that other traits related to intelligent may be tied to
genetics. Although environmental factors do have some impact on the development of
intelligence, several studies have hinted at the notion that these environmental factors do not
foster intelligence as much as genetics do. A study conducted on adopted children has shown that
their IQ levels are closer to that of their biological parents than that of their adoptive parents,
contradicting several claims that environment is crucial to developing intelligence. Nonetheless,
even researchers agree that there is not a single gene that determines whether a human is a genius
or not. Danielle M. Dick, a professor in psychiatry states ¨Perhaps as many as 100 genes or more
could influence intelligence. I think all of the genes involved probably have small, cumulative

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effects on increasing or decreasing I.Q.¨ (Dryden). In essence, there is no single ¨smart¨ gene,
and just like sexual orientation, intelligence is influenced by possibly hundreds of different genes
that affect other parts of the brain.
Despite the mounting scientific evidence to the contrary, the optimists of the world
believe that environment, not genetics, will make a genius They believe that, if given the correct
learning environment, coach, and enough time, any skill can be mastered by any one and
everyone. Josh Waitzkin, a former national chess champion, supports this claim, and even goes
on to further it with theories as to how and why a person can master anything. In his book, The
Art of Learning, he states that everyone has their own style of learning. If you want to become,
let’s say, a chess champion, you would have to learn the game according to your own personal
learning style (Waitzkin, 89). This ideal arises from Waitzkin’s own experiences. In his youth,
Waitzkin was a chess prodigy, but after becoming detached from the game after gaining more
fame, he eventually quit playing competitively. He soon picked up learning many forms of
martial arts and gained the world championship titles for several disciplines. Waitzkin attributes
his success to his apparent ability to learn. ¨What I discovered was that I wasn’t a master at
chess, or at martial arts. I was a master at the art of learning¨ (Waitzkin 22). It could be argued
that Waitzkin’s success is mainly due to the fact that both chess and martial arts are highly
competitive sports, thus allowing for a smooth transition between the two . However, it could
also be claimed competitive environments could simply be how he learns most efficiently.
Obviously, a person who cracks easily under pressure should not try to master anything in a
competitive environment. Conversely, in order to learn in the most efficient manner, an
individual would have to learn in an environment that encourages growth for them. It is worth

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noting that Waitzkin does not give any other examples of people learning new crafts to confirm
or deny both arguments.
Author and psychologist Josh Kauffman also agrees that any skill can be learned, given
enough time. ¨The amount of time it takes to learn [a new skill] for practical purposes is low,
only 20 hours of practice¨ (Schawbell 1) Kaufman states in an interview. He also claims that to
completely master a skill, only 10,000 hours of intense practice are needed. According to a study
performed by psychologists at Michigan State University, however, practice is not enough to
create true mastery. They analyzed date that showed improvement based on the practicing habits
of a group of musicians. ¨[The scientists] found that for musicians, only 30% of the variance in
their rankings as performers could be accounted for by how much time they spent practicing¨
(Maia Szalavitz 1). Practice makes quite a difference, but the study begs the question of where
the other 70% of improvement comes from.
The determining factor, it seems is the motivation of those who continue to learn as
opposed to those who quit or refuse to practice. Think about it: someone who loves what they are
learning will learn faster than someone who does not. Mental motivation is prime to cultivating
any learning progress. Isaac Newton, renowned mathematician, had almost no knowledge of
mathematics before entering college. Even when enrolled, Newton was undistinguished, and
lacked any special qualities (Hoskins 159). Due to personal motivation and unrestrained study,
Newton went on to develop several innovative theories on Calculus and Gravity. His motive?
Newton had originally found success in his studies when he wanted to best his bully in primary
school in academics. When pushed for results, and guided by one’s own desires, it seems as
though information is understood by “normal” humans on a level that rivals natural prodigies.

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The term ¨master¨ is subjective in that there is no quantifiable way, in most cases, to
know if someone has mastered an art. In non competitive activities, such as yoga, mastering may
simply just be being able to comprehend the concepts of the exercises and then be able to
perform and possibly create new content based on that knowledge. Certainly mastering a skill
such yoga could not be considered the same as mastering how to play tennis, or any competitive
activity. Also, learning, let alone mastering, a skill completely up to the person participating in
the activity. The unwillingness to participate effectively stagnates any ability to improve, despite
any genetic predisposition that allows for rapid learning development. On the other hand, those
who love what they are doing will excel at the activity that they enjoy faster than those who
dislike said activity. That is not to say that those who enjoy a particular activity will eventually
surpass those who are naturally gifted in an activity that they are apathetic towards, but that those
who enjoy the activity have a much more open mind to the topic and will, consequently, learn
and absorb more knowledge and skill from study. Open mindedness - that is the mindset of being
open to new and foreign ideas - can also increase intelligence. Interestingly enough, recent
studies conducted by Carol Dweck have determined that people who have the ¨fixed¨ mindset that is those who believe that everything is determined by genetics - actually develop less
intellectually as opposed to those that believe that anything is possible. This is because those
with ¨fixed¨ mindsets are more likely to quit an activity if it can be calculated as a loss and will
not work to improve skill in said activity. Again, it seems as though motivation and a positive
mindset are also necessary to learn and master a skill.
The psychology of the human mind is complex, almost too complex to measure any form
of learning. Although learning and mastering any skill is in part influenced by genetics, it is
superficial to claim that all skills are predetermined through our genomes. The simple act of

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learning itself is beyond genetics anyways, as the information gained is not stored in our DNA,
but rather our neurons. Based on the information gathered, it is safe to say that a combination of
our DNA, environment (which includes where we learn, how we learn, and who we learn from,
etc.), and even our own egos determine whether or not we can master a skill. The lucky few that
have a perfect combination of each are the prodigies that are renowned for being ¨geniuses¨.
Alas, those of us who did not win at the cosmic lottery are not inferior to the prodigies, but could
be called ¨geniuses¨ waiting to be forged.

Works Cited

Dryden, Jim. "Genes and Genius: Researchers Confirm Association between Gene and
Intelligence." Genes and Genius: Researchers Confirm Association between Gene and
Intelligence. Washington University School of Medicine, 26 Feb. 2007. Web. 02 Dec.
2014.
Hoskins, Michael. Cambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy.Cambridge University Press,
1997.
Print.
Schawbel, Dan. "Josh Kaufman: It Takes 20 Hours Not 10,000 Hours To Learn A Skill."
Forbes. 20 Nov. 2012: 71-73. Print
Sprouse, Elizabeth. "Is Genius Genetic?" HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks.com, 22 Oct. 2013.
Web.
01 Dec. 2014.

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Szalavitz, Maia, and Maia Szalavitz. "10,000 Hours May Not Make a Master After All |
TIME.com."
Time. Time, 20 May 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

Waitzkin, Josh. The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence. New York: Free,
2007. Print.

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