Most of us think we are special and unique but we are not. We all spring from the same primordial mush. Humans share 99.9% of the exact same DNA. That last 0.1% makes up all the differences in the variety of people of the world. In fact, there are more genetic differences between a zebra and a horse than there are between a human and a chimpanzee. You are a damn monkey and so am I.
In evolution terms, human existence is a miracle. Humans are the product of thousands and thousands of accidents and chance events. A slight change in any of our antecedent forms would have made us entirely different creatures or perhaps we wouldn’t even exist at all.
It is a uniquely human vanity to suppose that we are some perfected design or planned being. We are just organisms at one intermediate stage in our evolutionary development.
Why the science lesson?
We are not special; not a single one of us. There is not some unique calling or purpose for each of us. We are all just the culmination of various chains of events. Waiting for some Divine intervention to touch your soul and provide you with your life’s path is foolish. We are only what we do.
Great people are not genetically better than you. After all we are 99.9% the same. Great people achieve great things through focused work, sometimes luck and often a lot of assistance from others. Seth Godin wasn’t born a marketing genius. He got that way by outworking and out-thinking all of his contemporaries. It is amazing what 25 years of concentrated effort can accomplish.
People say things like I am not a people person, I am not good at math, I am not creative or I can’t play a musical instrument because I am tone deaf. Nonsense! You are what you do.
People more successful than you are not smarter or more talented. They are monkeys too. They may have some advantages like good connections, supportive parents or generous inheritances but those advantages can be overcome with hard work and creativity. Relentless advances in technology and access to information are truly democratizing opportunities. We are all swinging from the same trees now.
The flip side is that you are not innately superior to your fellow human either. Humans are infinitely capable of superior achievements but that doesn’t mean any of us are genetically better than another. You are not an ‘expert’ or ‘guru’ because you say so. You are not more creative, talented or intelligent than the rest of us. More accomplishments puts you above others but all achievements are fleeting.
There are some genetic advantages that elite athletes and other top performers may have but the vast majority of the human race will never put in that level of effort to ever test it. You first need to bust your ass in practices every day to get you to the Olympics. Only then will genetic advantages help you get you on the podium. Unfortunately, most of us will never try hard enough to be Olympic quality in any field.
You are what you do.
How do you spend your time?… Because that is what you are. Are you a TV watcher? Over-eater? Binge-drinker? Mediocre student? Complainer? Perhaps you are a talented artist? Writer? Entrepreneur? Or volunteer? It doesn’t matter what you choose. The only thing that counts is how much you do it.
You are not special. I am not special. We are all not special. UNLESS, we actually put in the effort to excel. Do great things and you will become great. All of our success idols are where they are for a reason and it has very little to do with shear talent. Even monkeys can become good if they work hard enough. The next time you want to give up because the competition is too good, put down your banana, roll up your sleeves, and start climbing the trees you need to climb.
Edward - Entry Level Dilemma says
There are ~ 3,080,000,000 genes in the human genome. Assuming the 99.9% similar figure is accurate, that leaves 3,080,000 genes that separate you from me.
I understand your point, but believe that you are grossly underestimating the nature side of things. My poor eye sight and coordination mean that, no matter, the amount of work and practise I put in, and no matter how good the training I receive, I could never be a world-class jeweler. Heck, I doubt I’d ever make it to professional level. I simply don’t possess the physical pre-requisites. While jewelering(?) may not be that handy of a skill in most cases, I have the same problem with soldering, and that IS a skill that I have tried to develop without success. Oh, and can do a dirty repair job, but when a delicate touch is needed I have the choices of destroying it myself, or handing it off to a friend with better eyesight and cooridination.
John Bardos - JetSetCitizen says
Thank you for the kind comment Edward.
You are completely correct. People are all obviously all different in countless ways. You can’t be a jeweler and I can’t be a pilot because of my weak stomach. Nature counts in some situations.
I see two problems that stem out of the nature versus nurture argument. The first is that people use it as an excuse to give up. “I am tone deaf so I can’t get good at music.”
The second is that it deludes many into thinking they are exceptional. The Heath brothers in their latest book Switch, point to a study in which 94 % of university professors feel they are above average.
I personally don’t believe that genes matter much for most people, in most real life decisions. Americans are not genetically predisposed to eating fast food and watching TV. Altering those two habits alone would have profound impacts on the health and accomplishments of millions.
Thanks again for your comment.
Edward - Entry Level Dilemma says
A physical disability such as tone deafness may not keep a motivated individual from achieving proficiency or excellence, but it does mean that they have to work twice as hard as someone without the disability. By the same token, if I practised detail soldering work several hours a day, every day, maybe I could become livable with my skills. But, as you point out, we make choices, and I choose not to put aside the rest of my life to become “ok” at one skill.
I’m not sure that research is really an argument for what you are saying. Most people think they are better than average in something that they are proficient at. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but a majority of drivers in a poll indicated that they believed they were better than average drivers.
John Bardos - JetSetCitizen says
Thanks again for continuing the dialogue!
For the ‘tone deafness’ example, I wasn’t thinking of a real physical defect. It was more of a perceived deficiency that people have. Things like not being good at cooking, math, music, sports, etc. I believe that often people feel they are naturally (genetically) inferior when the real problem is that they haven’t had enough practice compared to their peers. (For example, hockey players born later in the year like Gladwell mentioned in Outliers. Players born early in the year are bigger and more coordinated than those born later in the year for each given age group.)
My two examples are meant to be opposite arguments, so you are correct that it doesn’t support the first example.
In the first, people feel inferior because of their genes, when they could likely improve a lot with some deliberate practice. In the second case, people feel they are above average because of their genes so don’t feel they need to try very hard.
Both groups could improve from more effort, so this is why I think excessive faith in our genetic differences can have a demotivating effect. That is the message I was trying to make in the post. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very clear or convincing. 🙁
Kyle Crum says
A yogi would say “You are not your thoughts. You are your habits.” I believe that’s what you are getting at here. Your habits will ultimately determine how things turn out.
John Bardos - JetSetCitizen says
Thanks for the Comment Kyle.
You said it much better than I did.
Genes count of course, but actions and habits are the primary determinants of success in my view.
Financial Samurai says
Ah, the fine line between believing in oneself and being delusional. It’s always tricky!
When do you plan to go traveling again? Btw, awesome interview with Wandering Earl. Awesome site!
John Bardos says
We leave for Europe in July.
Financial Samurai says
Most excellent! I’d love to follow your journey. Hope the volcanos cooperate!
I definitely agree that dedicated effort plays a huge part in what we accomplish and whether or not we succeed. That said, you don’t really understand the science you’re talking about.
Humans aren’t monkeys. “Monkey” describes specific parvorders of simians. By definition, it excludes hominoids (apes), which is the superfamily humans belong to.
Humans are actually about 99.5% similar to each other; and though the genetic variation is small, dismissing it is fairly ignorant. Humans are 98% similar to chimpanzees. Merely observing the vast differences that 2% variation renders between them and us should give you some clue to the implications of that 0.5% human genetic variation. The idea that every person is equally suited to every opportunity ignores a lot of what we know about evolution, genetics, and human biology in general. Scott and That Kind of Girl have already given some good examples.
John Bardos says
Thanks for the discussion.
I guess a didn’t convey the message of my post very well. 🙁 I didn’t expect this to be a scientific discussion. I was trying to write a personal development post. However, it is interesting to debate so thank you for taking the time to comment.
This is the message I was trying to say;
Elite performers in virtually every field operate at such a high level that it can be demotivating for novices. “Tiger Woods is a natural born golfer so why should I even try to compete.”
I think many people give up before they even start. I was hoping to show that for most aspects of every day life, genetic make up probably doesn’t matter very much. (For example, blogging, entrepreneurship, teaching, lifestyle design, travel)
Of course, humans are not monkeys. Of course, not every person is equally suited to every opportunity. Yes. Yes. Yes.
However, for most of the things most of us want to accomplish, good old fashioned hard work goes a long way. If you want to be a better musician practice more. If you want to lose weight, exercise and eat healthy food.
Productive practice can make almost everyone improve substantially in every field. I also believe that ‘productive practice’ is a far greater indicator of future success than DNA.
I wanted to convey that you shouldn’t give up just because of a belief that you are genetically unsuited to a particular activity. I guess I missed the mark.
I love the “you are what you do” bit at the end. Are we all training to become world-class channel surfers? Brilliant.
John Bardos - JetSetCitizen says
What no disagreement? 🙂
Thanks for taking the time to comment Randy. I appreciate it.
I agree that you hard work is key to success in life and doing what you want to do, but would also agree with That Girl about the over-simplicity and one-sidedness of the statement being hard to digest.
This whole arena is a Nature vs. Nurture discussion. Each one of us has a proclivity towards one thing or another. Example: I am terrible at painting. I have tried and practiced for years to improve my painting skills, and I am no better now than I was 5 years ago when I started – despite the hours and hours of practice I put in. Another example inspired by your post: My uncle is absolutely tone-deaf, and is terrible at singing, even though he loves to sing. However, even after spending close to 30 years practicing and singing weekly in the church choir, he is still a terrible singer.
We each have a bent towards something that is more natural and comfortable to each of us. In the science of Neuroplasticity, it says that habits and expertise are formed by creating faster synapse neural pathways that are grooved into our brain after hours and hours of practice. These “grooved” pathways allow synapse to happen more quickly, thus leading to greater brain function and the resulting action. However, the study of neuroplasticity also recognizes that all brains are different, process information at different speeds, and fire synapse differently, leading to differing proclivities among individuals.
My point is that your argument completely ignores the Nature aspect of the discussion. In this discussion there are Naturists and Nurturists that argue that it is only one or the other. You either are born with greatness, or you learn greatness – completely ignoring the possibility that it is in fact a combination of the two. Your article is a complete Nurture argument which, I think, flies in the face of the entire Nature side of the discussion a lot of science that supports it.
John Bardos - JetSetCitizen says
As I mentioned in my response to That Kind of Girl, yes ‘nature’ plays a role is some cases but for most of the choices we make it is almost non-existent. Showing up to swim practice and putting in 100% effort every single day gets you to the Olympics. Genetic advantages put you a fraction of a second ahead of your competitors. Most of us never make it to the Olympics so those genetic differences don’t matter much.
The idea that we have a natural proclivity towards particular things is also addressed in detail in the books Outliers and Bounce. Studies show that it is just not true. The Williams sisters tennis stars are the result of their father making a decision to create tennis stars. He saw how much money tennis players make and decided to create tennis stars of his daughters when they were still babies. He didn’t even have a background in tennis.
There is another story in Bounce of a Hungarian that wanted to prove to the world that great chess players are created not born. He advertised to find a wife to support his ‘experiment’ of raising girls to be chess masters before they were even born. This was at a time when most thought women were genetically inferior in chess. Through thousands of hours of training he and his wife created two female world class chess players when girls didn’t even play chess.
Bounce and Outliers both address the ‘proclivity’ argument as well. It is not only the quantity of hours expended towards an activity, quality counts too. Going to the gym for three hours a day is not particularly effective if you spend most of your time talking to your friends and don’t bother isolating your muscles effectively. Another person with the right training and coaching can likely achieve better results in a fraction of the time.
A key factor in Tiger Woods success is repetitive and focused drills with expert coaches so he can monitor and learn from small adjustments in his stroke. Tiger is not just going out drinking with his golf buddies.
I have played guitar for 25 years. Two years ago I found a great teacher that helped me improve more than the first 23 years of my playing. It wasn’t until I had an expert point out simple and rudimentary skills that I could see for myself what I was doing wrong.
People often confuse, “10 years experience” with “1 year of experience, 10 times.” You need to be actively trying to improve to really become great at something.
Genetic advantages are not going to make us better bloggers. We just need to put in the hours and gain the right skills and knowledge. That comes from ‘productive practice.’ A little luck helps a lot too.
Bounce and Outliers are both great books with many more examples. I highly recommend them.
That Kind Of Girl says
I like your pro-hard-work position, but you seem to have gotten a little bit confused in your argument. The fact that humans are 99.9% genetically identical to monkeys is a charming little factoid designed to slap some humility into mankind’s hubris; it is in no way intended to suggest that humans are all identical to each other, genetically or otherwise.
When you suggest that people are essentially identical — no one more intelligence than another, no one more creative — you are ignoring the legacy of much scientific research and also of common sense and observation. Can’t you think of families in which there are multiple children, raised the same way by the same parents, in which one child is more smarter or creative than another?
You seem to be suggesting that our failures in personality and potential stem from lack of hard work and self-fulfilling prophecies when we decide we do not excel in areas. Why, then, are there strong emergent personality traits that differentiate toddlers from each other? They are not yet in the work-hard stage of life, nor are they so socially conscious that they would have started making any series of decisions to limit their personality.
Your refusal to acknowledge the very real differences between people is frankly baffling. Surely you would be willing to admit that people look different to one another, right? That some people are born more attractive that others? That some people are born healthier than others, some with body parts that are genetically designed to be problematic? (Personally, if all of our lungs are identical, I’d happy trade mine for someone else’s “identical” one, because mine keeps deflating every time I get on a dang airplane…)
Scientists don’t know for sure what controls intelligence or the innate parts of personality, but it is exceedingly plausible that at least some aspects of these factors are controlled by genetics or by the hormones we are exposed to in vitro (hormones being, of course, physically produced and a result of all of our different bodies). I find it ludicrous that someone living in the modern age with even an understanding of genetics gleaned from half-hour sitcoms (not that such is necessarily your standing, but as an extreme) could hold that humans are genetically identical to one another. The notion is patently false at the merest hint of examination.
Like I said, I like your point that hard work is the greatest step in success, and I agree that with hard work we can make up for many of the shortcomings that innately exist in our personalities. But to deny that these shortcomings exist in nature — worse, to suggest that their existence is the fault of bad decision-making on the fault of the person who possesses them — is short-sighted and ultimately insulting.
John Bardos - JetSetCitizen says
WOW! Fantastic comment. I appreciate you taking so much time to continue the discussion.
The point I was trying to make is that nurture is much stronger than nature with a few obvious exceptions. (Disabilities, diseases, height advantages, etc.) Those exceptions are outlier cases and have little influence on the vast majority of people.
Great books like Outliers, Bounce and Fooled by Randomness have countless examples of people who are commonly perceived as uniquely talented geniuses but often just had better opportunities. (Luck + Hard Work = Success)
I will respond to some of your objections here.
“Can’t you think of families in which there are multiple children, raised the same way by the same parents, in which one child is more smarter or creative than another?”
It is impossible to raise children in exactly the same way. Every new child completely changes the family dynamics. The interactions and relationships between all family members influences the type of person you become. For example, the first child will have had a lot more attention and coddling than following children.
“You seem to be suggesting that our failures in personality and potential stem from lack of hard work and self-fulfilling prophecies when we decide we do not excel in areas.”
I don’t think there are ‘failures’ in personality or potential. We all have the freedom to choose how we want to live our lives. I also don’t believe in self-fulfilling prophecies, that is more of a ‘nature’ argument.
“Your refusal to acknowledge the very real differences between people is frankly baffling.”
I agree that people are different. Some have blonde hair, some are tall, some speak Chinese. Some are stronger and some are weaker. Yes, we are different in that sense.
However, the reason Bill Gates is a billionaire is not because his fingers are genetically predisposed to typing on a keyboard. The reason the Beatles become so successful is not because they had uniquely hip hair. Wall Street traders don’t make millions because they are genetically hundreds of times more productive than workers making thousands of dollars.
The books Bounce and Outliers both point out that the only important difference between good musicians and great musicians is number of hours of practice. Put in 10,000 hours of productive practice and you will reach the top of your field.
There is always, always, a set of circumstances that help great successes get where they are. Tiger Woods is successful because of his father and years of hard work, not because of some innate genetic make up.
“I find it ludicrous that someone living in the modern age with even an understanding of genetics gleaned from half-hour sitcoms (not that such is necessarily your standing, but as an extreme) could hold that humans are genetically identical to one another. The notion is patently false at the merest hint of examination.”
I didn’t say ‘genetically identical.’ I said 99.9% identical. That is fact. Every single human can be traced back to the same location in Africa some 60,000 years ago. We are all related if you go back far enough. No race is better than another, we are all equal. Different, but equal.
“to suggest that their existence is the fault of bad decision-making on the fault of the person who possesses them — is short-sighted and ultimately insulting.”
I apologize if you found the post insulting. That wasn’t my intention.
I don’t think any decision-making is good or bad. We are all free to make our own choices in the world. Whether or not someone chooses to become an Olympic athlete or world class hot dog eater is not good or bad. It is their own individual choice. It is not a ‘fault’ nor a ‘bad’ decision.
I like to play chess on the computer instead of doing work sometimes. I don’t think that makes me an inferior person. However, it does reduce the amount of time I could be working on other projects. Perhaps I should have played less chess and spent more time trying to articulate my point in this blog post. 🙂
Sure they are genetic differences in people. Stephen Hawking can’ t compete with Brad Pitt in acting because of very real differences. However, Hawking still managed to reach the pinnacle of his field. He could have said, ‘I don’t look like a movie star, so what is the point in trying.”
A sumo wrestler may not have had the opportunity to be a ballet dancer, but that is an extreme example. For the average person those genetic differences have little bearing on our life choices. It doesn’t matter if you are tall or short if you want to write a best-selling book. It doesn’t matter if you are handsome or ugly if you want to create a popular Internet service. You don’t need to be blonde and blue-eyed to have a successful business. For most of us in developed countries, our success is limited only by our own imagination and work ethic.
As a society, we venerate celebrities and successful people as if they were super-human. Well they are not. Even the Queen of England has to go to the toilet and trim her toe nails. She doesn’t have a genetic advantage in Queeness. She is just likely to come from the right family.
Great chess players, great golfers, great business people, great musicians are made, not born.
Thanks again for the comment! I love the discussion.
Anthony Feint says
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’ve found I let others define who I am and I really should be letting my actions define me.