Pacific Jewish Center | Rabbi

The Rabbi on the Beach @ The Shul on the Beach

Genius: The Modern View and the Torah View

The most emailed column on today is this column on genius. In this Op-Ed column, from David Brooks the old question of nature vs. nurture is raised.

Are there people born with elevated talents and skill or are some people the lucky ones who were in the right place at the right time and were nurtured into their high level abilities?

I am not sure what compelled Mr. Brooks to write this column, it seems random and disconnected from today’s news.

It did remind me of a couple of posts I had written in the very early stages of this blog.

I started this blog in December 2008 and I had just read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Judd Magilnick sent me a column written by David Brooks with his opinion of the book. Brooks held that Gladwell was oversimplifying things and Gladwell was ignoring much of our innate abilities.

It seems like Brooks has had a change of heart. Today he writes that genius is not inborn, rather is a byproduct of effort.

(Please make up your mind.)

I am not here to nitpick at Brooks. I was just thinking about all this and it made me want to articulate the Torah approach to this issue.

“We hold these self-truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. – United States of America Declaration of Independence.

I do not agree. Not all people are created equal. Everyone deserves equal respect, everyone deserves equal opportunities for happiness, but not everyone is equal in every way.

Some people are born rich, some poor. Some people are born intelligent and some are born dumb. Some people are tall, short, handsome, beautiful, fat, skinny, light, dark, left handed, right handed, American, Somali, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, funny, bland, fast, slow, common sensical, socially awkward, the list does not end…

Our starting place in life is predetermined by our family and our genes. What we do from that moment on is the result of the choices that we make.

The only thing in which we are all equal is in our opportunity to make choices.

We can make ourselves into anything if we make the right choices to get there.

The thing that we cannot control is where we begin. Our job in life is to take our talents, preferences, abilities, intellect, insight, physical gifts and make the right choices.

So, genius is not pure nature, but nature helps.

The Torah approach is that we make ourselves into what we are but our circumstances that we cannot control weigh heavily. We cannot choose where or when or to whom we are born, all we can do is make the right choices with our slice of the universe.

Mozarts, Einsteins, Michael Jordans are born different. They are born with talents that not everyone has. But so are many other people who never amounted to anything. They may have been born to situations that prevented them from working on those talents or maybe they never even knew that they had those talents.

Finally, Brooks is right on the money in terms of repetition and practice being the most important skill one can possess. Gladwell talks about this in terms of the 10,000 hour rule. “Practice makes better”, and the more one can practice the greater one can hone their talents.

In Yeshiva, Talmudic skills of analysis are worked on for years. Hours of studying with the same logical method for months and years makes an impact. Most adults who went through the Yeshiva system are able to study Talmud like second nature. In fact many have the custom of studying 1 folio per day. This is called the Daf Yomi and it is only possible because for nearly all adult observant Jews, the study of Talmud became second nature. We all have different levels of intellect, but the hours that we have put into developing our skills trumps our intelligence or lack thereof. Talmud study is a skill that is almost expected in observant Jews repertoires – it is only possible because of the time and effort made practicing the skill.

I have witnessed this in Law School as well. Lawyering is a skill that must be developed. To see and understand issues and how to apply the law to facts are skills one must acquire in the first year of law school. My entire section is bright; everyone is smart, the key is to develop the skills for good lawyering.

The only way to develop those skills is with practice. Reading and discussing cases is part of the development, exam writing and memo writing are other ways of honing these skills. We need to spend time, effort and work hard to develop those skills.

First one to 10,000 hours wins…

Filed under: All Posts, Musings & Observations, , , ,

5 Responses

  1. Rena Konheim says:

    The phrase All men are created equal in the declaration of independence was a paraphrase of Philip Mazzei “All men are by nature equally free and independent. Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government.
    All men must be equal to each other in natural law”. Under the law is implied in the argument against the devine right of kings. It is unfortunate this is not clear in the original document – it may have been deluted by concern over its application to slavery – but we unnecessarly bring it up in discussions of varring human abbilities

    • rabbifink says:

      I appreciate your insight into the phrase. I agree that equality is necessary for the creation of a free government and that is what the document means. My point is only that equality of rights is not connected with equality of talent or ability.

      When we hear ideas like “All men are created equal” and “you can become anything you want” or “in America your dreams are your only limitation” I think there tends to be an overemphasis on these ideas and then it can be translated into a fallacy which I am debunking in the article.

      Of course it is unnecessary to raise the point. I do feel it helps raise the issue, maybe in an artistic sort of way, not a technical way.

      I do appreciate your insight and I hope you continue to share your thoughts on this blog.


  2. Sharon Rosenfield says:

    I do not think anyone initially makes a “bad choice”. We all hope to make the right choice. Unfortunately, at a time when choice is so vital, the human being does not always have the skills emotionally, cognitively, and psychologically to always make the right choice. We only make choices – there is no good or bad choice it is just a choice made in time and space.

  3. […] Beings Are Social Beings I have had my critiques of David Brooks from the NY […]

  4. […] of my favorite authors is Malcolm Gladwell. Previously, I have had quite a few Gladwell posts (check those out) on this blog. This is […]

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May 2009

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