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Intellect: Nature or (self) Nurture?

Do you think of your intellect as something that is fixed: A random lottery of your ancestral genetics, or do you think of it as something to be cultivated? In the book Make it Stick (the science of successful learning) the author's say:

Many people believe that their intellectual ability is hard-wired from birth, and that failure to meet a learning challenge is an indictment of their native ability. But every time you learn something new you change the brain - the residue of your experiences is stored. It’s true that we start life with the gift of our genes, but it’s also true that we become capable though the learning and development of mental models that enable us to reason, solve, and create. In other words, the elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your own control.

The well-known phrase "older and wiser" comes to mind when I ponder this truth. While it is true that at some point we hit cognitive decline, before we hit that point, we have decades to grow our intellect and create mental models to make sense of new information. My oldest daughter has always been very precocious and likely has more than her fair share of smart-person genes (I won't start to try and explain what those are here, and reveal how few of them I might personally have). When she was about 3 we were driving in the car and she was drilling me with unending questions about everything (EVERYTHING!!!) under the sun, and at one point she said to me in all seriousness, "Mom, do you really know more than I do?" I was 32 at the time, and presumably, I knew more than my 3-year-old. She has continued to show an inherent belief that the skies the limit to what she personally can know. If we all had the confidence in our intellectual abilities that she did at 3 would we be better for it? I think so.

Henry Ford famously said:

I love this statement and there is evidence of its truth in the research about growth mindset which I've mentioned before. But I'd like to add to it...If you thought you couldn't and now you think you can, you are also right. You don't have to be born with my daughter's level of self-belief (although it is a gift!). If you believe you can learn, develop and grow your intellect how do you go about doing it? Start with the science behind successful learning, which includes many of the ideas I referenced in this blog post. In order to take action on something you'd like to learn, and test the efficacy of the science of learning try making yourself a quiz over at Quizlet. Or, learn something from the one I just made myself about the trees found in Central Oregon here.


In the wonderful book Me, Myself, and Us by Brian R. Little he says:

The old dichotomy between nature and nurture has given way to a more intricate and intriguing perspective on how we can nurture our nature.

p.s. My kids love to ask would-you-rather questions at dinner time. Here is one for your next dull moment at the dinner table. Would you rather be born smart (genetically above-average intellect) or born believing in your ability to learn?

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