The Hard-Working Gene

Should you teach your child to work hard? Can you?

John Irving said that writing is one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline. Recently I read a piece saying that Ryan Lochte could never be Michael Phelps (not enough talent, apparently). Existential debate aside, which one is the right approach to life? Is hard work enough to become great? Or, regardless of how hard you work, you can never be as talented as some people? And, particularly relevant to this blog, which approach should you teach your child?

There’s a lot to be said for talent development and hard work. No one turned out to be the next Albert Einstein by sitting on the couch and watching TV. True story. On a similar note, I wrote here recently that I object to Kreider’s view that idleness promotes creativity and innovation. I think that to be really great you have to have a great talent. However, you also have to work hard to develop it. There are probably at least a few people in the world who are as talented as Michael Phelps but never developed that talent and so we would never hear of them.

Effort is a Choice?

We see talent as something we cannot control and cannot change. Effort, on the other hand, is something that you choose to put in. Right?

Then again, there are people who work hard and people who do not. And the difference between them may not be in the education or values their parents taught them. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health were able to transform “lazy” monkeys into “workaholic” monkeys by messing with their DNA. Specifically, they gave “lazy” monkeys a treatment that reduced their dopamine receptors in a specific area of the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical that transmits messages among brain cells, called neurons), and it is related mostly to learning and motivation. What the researchers did was to create a kind of a learning deficit in the lazy monkeys that made them “work” (press a lever) harder all the time, and not only when the reward was nearing. In other words, the monkeys stopped procrastinating.

Assuming that hard work is the path to fulfilling your potential, would you teach your children to work as hard as they can? Do their best?

Now, consider the monkeys research I just described. Would you take a pill that would make you stop procrastinating? A pill that would turn you into a workaholic? Assuming that this hypothetical pill is developmentally safe (that is, it will have no side effects or long-term side effects), will you give it to your child to get them to work harder and fulfil their potential? I would love to hear what you think!

@2015 - Gal Podjarny