Genetics x Environment

Jun 22, 2022

David Shenk's book The Genius in All of Us 

may be my favorite of what I like to call “the talent series”.  Over the past few years I have read Outliers, Talent Code, Talent is Overrated and The Genius in All of Us. I liked them all but if forced to recommend one I would go with Genius in All of Us.

The key concept that differentiated Genius in All of Us from all the other talent books was what Shenk referred to simply as G x E.   

He states that success is not the result of superior genetics or superior environments but instead is a result of multiplying the two. Rather than an either/or, nature/nurture argument, Shenk presents the environment as a multiplier of the genetic factor or factors.

In his view it is neither genetic gifts nor a great environment that creates high performers.

Instead it is rather the combined effect. According to Shenk success is not a result of addition (genetics + environment) but rather the more powerful effect of multiplication (genetics x environment).  To see the numerical effect think that 10+10= 20 while 10 x 10 equals 100. The multiplicative effect of a superior environment is five times greater in this case.

Too often we hear about the children of professional athletes or other great performers being “born” to do something. The reality is these kids are the genetic 10s. Luckily for the rest of the world it is still the environment that creates the multiplier. The child of a high performer, neglected, could emerge average. The child of a great coach (him or herself maybe only a 7 or 8 on the genetic scale) who goes to the field or practice every day (a potential environmental 10) may flourish. Environment is both the great equalizer and the great multiplier.

The bad news is that if the scale is based on low of 1 and a high of 10, a genetic 2 might only the potential to be a 20.

A genetic 10 may emerge as a 100 when placed in a superior environment.

This tells us why some kids may work extremely hard and not achieve success in sports while the more talented kid achieves more with very little apparent effort. Genetics is an advantage and environment a potential equalizer and multiplier. 

Why is this so concept of G x E so important?

Because we can't change genetics. The genetic packages (athletes) we receive as teachers or coaches are predestined. Mom and dad are already determined. We can however create environments that encourage excellence.


In the sports world we think that the best environment might be the best team or the best coach. However, that is not always true. The best environment is the one in which the athlete flourishes. I have seen hundreds of athletes stagnate by being forced to play against superior competition that they were not ready for. This was theoretically done to improve the environment. 

My friend Kevin Neeld had a great point for sports parents.

If your child is not one of the 5 best players on a team, they should be on a lower team.  For many parents this seems insane. “Move my kid down?” Exactly. Move him or her done to a level where they can excel. Get him or her to the right environment to foster optimal development. 

I am a parent. I have never fought about placement of my children on teams, even when I thought the placement was incorrect. It is up to the athlete to prove to the observers that they were misplaced, not up to the parent. 

As parents we think that a “better” (and by better we think more competitive) environment will produce the best results.

However, a proper environment will produce the best results. A better coach might be the one who is the best teacher, not the one with the best win-loss record. For my own daughter's six years of youth ice hockey we have avoided putting her on the best teams. The best teams are often win-at-all-cost, crazy parent dominated, environments dedicated to winning trophies and mythical youth championships. These teams are stacked with the best players, the best jackets, and rarely lose. Probably not a great developmental environment. Losing at the youth level is desirable. It provides teachable moments. An undefeated season provides few.

One last word. Before placing your child, do like they say on the label. Consider the environment.