Our talent comes from genetics

Markus Hengstschläger, Professor

Why do we adapt to the average throughout our lives instead of strengthening our individual talents? Markus Hengstschläger, professor of medical genetics at the University of Vienna, advocates biodiversity instead of average madness. "We need more peaks and freaks," says the controversial author. "The immense pressure to adapt makes us dissatisfied, sluggish and sick." Download the PDF file

Mr. Hengstschläger, you were a doctor of genetics at the age of 24 and your first professorship at the age of 29. Why are you traveling so fast?
MARKUS HENGSTSCHLÄGER: I was very fortunate that the few talents I have were discovered and encouraged early on by my parents and my teachers. And of course I kept to the maxim early on: Practice, practice, practice! If you are not diligent, the most beautiful talents are not of much use. You want to be developed through hard work. I have never considered this work to be a duty because I am passionate about genetics.

In addition to being an expert in human genetics, you are also a well-respected author. In your latest book, “The Average Trap”, you write that anyone can become part of the elite if they develop their talents instead of adapting to the average. It is easy to write like this from a privileged point of view. If you weren't the son of a college professor and a schoolteacher, you might not have made it this far.
Thank God, and unfortunately at the same time, the family home still has a strong influence on whether someone goes to university later or not. Or whether he will bring his talents to bloom in a different environment. But this correlation should be broken. We no longer live in a time when birth alone should decide our chances.

One would actually expect a different line of argument from a geneticist, namely that much is already decided at the time of birth.
We now know that about 50 percent of the IQ depends on our genes and 50 percent on environmental influences. So it really depends on how someone is supported. But we shouldn't just be talking about IQ here. There is only one talent requirement for no significant achievement. Just as important as the IQ are, for example, social skills or perseverance. The decisive factor is whether we as a society offer our children an optimal environment in which to develop their talents. Today we are far from it. Wealthy parents can afford to drive their children to sports, music lessons, and ballet early so they can choose from a wide variety. But many are proud when their child does not attract attention, when it adapts without hesitation. So we keep falling into the average trap. The school system supports this thinking. Everything is designed to eliminate mistakes, nothing to discover talent.

Don't you expect a lot from school when you want to delegate individual talent development to teachers?
It is clear that the school cannot do this on its own in today's system. However, it would already be possible today to promote more strengths instead of using all of our energy to eradicate weaknesses. What happens when a child brings home one very good and four bad grades? One ignores excellence and tries everything to turn bad grades into average ones. A purely deficit-oriented system is hostile to talent and leads us at full throttle into the dead end of the average. This continues until admission to study. The Numerus Clausus, for example, is the wrong way to go in my opinion. Why do you have to have a good grade in geography to become a doctor? Far too much is geared towards the average. But average people don't get a society any further. We need peaks and freaks to face future challenges. If you want to go a new way, you have to leave the old one.

Their children are 13 and 16 years old. Be happy when you come home with four bad grades and one very good grade.
Our children had a very good report this year again. It is important that in such cases you talk about the very good grades and not just the bad grades. Surely the goal cannot be all of it moderate. There are so many undiscovered talent. And the people who own them then become lawyers or computer scientists out of wrong adjustment and security thinking, because they are supposedly always needed. I decided to study genetics in 1986, even though it wasn't very fashionable at the time - for the simple reason that I was passionate about it and brought some skills with me. Unfortunately, many people are content to reproduce something that already exists. You are wasting your talent. Since the future is largely unpredictable, we would do well to position ourselves as broadly as possible as a society. What is needed is not adaptation, but the development of individual strengths. Here I demand a debt from the state: It should support the children in all-day care in finding and developing their talents. Parents are often overwhelmed with this task. We therefore also need state-paid talent scouts.

And after graduating from school or studies, these talented people are supposed to meet the expectations of the economy as good functionaries. In corporations in particular, lateral thinkers are not primarily in demand, but specialists who fill out a narrow range of tasks.
That is a dilemma indeed. We need more rule breakers and lateral thinkers in companies. In theory, everyone knows that human capital or innovation is the most important asset of any company. In practice everything is often designed to be well managed, controlled and administered. Companies that work this way will have little chance of survival. Just as we, as a society made up of nothing but adapted, have no future. Do you know what my dream is?

Tell us.
That parents can be proud again when their children are different. When everyone is different, no one is noticeable anymore. This immense pressure to adapt makes us dissatisfied, sluggish and sick. I miss the desire to create something new, to go my own, individual path. That's what I mean when I say emphatically that anyone can be an elite today. A good craftsman is worth no less than a professor, Lionel Messi may play football like no other, but he probably does not contribute more to solving the problems of this world than you do with your articles or I with my books. I am strictly against any evaluation. The only guideline should be whether we waste or refine our talent.

Contact and information:

The book:
Markus Hengstschläger: The average trap. Genes - Talents - Opportunities. Ecowin, Salzburg 2012.

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