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!


3 thoughts on “The Hard-Working Gene

  1. התכוונת למשהו? למישהו? לא באיזשהו מקום זה מה שעושים עם הריטאלין ? נשיקות

    1. My mom makes an excellent point (thanks mom!). I’ll translate: she points out that Ritalin has similar properties. Yes, Ritalin does affect brain chemistry. However, Ritalin ( does not changes the brain cells themselves. It blocks the process in which dopamine and norepinephrine (another neurotransmitter) are being reabsorbed into the cells, but the treatment I described actually changed the brain cells themselves – the treatment reduces the number of dopamine receptors (the mechanism that receives the message) in the brain. This may sound like a small difference, but the implications are that when the gene that is responsible for the number of receptors is found, you can change this permanently. After you stop taking Ritalin, your brain returns to its previous structure. However, if you change the number of receptors you are changing the structure of your brain.

      Chemical and biological concerns aside, there’s another important difference. While ADD (the main reason for someone to take Ritalin) is disruptive to your life (according to the description of people with ADD – here’s an example: Conversely, procrastinating is not necessarily disruptive to your life. You can have a perfectly happy (and possibly successful) life without being a workaholic.

Lay it on me!

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