I have an idea where this guy is going to go with it, if it includes some stuff I read from the Freakonomics guys. Alas, dear fellows, not all of us can grow up to be Tiger Woods, even if we had the same coaching and practice as he had. It's true that one must work hard to achieve full potential - true for anybody - but it's not true that we can all achieve the same amount, if only we had been given that leg up. No, sorry, there's no untapped genius inside each of us, as nice as it is to think so.
To give you an example, Siobhan can recognize most of the capital letters. She turns 2 next month. Yes, she wouldn't have been able to do this if we didn't have ABC books, "Here Come the ABCs", and Sesame Street bombarding her every day. But do you really think that if every kid were exposed similarly, they'd also be able to recognize their letters? Have you actually been around kids?
His bit on the narrowness of greatness is true, but it does miss a point. To be at the top in one field, generally you have to follow that to the exclusion of others...uh, duh. This does not mean such a person could not excel in similar fields if they had picked the other fields instead. But to give an example - anybody with good numerical skills could pass the preliminary actuarial exams. You would think Milton Friedman would be one such, but no, he failed the one actuarial exam he attempted. Which would seem to be an indictment, except he didn't bother to study for the exam.
Yes, there's "talent" and "potential", but there's also specific facts and skillsets you have to build up. You have to work at it.
Shenk keeps referring to this as "memory", but I think he's missing it. I can remember all sorts of details about Austen and Dickens and relate it to various concepts, but I'm really bad with remembering dates (I still don't have Siobhan's birthday down fully in my mind, and there's a reason I have my wedding date in my wedding ring.) It's a matter of what I'm paying attention to. I remember what I read, if it's structured writing, best of all. Some people can have great memories but do not know how to do anything with it. Think of the guy in Rain Man - could remember all sorts of facts that he read in almanacs, but it didn't mean anything in terms of what he could accomplish. It took others to actually make use of his memory.
What gets me is that when it comes to purely physical feats, such as running the 50m, people will recognize that there's a huge genetic component to whether you can be an Olympic gold medalist. Yes, you have to train a lot, but a woman with short, stubby legs like mine would never get a medal in a sprint in the Olympics. No matter how hard I trained.
In short, it comes down to this: if you want to be really, really good in a field, you have to work at it. And it helps if you actually find it interesting. But there will be an upper limit to what you can reasonably achieve in a finite lifetime. Some people have higher innate potential in certain areas of human achievement than others (whether distance running or playing music). That said, I believe a lot of "normal" people can achieve far more than they generally do. The question is, do they really want to make the effort? Maybe they're happier watching TV or playing their Nintendo Wii, rather than practicing the skills that would make them the top.