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  • Is It Really a Tenacity Gene, or Merely an Example of Flow and Using Strengths?
  • The Sports Gene by David Epstein is a book that can be of interest to business readers, even to those with little or no interest in sports. Despite its sports focus, the book does have implications for business.

    Two key points that have been publicized in conjunction with the book are:

      1. The well known 10,000 hours of practice allegedly required for success is not that important because genes determine how we respond to training.
      2. There's a gene for tenacity and work ethic.

    I was initially attracted to the book because I was curious about what it said regarding the 10,000 hours of practice that has been widely publicized as a requirement for success. My 25+ years of research into business success and failure patterns--which included the role of experience, learning, and strengths in business success--had already convinced me that 10,000 hours of practice was not necessarily an absolute requirement, since success comes from building on strengths. But, I had not previously heard of a tenacity/work ethic gene.

    The book discusses all sorts of interesting research into what makes sports stars so successful. In a chapter subtitled "10,000 Hours Plus or Minus 10,000 Hours", the book explains that genetic makeup can determine how much training will be required for success. Based on their genes, some people can achieve tremendous success with far less than the supposedly required 10,000 hours of practice.

    One of the most intriguing concepts publicized in conjunction with the book is the existence of a tenacity/work ethic gene. This is based on the book's example of sled dogs that successfully compete in the Iditarod, a 1000+ mile race in Alaska. During the race, sled dogs must endure winter weather conditions so severe that some contestants never make it all the way to the end.

    The tenacity gene is a fascinating concept. But, I have to ask whether what the book describes is really a tenacity gene. It doesn't seem to fit the definition of tenacity, but to me, looks more like the concept of flow, which was popularized by then University of Chicago professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

    Flow is a state of working where someone is deeply absorbed in the work. They get lost in their work and keep working for hours without noticing time go by. The work comes so naturally to them that they just don't want to stop. And, being in a state of flow is often associated with tremendous success.

    The so called tenacity gene sled dogs were bred by Lance Mackey, whose limited finances only permitted him to own dogs thought to be too slow to race successfully. Mackey noticed that some of these dogs seemed to have a need to keep running and running. Although they ran slower than dogs bred for speed, their natural inclination was such that they had the urge to constantly run. By their very nature, they just had to be in motion. It was unnatural for them not to be running.

    Mackey bred his dogs for this need to run trait. So, due to inbred tendencies, Mackey's dogs kept on running even through the harshest winter weather. And, although slower than other competing dogs, they were Iditarod champions because their natural need to run kept them going when harsh weather sidelined the competition.

    This trait of the sled dogs has been described in the media as a tenacity gene or a work ethic gene. But, based on definitions, I find it a bit misleading to view these dogs as having a tenacity or a work ethic gene. Dictionary sources list perseverance as a synonym for tenacity and define perseverance as persisting despite obstacles. It's true that these running bred dogs persisted despite obstacles of harsh weather conditions. And, their inbred need to run might keep going in the face of other obstacles as well.

    However, what happens when the obstacle is a situation requiring these dogs to remain still for a long period of time? Perhaps, this is necessary to avoid a predator. Perhaps, it is for a race where a portion of the route requires the dog to sit still and be transported across an area of adverse terrain. The exact conditions that might require the dog to remain still do not matter. The point is that, while these dogs can easily overcome obstacles that might interfere with running, their natural urge to run could leave them struggling with obstacles that require them to remain still.

    So, it doesn't seem that these dogs necessarily persevere against obstacles in the way tenacity requires. They only appear to persist with the need to run, which comes naturally to them. This is an advantage in the face of obstacles that prevent other dogs from running. But, there is no indication that these dogs would persist whenever obstacles are more difficult for them to overcome. These dogs were merely bred to run. They were not bred for tenacity to persevere in the face of most obstacles, nor were they bred to have a work ethic that gets the job done when things don't come easy for them.

    Thus, their running performance in the Iditarod seems more like professor Csikszentmihalyi 's concept of flow. The dogs'running is so natural that they just keep at it for long periods of time. They do this despite harsh adverse conditions, very much like someone in a state of flow would be lost in their work and keep going despite what is happening around them. Even Mackey, who bred the need to run dogs, is quoted in the book as saying "they (the dogs) love what they do".

    That said, as someone with a background in business success and failure patterns, I see three important lessons in the above:

      1. First and most importantly, is the value of strengths. Just as businesses succeed by building on strengths, it is strengths that bring the success of dogs racing in the Iditarod. The superior performance of these bred to run dogs occurs because they are competing where they are strong. Competing on strengths can reduce the so called required 10,000 hours of practice. That's a key reason why business strategies based on strengths are so successful. And, for individuals, it is why success often comes from doing what you love.
      2. Ironically, there is even an important business lesson in the specific strengths and weaknesses of these sled dogs. These dogs are strong when required to constantly run, but they'd be weak if required to keep still. Succeeding in business sometimes does require the ability to stop running and to remain still. This might entail taking time to plan, or to focus on the important rather than the urgent. It might mean developing the capability for slow, but steady progress over a long period of time, rather than occasional hasty jumps forward. Or, it might entail the strength to temper the bias for action and do nothing when the opportunities presented are not really a good fit.
      3. Confusion about definitions can muddle the issue when trying to understand and apply success principles. As is the case with the definition of tenacity in the dog sled example above, it helps to clarify definitions in order to best know how to apply business concepts and principles.

    In conclusion, the Sports Gene book discusses fascinating research about how the 10,000 hours of practice is not always necessary for success. The many examples and discussion support the notion that strengths really matter for success. And, the book offers a fascinating explanation of how the strengths to succeed in sports are often genetic, and are sometimes due to other conditions like a child growing up in a high altitude mountainous area. It's an enjoyable book that I encourage you to read.

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