Nature or Nurture

When approaching the upper reaches of human performance, whether we realize it or not, forward progress tends to plane out and settle near an equilibrium.  To see this balance in action, we need to look no further than apex level athletes, and how their stats and achievements tend to coalesce where no single competitor holds a dramatic edge over another.  As this balance occurs, it is clear there is something affecting this “upper limit” of performance development.

We all know about genetics and the predisposition of certain inherited traits.  Some of those traits exist as minor cosmetic quirks, such as freckles or male pattern baldness, and yet others can manifest as incapacitating disorders such as Cystic Fibrosis or Huntington’s Disease.

Of the 20,000 or so known human genes, there are certainly those that also influence our physical abilities. These traits exist in a wide spectrum spanning from our ratio of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers to our aerobic fitness capability.  These same genes also punctuate the upper limit to what is considered achievable.  For example, as an oversimplification, it explains why sprinters can’t burst onto the freeway at 60 MPH and why swimmers haven’t trained their way into breathing underwater.

Albeit true that there are incremental gains with every passing generation, simple genetics have limited man with a certain musculature and organ structure that simply do not permit us to reach beyond certain confines.

Fortunately for us, however, with varying degrees of effort, many of these genetic traits that would otherwise exist as limitations can be hacked and overridden.  Obesity is a good example of this.  Despite obesity being around 70% heritable, (height is 80% heritable, to provide some perspective), we all know that diet and exercise exerts a much greater influence than our genes alone.

Is it easy?  Hell no.  Watching somebody who is not genetically susceptible to weight gain eat Oreos, ice cream and drink beer every weekend while staying lean is hard.  But, as they say, “if it were easy, everyone would do it,” right?  This is where we summon grit and determination to slap genetics in the face, and the results are infinitely more rewarding.

There is no doubt there are those in life who are naturally gifted.  For some, it might be strength.  For others, it might be speed, agility, physique or intellect.  But for every one person blessed with favorable genetics, there are many more of us who must train and sacrifice twice as hard to keep up.  It’s the old adage of “nature versus nurture.”

Nevertheless, regardless of whether our progress is a result of “nature,” or by our efforts, and “nurture,” the vast majority of us are nowhere near our genetic limitations.  I’m not and you’re not.  The takeaway should be that somewhere in that great divide between your current progress and your true genetic potential is where the real war is waged.  In that divide, as you put one foot in front of the other, day in and day out, your results and forward progress will always follow.

In our own lives, as we work toward our own goals, the math is simple:  No matter what genes you are blessed, or cursed with, through determination and grit, our performance can ALWAYS improve.  As long as we keep pushing toward a goal, we will always be better than we were yesterday.


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