Alan Duff: Are you a member of lucky sperm club?

But it takes more than talent to make a sports star or Nobel Prize winner
Richie McCaw is a genetic wonder. Photo / Getty Images
Richie McCaw is a genetic wonder. Photo / Getty Images

One of the world's richest people, Warren Buffett, says those who grow up rich are "members of the lucky sperm club". He doesn't see that as reason to leave his children his $55 billion-plus fortune - virtually all of it is going to charity.

Every top sportsperson is also in that lucky sperm club, including our own sports freaks. Lord Rutherford would not have split the atom without being born with an exceptional brain. A donkey will never win the Melbourne Cup. Those of ordinary intellect do not win the Nobel Prize in any of the sciences. Horse breeders and sheep and cattle farmers mix and cull on genetic trends.

I owe my writing career to genes, not education. Granddad was a newspaper editor and the founding editor of the NZ Listener, for which in retirement he wrote a well-loved column. My father probably had the writing gene but chose not to make it his career. It saved this fool from himself.

We've all been at schools where a handful of kids stood out, either academically or at sport or both. Gifted kids whom everyone looked up to as gods (if less so the academically gifted).

I still remember the super-smart kids with awe, along with an older boy at one high school who held six national athletic records, was in the 1st XV, and seemed assured of a brilliant sporting career. Yet despite his superior physical genes, it didn't quite pan out. My late brother Kevin was gifted at sports and exceptionally bright. I looked up to him. All his early promise came to nought, however, when he was killed, with our two cousins and three others, in a car crash - the cause of which was drink. My brother had got kind of lost before that premature end at age 25. So lucky genes are not all roses, and a bad home environment can inflict emotional damage that can snuff out the brightest star.

A business mate says he looks less for talent than a team player with not too big an ego. So again, genes ain't the be-all. Any team sport coach will say the same. But the higher up the ladder you go, they play an increasingly important part.

What happens to those school duxes and straight-A students? Are they in the gifted category? I think not. Surveys say most plateau out to muddling along like the rest of us. Talent certainly doesn't guarantee success. Yet without it there are certain things we can't do. Like, be a top-level sportsperson, founder of a big business that keeps growing, a grandmaster chess player, exceptional musician, a brilliant mathematician, a ground-breaking scientist ... Your home environment is a big factor too. Genes are a matter of luck. If Michael Jordan had been born five feet 10 inches and grew up in a white environment, we would never have heard of him.

There's wasted talent which has given rise to the Google question: Whatever happened to so-and-so? We wish we could ask this of our former classmates who made an impression on us. Did they amount to anything? Almost invariably not. For that matter, did you or I?

This is what my grandfather wrote in a Listener column in 1952 of an English writer, Margaret Leigh, whom he had previously admired: "It depresses me when men and women of strong character and great talent give up the struggle between emotion and reason and slip into quietism." Leigh had joined a Carmelite community after a "wracking love experience".

"It means life has beaten them," wrote my grandfather, in sadness and even a little contempt that she had "retreated into silence and prayer". We all know talented people who slipped into obscurity when just a little bit more effort and grit might have taken them out the other side. So something extra is required.

I quote from an International NY Times article: "... researchers pieced together the process by which genes can increase a person's risk of developing schizophrenia". No doubt science will identify, one day, the genes or processes that bless a handful with exceptional talents. The rest of us just have to keep noses to the grindstone.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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