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12 Traits You Thought Were Inherited—but Aren’t

While it's natural—not to mention convenient—to blame your genes for any shortcomings, you're out of luck, say the experts. Genetics can't account for your clumsiness or inability to remember your spouse's birthday.

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Writing in Notebook Close Up. Pencil in Children Hand.

“I’m not a math person”

While your DNA can play a measurable role in how you learn, genetics are much more about general learning ability than your knack for mastering particular subjects, reports the Los Angeles Times. According to the Atlantic, basic math ability depends on “hard work, preparation, and self-confidence,” not winning the genetic lottery.

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Closeup of Two Business Men Shaking Hands

“I’m just bad with names”

You’re not born with the inability to remember—so don’t try blaming your genes for forgetting your wedding anniversary, either! Time and time again, scientists show that our brainpower is not fixed in biology. WebMD reports that although genetics play a part, the main memory gene accounts for “relatively minor differences in brain function.” Factors we can control include diet, sleep, stress management, physical exercise, and cognitive exercises like learning new skills. According to Psychology Today, there are several effective ways to train your working memory—the kind that retains phone numbers and names—like with these 14 weird brain exercises.

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artist painting with acrylic colors and mixing tones on the pallet. blur background abstract photo
Martins Vanags/Shutterstock

“I don’t have a creative bone in my body!”

No, creative thinking cannot simply be explained away by genetics: Developing creativity has much more to do with motivation and personal interest. Edward Glassman, PhD, a geneticist and Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says it is a “major myth” that creativity is largely inherited. “Most people with reasonable mental ability can become more creative” by developing creative thinking skills. These include the ability to keep an open mind, generate ideas, and use a variety of problem-solving tactics. We’ll help you get started: here are 10 ways to boost creative thinking.

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Detailed view on leather mitt glove and ball. Baseball equipment for catching a pitch.
Yuriy Golub/Shutterstock

“I can’t catch!”

In an NPR interview, David Epstein, author of the book The Sports Gene, says our reflexes needed for catching or hitting a baseball are a learned skill. “Even the best hitters in the world have perfectly pedestrian reaction times,” he notes. Anyone can learn how to read body language and other perceptual queues to get better at catching.

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Spanish; Learning New Language with Fruits Name Flash Cards
Eiko Tsuchiya/Shutterstock

“I don’t have an ear for languages.”

Quoi? We’ve already covered how genes do play a role in general learning ability, and learning another language is no exception. But don’t blame the “language gene” for your poor español—research on language learning shows that the gene is only one piece of a larger brain science puzzle. Research published in publications like Procedia and the Modern Language Journal suggest that what matters most is your attitude.

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A person drawing a line with a pencil on a white background

“I have no natural artistic ability”

According to an article in LiveScience, with practice, people can improve all of the mental processes required to draw well. These include remembering visual information, making informed choices about exactly which elements to draw, and perhaps the most important skill, learning how to see differently. If you’ve ever found yourself complaining that you “can’t draw a straight line,” repeat this mantra: Practice makes perfect.

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Close Up Of Teacher And Children's Feet In Ballet Dancing Class

“I can’t dance—I have two left feet”

A study from the University of Washington suggests that people judge dancers based upon the symmetry of their bodies (a sign of genetics), but the study did not detect a connection between DNA and dancing ability. According to research published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, “differences in early experiences, preferences, opportunities, habits, training, and practice are the real determinants of excellence” in dance. In other words, it’s never too late to audition for So You Think You Can Dance.

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hand planting pumpkin seed of marrow in the vegetable garden

“I don’t have a green thumb”

“Gardening, like many things in life, is merely a developed skill,” says Nikki Phipps, author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden. The website EcoMyths also shoots down the idea that green thumbs are born, not made by breaking gardening down into its individual learnable skills.

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Hands on keyboard

“I’m not tech savvy”

You may think you’re naturally bad at grasping new technology, but in reality, the skill sets you need to excel in computer science aren’t hardwired into your DNA the same way, say, your eye color is. The New York Times explains that “scientists are made, not born.” For evidence, they point to the recent generations of women scientists excelling right along with men—not because their genes suddenly changed, but because of the “choices and opportunities” newly available to them. Women still play a big role in when it comes to teaching kids—science has even confirmed that kids get their intelligence from mom.

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Selective focus man's hand on steering wheel, driving a car at sunset. Travel background
Kostenko Maxim/Shutterstock

“I’m a bad driver—it’s genetic”

In an attempt to find a relationship between a particular gene, driving, and memory, Stanford at the Tech (The Tech is a museum of innovation) reports that genes aren’t directly related to motor skills. The researchers admit genes have “been shown to affect a person’s mood, attention, and anxiety,” but the key word is “affect”: Clearly there are many other factors at play, like practice and focus.

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Photo of Watch your step sign on a staircase and a pair of feet with shoes

“I’m a klutz!”

No matter how accident-prone you think you are, you weren’t born that way. Experts at WebMD explains that coordination requires the muscular, skeletal, and nervous systems all working together. A process that complex could hardly be reliant on just one or two genes. The University of Delaware found that injury-prone athletes generally had worse memory skills and slower reaction times and processing speeds. Those are skills anyone can work to improve. But do talk to your doctor if you think your lack of grace is out of the ordinary. Your parents might not be to blame for your klutz-like ways, but your birth order could be the reason for these health issues.

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Mobile Phone with Map GPS Navigation in Car

“I’m directionally challenged”

Our sense of direction is based on memory, not DNA. There are two types of memory we use to navigate, according to WebMD. One is object memory, such as remembering to turn left at the gas station. The other is spatial memory, like knowing to go 100 yards north, then turn east. “Your brain can find your way using either or both,” and they are both skills you can improve through practice. Want to boost your memory? Try these 15 exercises proven to keep your brain sharp.