WHO and what is a genius? The label gets thrown around a lot. Are you a genius? Probably not. But then, most of us are not. However, you can learn to think like one.
Craig Wright teaches a class at Yale on the nature of genius. He distills all of that work into his book with a hopeful title, The Hidden Habits of Genius: Beyond Talent, IQ, and Grit—Unlocking the Secrets of Greatness. Perhaps there is something we can learn from true geniuses that will help us perform better ourselves.
I like the definition of a genius provided by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “A person of talent hits a target that no one else can hit; a person of genius hits a target that no one else can see.” Wright defines a genius as “a person of extraordinary mental powers whose original works or insights change society in some significant way for good or for ill across cultures and across time.”
Geniuses work hard, but it’s not the hard work—the 10,000 hours of practice—that is the secret. “Practice may make the old perfect, but it does not produce innovation.” Talent may be the impetus, but hard work moves it along. To get to the top, it seems “you must max out both.”
IQ tests can’t predict the next genius or a person’s potential. Some who have done well academically, like Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, and Sergey Brin, went on to do remarkable things. But others we look up to today, like Einstein, Edison, Steve Jobs, and Picasso, did poorly in school.
What about prodigies—young people who possess talents far beyond their years? Not really. “The difference is that geniuses create. They change the world through original thinking that alters the actions and values of society. Prodigies merely mimic.
Childlike creativity plays a part. Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up…. When I was a child, I could paint like Rafael, but it took me a lifetime to paint like a child.” “From Einstein’s mental play with images emerged his famous thought experiments. Einstein was able to imagine the world as a child while keeping apposite scientific information in mind.”
Geniuses are lifelong learning addicts. “Students may receive information and learn methodologies in school, but the game changers of this world acquire the vast majority of what they know over time and on their own.” They learn what they need to know.
What about passion? “If our passions drive us in ways that ultimately change society, that change is a mark of genius.” Not all passion leads to genius. Geniuses see things differently. They “cannot accept the world as described to them. Each sees a world asunder and cannot rest until things are put right.”
Some geniuses are rebels, but not all rebels are geniuses—no matter how remarkable they may seem in the present. Some rebels, misfits, and troublemakers are just that. Not geniuses, but rebels, misfits, and troublemakers—people that just want their own way or push their own agenda. Wright correctly asks, “What is it that all of us believe today that some genius will disprove tomorrow?” We should be more careful pushing our biases and opinions.
“Most rebels are not geniuses.” A person that changes the course of history need not be a genius, but rather someone who saw an opportunity and took it. Some people we presently regard as geniuses are clever and creative, but they are not geniuses.
Aesop observed in his fable, The Fox and the Hedgehog, that “the fox knows many small things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Wright says, be the fox. Develop a wide range of knowledge, perspectives, and skills. Cross-train. “The more broadly based the information in mind, the more likely that disparate ideas are combined.”
Jeff Bezos observed, “The outsized discoveries—the ‘non-linear’ ones—are highly likely to require wandering.” “The lesson for all of us,” says Wright, “stay nimble.”
Imagine the end and work backwards. Think opposite. Again, Bezos instructs: “You see a new technology, or there’s something out there, … and you work backwards from a solution to find the appropriate problem.” Wright says, “the more a person can exploit the contradictions of life, the greater his or her potential for genius.”
To coax out your best ideas, relax. “If you need a fresh idea, go for a walk, or jog, or simply get into a relaxing conveyance so as to allow your mind to range more freely.” Then concentrate. Like a genius, “create a daily routine for yourself that comes with a four-wall safe zone for constructive concentration…. At the end of the day, you alone are responsible for synthesizing that information and producing something.”
Could we use more geniuses? Well, yes. But what we really need are people who learn to think like a genius. Not the pandering and the misuse of statistics to push an agenda that has become so prevalent. We need people who will take a measured approach and contribute constructive ideas that will benefit the rest of us.