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What Makes a Genius? 190

Posted by Soulskill
from the one-percent-inspiration-and-ninety-nine-percent-radiation dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Eric Barker writes at TheWeek that while high intelligence has its place, a large-scale study of more than three hundred creative high achievers including Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Beethoven, and Rembrandt has found that curiosity, passion, hard work, and persistence bordering on obsession are the hallmarks of genius. 'Successful creative people tend to have two things in abundance, curiosity and drive. They are absolutely fascinated by their subject, and while others may be more brilliant, their sheer desire for accomplishment is the decisive factor,' writes Tom Butler-Bowdon. It's not about formal education. 'The most eminent creators were those who had received a moderate amount of education, equal to about the middle of college. Less education than that — or more — corresponded to reduced eminence for creativity,' says Geoffrey Colvin. Those interested in the 10,000-hour theory of deliberate practice won't be surprised that the vast majority of them are workaholics. 'Sooner or later,' writes V. S. Pritchett, 'the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.' Howard Gardner, who studied geniuses like Picasso, Freud, and Stravinsky, found a similar pattern of analyzing, testing, and feedback used by all of them: 'Creative individuals spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on what they are trying to accomplish, whether or not they are achieving success (and, if not, what they might do differently).' Finally, genius means sacrifice. 'My study reveals that, in one way or another, each of the creators became embedded in some kind of a bargain, deal, or Faustian arrangement, executed as a means of ensuring the preservation of his or her unusual gifts. In general, the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal existence,' says Gardner."
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What Makes a Genius?

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  • by Rinikusu (28164) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @02:54PM (#45999749)

    Invariably, we also see throughout history that these laser focused artists and creators are preyed upon by the vultures. The swarming businessmen, promotors, managers, who give their charges "the best they can" (i.e. a fraction of their actual value) whilst proclaiming to the world that they themselves are the true producers and behind closed doors they opine how if only they could get that last fraction of a few pennies from "those leeches, those damned artists."

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Video [youtube.com] showing what this looks like when it happens.

      I know you were going for something like record labels ripping off musicians, but I think the video of Obama saying "You didn't build that" hits the point better for everyone.

    • by m00sh (2538182)

      Invariably, we also see throughout history that these laser focused artists and creators are preyed upon by the vultures. The swarming businessmen, promotors, managers, who give their charges "the best they can" (i.e. a fraction of their actual value) whilst proclaiming to the world that they themselves are the true producers and behind closed doors they opine how if only they could get that last fraction of a few pennies from "those leeches, those damned artists."

      Those "vultures" are as important to success as anything. Have you ever tried promoting something? It is a very complicated system and very hard to do. I know many good bands have shriveled and died because they couldn't find the right manager or promoter. Many good writers give up because they never get a chance to write the things they want.

      Geniuses are not a product of solitary endeavors. They require support from hundreds of people.

      Actually reminds of the old TV series called "The Fall Guy" about a

      • Actually, the hyper-focus descriptor is bogus.

        Isaac Newton took off lots of time to be Chancellor of Exchequer. It was a hard job. He had to hang people for counterfeiting and all.
        Vladimir Nabokov was Russian lepidopterist who happened to be English-language writer. Or was it the other way around?
        Which was Benjamin Franklin's hobby -- science, publishing, or statecraft?
        And Thomas Jefferson? Architecture or political philosophy or revolution?
        Omar Khayyam? Administration? Poetry? Astronomy?

        The kind of success

    • The "Vultures" are no less greedy and manipulative than your description... probably more so. But I wonder if the most gifted artists, thinkers, scientist, mathematicians and so on, actually care. There are far easier ways to make money, If they are as focused and driven as described in the article then it seems likely they care more about attribution than monetary appropriation any more than is necessary to live and fund their work.

      Conversely look at how pop artists and the RIAA bicker over adequately appr

    • Invariably, we also see throughout history that these laser focused artists and creators are preyed upon by the vultures.

      Geniuses, or the really talented and focused artists and creators do not care about the vultures. For the last few centuries vultures - aka 'agents' - were needed, without them it was difficult to propagate your work. At least in the field of arts (except for cinema) it has changed with internet. You do not need an 'agent' anymore to propagate your work. But the flip side - even in 2014, without an agent, your work may not achieve the acclaim it deserves.
      But then Geniuses are not concerned with material r

  • by Anonymous Coward

    "The great men turn out to be all alike." Did you forget that not only men are reading your site? - A great woman

    • Re:Total letdown (Score:4, Informative)

      by russotto (537200) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @03:09PM (#45999851) Journal

      Did you forget that not only men are reading your site? - A great woman

      Perhaps Pritchett's generalization was intended to apply specifically to men, and this was a trap women were less likely to fall into. I don't know, I haven't read the essay. You also might also be interested in some work by two men working out of Cornell, Mr. Dunning and Mr. Kruger.

    • and don't forget the legion of "minions" and ladies that made life bearable for said genius.

      You may be doing G$ work in chemistry but if you don't have somebody making sure your test tubes are clean and such

      YOU ARE FRACKED.

      Also don't forget that GRACE HOPPER was the one that decided to show the world how long a Nanosecond was (and could strangle a suck up man with her Microsecond).

      • Also don't forget that GRACE HOPPER was the one that decided to show the world how long a Nanosecond was

        But she did invent that programming language (I will not utter it here) that wears your fingers out.

        Probably, you know, hormones.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Most of the people annointed as geniuses in Western culture have been men, perhaps because of opportunity and social expectations, but Gardner's thesis seems to apply to at least one woman too. [wikipedia.org]

    • Women are men, with wombs. In the past (1000+ years ago [etymonline.com]) the word "man" was a gender neutral word simply meaning "human being".

      Although, here's a question... When "man" stopped being gender neutral, did female humans stop being men? ;)

  • by RandomUsername99 (574692) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @03:13PM (#45999867)

    Things are changing, but from a historical perspective, this cannot be ignored.

    "The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated; nor have there been any great Lithuanian jazz pianists, nor Eskimo tennis players, no matter how much we might wish there had been. That this should be the case is regrettable, but no amount of manipulating the historical or critical evidence will alter the situation; nor will accusations of male-chauvinist distortion of history. There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black American equivalents for the same. "

    From a brilliant essay on the matter:
    http://www.miracosta.edu/home/gfloren/nochlin.htm [miracosta.edu]

    • by laejoh (648921)
      I resent the comment above...
    • by tri44id (576891)

      Many people, including me, would argue that Carla Bley & Paul Haines' Escalator Over the Hill [amazon.com] is a work of genius.

      My definition of genius in a work is that it must contain aspects that can't be learned or explained. You're listening, watching, or reading along and thinking "yes, I understand how that follows now that it's been shown to me" -- this is merely brilliant levels of skill -- and then there comes a passage that sets you back thinking "woah, what just happened there?"

      Claude Debussy's music

    • by Jmc23 (2353706)
      Ah USians... ignorant of the rest of the world and apparently ignorant of the rest of western culture as well.
    • by Gr8Apes (679165)
      You might want to change your statement to "no women equivalents to Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse..." have been recognized, due to the societal taboos of growing up in those times. They were there, but were sidelined or worse when their talents started showing. A sad statement on western civilization at the time, but others were/are no better.
      • Ah, thank you. It's shocking how unable to take the next logical step this argument is. Yes, there weren't famous women scientists during those times when women were allowed zero access to the realms of science, philosophy, or invention -- wonder why that might be??? Ugh.
      • This is exactly the argument that the essay is making. It was written by a well-known feminist philosopher. Maybe you should read it before claiming that it is incorrect.

  • Working hard (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jones_supa (887896)
    What drives the smart guys to keep focused and interested working for a long time on hard problems? After a hour of intensive STEM stuff I already feel quite exhausted and need a good break.
    • Re:Working hard (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Z00L00K (682162) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @03:23PM (#45999947) Homepage

      The difference between a genius and a mad man is thin, but obsession with a problem is what both "suffers" from.

      Another thing that's different is to work hard on a problem, then sleep on it and then approach the problem again from a new angle. The brain will sort out a lot of stuff while you are sleeping.

      Trying too hard on a problem is often ineffective. Sometimes it helps to take a walk.

      All this is what also makes many geniuses seem eccentric - they do stuff the way that suits them best, not by following the beaten path.

      • by twosat (1414337)

        Men of lofty genius are most active when they are doing the least work. - Leonardo da Vinci

    • Re:Working hard (Score:5, Interesting)

      by doctor woot (2779597) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @03:42PM (#46000061)

      I'm not claiming to be a genius, but one thing I noticed early on when deciding to take on STEM is that unlike art (which I had pursued previously), where an understanding of the history, techniques that were developed, and cultural perception of art were very helpful in developing a more acute understanding of the art in question, studying these things wasn't necessary, whereas in science and math the rigor is (usually) completely necessary.

      When you talk to aspiring young scientists, generally you hear a fondness for lasers, space travel, disease research, etc, but almost none for finding the derivative of a function or the like. Because people see the space lasers as the carrot and the intense math as the stick, they tend to get pretty exhausted after a fair amount of work. But in my experience, developing an appreciation for the math itself led me to view science as more of an art form than merely labor. I suspect fostering a greater appreciation of math and logic in children, as well as diminishing the cultural perception of math as a difficult and troubling affair would lead to an easier time for students who can both accept and appreciate the level of math they commit to.

      • by nayrbn (2704751)
        Mod mistake, commenting to fix.
      • There are two divisions of "technique" when it comes to art. The first involves the physical manipulation of the medium, which has changed somewhat with the invention of new media, and some parts have become obsolete. The second involves understanding of perspective, anatomy, color, lines and shapes, various atmospheric effects, et cetera, and in many cases also how these rules may be broken to artistic effect, and these are timeless. Sure, anyone can paint without understanding, and anyone may criticize wi

      • I sort of buy that STEM fields are less modular than art (although even as a math major, the various specialties and areas to pursue once you're an upperclassman felt more sandboxy than train tracky). But what I really have to agree with you on is the fear and stigma surrounding math. I've taught a lot of the subject, and nearly every students comes in saying "I just don't get math" "I'm not a numbers person" "I don't see what it has to do with the real world" (a valid objection, but usually an expression o
    • by ulatekh (775985)

      What drives the smart guys to keep focused and interested working for a long time on hard problems? After a hour of intensive STEM stuff I already feel quite exhausted and need a good break.

      Me too. My secret...recreational levels of caffeine. God bless the person that invented chocolate-covered coffee beans.

  • Selection bias? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @03:22PM (#45999933) Homepage Journal

    I can't help but wonder how many people with plenty of "curiosity, passion, hard work, and persistence bordering on obsession" we've never heard of. In other words, we don't actually know--and likely can't know--how likely people with these traits are to be remembered by the world as geniuses, and how many will be regarded by their families and friends as obsessive workaholics with lousy personal lives and utterly forgotten outside those circles.

    • by mrbester (200927)

      That's the thing. "Genius" in this context is taken to be based on output known to the greatest number of people. Which is a bullshit metric and denigrates those who aren't fortunate enough to get individually famous. Take Teflon for instance. "Invented" by DuPont and world famous. Not "discovered by a research chemist" whose name (Roy Plunkett) is only known by those who take the trouble to look at the Wikipedia entry and / or take part in pub quizzes. And at least he got famous in his field with awards.

    • by m00sh (2538182)

      I can't help but wonder how many people with plenty of "curiosity, passion, hard work, and persistence bordering on obsession" we've never heard of. In other words, we don't actually know--and likely can't know--how likely people with these traits are to be remembered by the world as geniuses, and how many will be regarded by their families and friends as obsessive workaholics with lousy personal lives and utterly forgotten outside those circles.

      Reminds me of the string theory physicists that I read in some book.

      Before string theory was established, there were two thoughts in physics, both equally challenging and one was string theory and the other quite similar. Both scientists worked in the two thoughts, had offices next to each other and created a lot of ideas and work from that.

      However, string theory took off the guy who created it got lots of attention. His colleague who worked equally hard failed because he was unlucky to have the opposin

      • by Anonymous Coward

        General relativity was (1916-1920), long after 1905...I believe Bose-Einstein statistics, notion of spontaneous emission, and the EPR paper (1936, I think) all came later, also....

    • how likely people with these traits are to be remembered by the world as geniuses

      Yeah, the summary at least is throwing around all sorts of words - genius, successful, eminent, accomplished - these all mean different things.

      I think what they're trying to say is "famous smart people who created notable things". Which isn't the same thing as 'genius' at all, though a genius could be among them.

      Other geniuses may choose completely different paths, which may or may not be borne of wise decisions.

    • by nbauman (624611)

      2 more things they need -- luck and money.

      Ehrlich summed up the requirements for success in research with the four G’s: Glück (luck), Geduld (patience), Geschick (skill), and Geld (money) (Ehrlich, 1913).
      http://www.nature.com/jid/journal/v132/n3-2/full/jid2011475a.html [nature.com]

    • Agrred -- they're necessary but not sufficient to be recognized as a person of renown, no matter how much you do by yourself in the garage. Someone pointed out in another comment that there are fewer women and minorities who have contributed in fields like science than whites and men, and I think your comment might be EXTREMELY relevant to that observation.
  • by jhd (7165) <xyllyx@gmail.com> on Saturday January 18, 2014 @03:30PM (#45999987)

    Whom is to determine the genius status of any particular individual. Genius is based on a system of values as perceived by ones peers. If i were to believe math or rocket science were an important trait, I would judge someone with impeccable skills in this area as genius. But someone that would value the arts or athletic skills at a greater lever may not see this person in the same light. Many times there has been someone given the genius label and I find it difficult to see the noted person in this classification because of my value system. so it goes that I cannot believe there is one common scale that genius can be measured.

    -- john

    • Whom is to determine the genius status of any particular individual.

      I can safely say that your English teacher isn't one.

  • by Dachannien (617929) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @03:41PM (#46000051)

    I have it on good authority [youtu.be] that Kanye West is a genius.

  • It takes abnormal to be different. It takes different to make changes. From DNA that didnt quite come out right to someone who has an unstoppable obsession, these are the type things that open new doors. Genius is not a normal person working hard, genius is something different. Of course these people are social misfits, and easily abused, they are not on the same plane, they are by nature, different. And most likely for every person we hear about as genius there are multitudes who are idiots as well as many
  • by acscott (1885598) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @03:58PM (#46000175)

    "When Terman first used the IQ test to select a sample of child geniuses, he unknowingly excluded a special child whose IQ did not make the grade. Yet a few decades later that talent received the Nobel Prize in physics: William Shockley, the cocreator of the transistor. Ironically, not one of the more than 1,500 children who qualified according to his IQ criterion received so high an honor as adults." Simonton, Dean Keith (1999). Origins of genius: Darwinian perspectives on creativity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-512879-6. Lay summary (14 August 2010).

    Exceptional output requires access to tools, training, and environment (food, health, relationships) that enable the person to devote (obssess?) over solving the problems or creating something. And, the person's exceptional output must be recognized as such. So being highly intelligent won't make it. It may even be a hindrance. For instance, it would be easy to imagine the first ever person to be able to repeatedly create fire would not score well on any measure of intelligence today, but to the tribe, that person may not only be considered a genius but a god.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I would also argue that people who are recognised early as "genius material" are more likely to piss away their potential because they have been told for so long how amazing they are. This sort of thing is very common in high schools and universities as well. I've seen plenty of people who performed very well early in their education, solely based on their natural ability, only to go on to massively underachieve in late high school or university because they grew up without really having a connection betwee
      • by russotto (537200)

        Hmm. Spend your life in an average job which allows you the time to waste at work on leisure activities like 4chan, or burn yourself out working for a money man in some sort of Faustian arrangement. Perhaps the failed prodigies ARE the real geniuses...

      • It's not just your intuition, actually. There is a lot of research coming out that praising children for things beyond their control -- intelligence particularly -- will just make them feel helpless and afraid to disappoint, and will make them less likely to try new things and explore because of this paralyzing fear. (For the curious, the new research says, praise your children mostly for effort, and maybe also for particular accomplishments. Knowing you're effective even without natural advantages is a muc
  • They might get a better understanding of themselves instead of thinking they're total scum.

    I have a lot of trouble pointing out that obsessiveness is often mistaken for addiction these days. I think it's due to an attempt to assign a medical condition to those being irresponsible with their families and thereby able to bring the law to bare.

    Aside from the fact that one can't be addicted to an activity it also is disrespectful to those that do suffer under addiction and, of course, misleading to the rest of

  • Does any researcher really think their generalizations capture that which they cannot imagine?

    If a dog researcher analyzed humans, he'd be like, "and we see the human goes over here and waves his hands and light suddenly appears in the night. That's all there is to it, I've watched him do it a hundred times."

  • by Hognoxious (631665)

    How is gennus formed?

  • by zifn4b (1040588) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @04:17PM (#46000295)
    A maniacal cackle, an evil grin and an uncanny ability to great doomsday devices?
  • high intelligence

    Why do we humans define intelligence such that humans are the most intelligent creatures on this planet?

    .
    Is that really a valid definition of intelligence, or just human self-importance and vanity?

    • by evanh (627108)

      While intelligence is a vague term in itself there is something to be said for the written word, collaboration, education, proofs, and the extrapolated reasoning that comes from combining them all.

    • by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @05:24PM (#46000705) Homepage

      Man has always assumed that he is more intelligent than, for example, dolphins because he has achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins have ever done is muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins have always believed that they are far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.

      -Douglas Adams (slightly paraphrased)

  • by m00sh (2538182) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @04:52PM (#46000523)

    Wasn't it someone's theory (or experiments) that luck was the largest factor in a genius?

    I remember Gladwell's book starts off with the Canadian hockey team and the birthday paradox. The birthdays of the players in the Canadian hockey team fall primarily on the beginning of the year, primarily the first few months of the year. There wasn't anyone born on the second half of the year.

    The theory was that this is because of the age cutoff of Jan 1st. When they select the junior teams, the age cutoff is Jan 1st. So, someone born on January has almost a year head start over the person born on December. That little difference between individuals turns into who gets coaching or not, who gets selected for teams and ultimately who makes the national sides.

    Yes, some people are geniuses because they have drive and passion and are workaholics but not because they are born that way but because each little bit of effort they put in gets rewarded very heavily (and that situation comes by from luck).

    Why do geniuses come in clusters? Why were there so many Greek geniuses? Why hasn't Greece produced another set of geniuses like them after that?

    The other argument was that geniuses were able to feed off the society. If we as a society value something very highly, then we reward the person good in it with money and admiration. That again creates a lot of drive and passion for the work they do and they strive to obsessively improve on it.

    It has been disproved that geniuses have high IQ. There are a lot of geniuses with normal IQ.

    So, technically, anyone with at least normal IQ can be a genius. You have to be born in the right society and pursue something that the society deems very valuable. Then, you have to have luck that will get you funding, audience etc for you work that will fuel your passion and drive.

    • by volmtech (769154)
      Geniuses can do things other people can't. I worked with a genius. Born to a poor family he spent his teen years playing with cars and motorcycles and went to work at a junkyard instead of college. Some how (he never told me) he was recruited by the DoD and spent ten years working at secret weapons sites. While in the Navy I was recruited for the nuclear propulsion program but didn't accept because I wanted to farm with my dad. We lost the farm so I needed a job that utilized my skills. He "burnt out" and w
  • by Culture20 (968837) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @05:18PM (#46000671)
    Really, wasn't this covered in school?
  • This sounds like a trait list for having Autism Spectrum Disorder. No seriously

  • Output (Score:4, Insightful)

    by multimediavt (965608) on Saturday January 18, 2014 @07:08PM (#46001241)

    What makes a genius?

    Output.

    You can be the smartest person, ever. If you don't do anything with it you will never know genius. Genius is just a recognized smart person, that is a person recognized for being really smart.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So Freud is a genius? Maybe a Maddox-like one, a fraud. What's he doing near Einstein or Newton?

  • A person's genius is inversely proportional to the amount of time spent THINKING about attending and/or ACTUALLY attending business school, particularly Harvard, Penn, or Yale. Those business and econ motherfuckers have done more damage to mankind than the Bhopal incident write large all over the globe.
  • You call someone a genius after his/her great work is done, not before.
  • Some years back, one of the former department heads at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (whose reputation for innovation is nearly unmatched in history) wrote a book on this subject. I recently read it and enjoyed it greatly. It's called Breakthrough: stories and strategies of radical innovation [parc.com]. I highly recommend it.

  • Someone once asked Linus Pauling [wikipedia.org] what his secret was to having good ideas. He answered that it was having lots of ideas and throwing away the bad ones.

    Here's my personal list of genius traits:

    1. 1) Read
      Stand on the shoulders of giants as much as possible. No point rediscovering the wheel.
    2. 2) Work hard
      Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
    3. 3) Intellectual cross-training
      Learn as much as you can about as many different subjects as you can. You'll be stunned how often principles from one subject will a
  • A lot of what Pickens is saying here is about what makes people successful, regardless of whether they're smart or not. And the main thing that matters most, even more than talent, in making people successful is full singleminded commitment. As for talent, having 'enough' talent suffices. Obviously I know cases where full commitment is not going to be enough.

  • My generation is full of people who were praised for their innate intelligence -- something a child understands is beyond her control -- and subsequently developed the worldview that natural gifts are what matters, that failure is the worst thing, and that if you're not good at something naturally, you won't get good, so, no point trying (these aren't conscious beliefs; more like beliefs we find ourselves slipping into). Research shows that what children need is not high self-esteem, but "self efficacy", wh

  • The assumption that genius requires "achievement" of some kind is smuggled in.

  • I think this posts misses one essential raw ingredient, not that the rest of it is wrong in any way. That is an astonishing memory for the content of the field, and in fact that is what stops most people, a poor focused memory.

    I know a little about musical memory and I am convinced that great composers of music must begin with very good memories, but that most musical people, even if they have good memories, must suppress the linkages between one passage and the next to process the mechanisms in the musi

  • "You are a product of your environment." --Clement Stone
  • What makes a genius?

    Roller skates and Acme Corp on speed dial.

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