Unfortunately, aside from being excessively wordy and light on supporting evidence for some of its assertions, it suffers from the same problem as this article and most of the comments here: people can't agree on what a genius is.
Debates about the foundations of genius are meaningless until we get a better idea of what a genius is. Some people, like this article's author, try to limit the term just to those people in history that have made significant advances in some field or another. But, then they cherry-pick their examples, usually from a list of their personal heroes, and then try to draw some conclusions from that.
Feynman wasn't a household name until really just a few years ago. Citing him as an example of a genius, and then going further to say that he was ("acknowledged by many to be") the last great American genius, is supremely silly. There are brilliant people right now working in every field; what do you think the odds are that, many years from now, after their death, at least one of them might be regarded as a genius by someone writing next century's version of this same article?
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Mensa, a worldwide organization of self-described geniuses, who even have a very serious test to keep out all of the non-geniuses. Should they not be regarded as geniuses? Why or why not?
If we're going to spend any time on utterly vacuous navel-gazing like this ... I think we ought to at least agree first on a useful definition for the thing we're trying to discuss.
In this sense, I like to think of "genius" as the application of enormous potential to extraordinary effect. Someone who qualifies for Mensa membership has been gifted with great potential. But if he sits on his ass and fritters his life away watching television, he can't be called a genius. Conversely, someone like Richard Feynman, with his 122 IQ, would not have qualified for Mensa, but produced magnificent work.
IQ seems somewhat correlated, but hardly sufficient, to qualify someone for the calling (and label) of genius. Genius is the result of action. It is the realization of potential. IMO, we need to get back to using lower-case "genius" to describe people's work, and away from capital-G "Genius" to describe people.
Real artists ship, after all.
Worth reading: (http://terrytao.wordpress.com/career-advice/does-one-have-to...)
I mean, there is no end of literature by highly skilled people who offer general opinions on how to do a good job. Noam Chomsky, Rich Hickey, Jerry Lettvin, George Polya, Bertrand Russell, and Terence Tao are common examples. (Well, Chomsky is a bit different in that he shies away from individual advice, believing in diversity and improved societies, but if you look closely, he does offer advice like, maybe paraphrasing a little, "Allow yourself to be confused.") But I suppose "Ideas on doing a Good Job" doesn't poke at people's desires for validation as much as "How to be a Genius."
I propose this definition: A genius is someone who, through their work, insipres the masses to take part in their field.
Because lets face it, your not a genius until everyone agrees you are a genius. Therefore, in order to be a genius you must make affect the masses.
In one of the Feynman books, a colleague said something like: With most really smart people, when they explain something to you, you get can it and think to yourself "I could of thought of that, if I was smarter." But with Feynman's work, even after you understood it, you'd think "How in the world did he come up with this?!"
"There are two kinds of geniuses: the 'ordinary' and the 'magicians'. An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they've done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest calibre."
The condition for membership of Mensa is that you score "at or above the 98th percentile on certain standardised IQ or other approved intelligence tests" . I don't think it makes sense to refer to the 140 million potential members of Mensa as "geniuses" no matter what your definition of genius is.
Also, if it's true that Richard Feynman's IQ was around 122, then he wouldn't have qualified for membership of Mensa.
Just for a second this gave a lesser mind like me some hope, but this IQ test may have been stressing verbal over mathematical ability.
"Feynman received the highest score in the country by a large margin on the notoriously difficult Putnam mathematics competition exam, although he joined the MIT team on short notice and did not prepare for the test. He also reportedly had the highest scores on record on the math/physics graduate admission exams at Princeton."
James Gleick. (1992). Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.
You can make up for that lack to a certain extent by applying yourself. A person applying themselves with merely average innate ability more often than not will outperform a person born with some windfall. This goes for money, brains, the lot. Apply yourself, that's half the battle.
Plenty of people never learn to apply themselves and that includes plenty of geniuses and people born into wealth.
The best part: whether or not you apply yourself is under your control. What you're born with is the luck of the draw.
And knowing a few things will make it that much easier to learn a bit more, knowledge begets more knowledge and insight.
And where you are born matters too. If the valley is deeper then it takes more energy to escape. So the same person born on a different continent has to apply themselves more to succeed. They have to apply themselves more to meet the right people and have to work far harder to increase their "luck surface area". They have to spend more energy and do so without becoming bitter.
So there is some backplay of innate ability there. It really does take a lot of talent, intelligence and grit to manage to escape being born to a poor family with no money in a country without clean water, electricity, free education or workers rights. To say: I can't expect to find a job nor afford to pay for school books, let alone to attend school. But I will make it somehow instead of giving up and feeling sorry for myself. My father was one such person. He started his first business at 9 to pay for school and help his family. His only luck was in having a teacher that allowed him to memorize the days notes after school. Seeing the expended efforts and incredible lengths he had to go through just to be level to those born to a better position, it takes a special person to be able to go through that.
It should be clear nothing I said contradicts what you said. But I feel you paint a picture that simplifies things overmuch. The worse your starting point, the more boxes you need to tick. In short, I do not see the same clear linear separation you do.
Simply measuring a score on an IQ test isn't good enough. Someone who can't actively use intelligence might as well not have it.
It's been a long standing tradition to oversell the power of hard work. I believe the word for it is "hopium".
That assumes free will... It may seem an absurd topic, but it's far from closed .
 http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl (search "free will")
I know several drastically unsuccessful people who exhibit the traits in this article. None of them have stumbled upon an idea or work that would cause society to label them a genius.
I don't think a genius is very different from any other person. It's just that a genius gets lucky with their novel ideas. Society calls them geniuses really just because people know their names.
I guess my gripe is simply that genius is a social phenomenon, not a trait of an individual, and that it's really quite embarrassing that everyone goes around licking the metaphorical feet of everyone they can think of who did something interesting, or "genius".
That said, I do think this is an interesting article, and knowing how to think like a "genius" is probably worth quite a lot.
That’s entirely unfair. Darwin spent his whole life furiously gathering evidence from everywhere he could and communicating with the rest of the biology community worldwide. If you read any of his books (the most fun, I think, is the Voyage of the Beagle) the constant probing and questioning shines through. The man made hypotheses about everything he saw and tested them where he could, or suggested possible tests even when they were beyond him. The character I see when I read Darwin is a passionately curious, perceptive, insightful, and careful man.
To call, for instance, The Origin of Species, one of the most remarkable presentations of evidence of the 19th century, “sciencey-but-not-scientific” is to project modern standards onto the past. There were certainly other people with similar ideas in the biology community (Wallace for one), but they weren’t anywhere close to mainstream. Darwin’s evidence in The Origin, however, was overwhelming. And It stands up remarkably well today; some parts could certainly use updates after 150 more years of inquiry by many more people with better tools, but it’s mostly very good.
edit: Found a better reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superhuman
Again I have to refer to Laszlo Polgar who turned his three kids into chess prodigies - and it was planned, he even advertised for a wife who would be willing to do the experiment with him. To rephrase: he didn't go "hey, my kids seem to enjoy chess, let's teach them more of it", he went "let's have three kids and turn them into chess prodigies".
The article posted here is pretty useless, though...
1849: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fizeau%E2%80%93Foucault_apparat... "Fizeau's value for light's speed was about 5% too high." which is not that bad for a first stab. And good enough to show that water slowed the speed of light vs speeding it up.
vs 1900 to 1905: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_relativity
Google '1890 speed of light experiments' and you should get Modern Physics for Scientists and Engineers page 21 - 27. It talks about the interferometer experiments that suggested the speed of light was constant. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interferometry
Anyway, what Einstein did was deeper than just saying the speed of light was constant and there are no privileged frames of reference. Einstein got the math in all it's glory to work out.
It isn't that we should dismiss the unique contributions of people like "Einstein, Edison, daVinci, Darwin, Picassos, Michelangelo, Galileo, Freud, Mozart et all". These individuals certainly made contributions beyond what be measured by a number-of-manipulations-per-second IQ test and some of these approaches can even be somewhat systematized as "lateral thinking", "wholistic thinking" "getting outside the box" and variety of others.
But lumping these high-performing individuals together with the single glittering generality "genius" leaves us less enlightened for the trouble. Edison and Einstein, for example, were worlds apart and while we can find commonalities between them, we can find commonalities between any two people. And there we are. At another logical level, a "genius" confronted with some given problem might say "what do these things have in common" yes but a moron, an opportunist and a lazy thinker might do the same. One more try folks.
I agree that they may not have the whole answer here, but it's a whole lot better than any random commonality between any two people (e.g. they both like the color blue, or they both lived in the US).
I think there's some insight here, even if you just take the idea of how high-performers think ("productively" rather than "reproductively"). I definitely believe most things I see are a result of reproductive thinking (many of my own thoughts included), and I have many times more respect for things that have come out of "productive" thinking.
But lumping these high-performing individuals together with
the single glittering generality "genius" leaves us less
enlightened for the trouble.
I've always wanted a quick, one-line, anecdote as to why IQ is bullshit. I think I just found it.
1. It may not be true that he had an IQ of 122
2. A score of 122 is still kind of high
3. If it were wrong in one case it doesn't invalidate it, especially since we're talking about a Nobel prize winner in physics
4. If he did take a test, that was several decades ago and I'd imagine the test has evolved from then
5. This test may have not been good for Feynman since he is much better in science and math
On another point, I think the author is incorrectly using Feynman as a person of average intelligence when it's obvious he was very much well above average in math being that he was a Putnam Fellow.
>He obtained a perfect score on the graduate school entrance exams to Princeton University in mathematics and physics—an unprecedented feat—but did rather poorly on the history and English portions. 
Study after study shows that an apparent talent (or intelligence) in one moment does not correlate with future potential talent, intelligence, or general potential for achievement in anything.
So to add to your point -- who knows when Feynman took the test and got a 122, and who knows which test he even took -- to me this point decreases any commonly understood value of the IQ test to an even greater extent.
Quote from Alfred Binet (creator of the first IQ test) himself:
“I have not sought in the above lines to sketch a method of measuring, in the physical sense of the word, but only a method of classification of individuals. The procedures which I have indicated will, if perfected, come to classify a person before or after such another person or such another series of persons; but I do not believe that one may measure one of the intellectual aptitudes in the sense that one measures length or a capacity. Thus, when a person studied can retain seven figures after a single audition, one can class him, from the point of his memory for figures, after the individual who retains eight figures under the same conditions, and before those who retain six. It is a classification, not a measurement…we do not measure, we classify.”
"Q (Deborah Solomon for the New York Times): What is your I.Q.?
"A (Stephen Hawking): I have no idea. People who boast about their I.Q. are losers."
People boast, people brag, because in general it gets them more out of the world than not doing so and gets them special treatment and accommodations. There are a fair amount of people in the tech industry, and even here on HN, that are quite willing to boast about what they have done and are treated as royalty for their past accomplishments. Isn't this the same thing? Stephen Hawking, assuming he knows his IQ, has nothing to gain and possibly stands to loose by revealing his IQ. You'd expect it to be high and if not, it might detract from the aura . Not that I think that is why he does it but I can certainly see many successful people that are not super successful feeling the same way. Especially if they are insecure about the luck that caused them to get to where they are.
 The aura in the eyes of people who don't know exactly why he is viewed as smart and just view him as presented in the media.
 Any measure of intelligence that doesn't take potential into account is essentially worthless as a measure of intelligence.
What you are saying I think is that Hawking is saying "People who boast about their IQ don't understand what an IQ test is for".
If that is the case I would say:
a) A really poor choose of words for Hawking to
be calling someone a "loser"
b) Hawking doesn't realize that there are many legitimate reasons why someone might mention their IQ score to gain some benefit and still realize what Hawking realizes about the test.
To that end I've done a few things that I could mention that would generally be thought of as impressive but could also been seen as "bragging". I also recognize that while they appear to be impressive there are many (who have done the same thing) who may also see it as not as impressive as it appears. But I don't think of them that way (and certainly not "losers") for mentioning it and trying to derive value from the association.
While IQ tests are not dejure they certainly are viewed by the general public and certainly the media as defacto measures of intelligence.
I think there are very very few cases where calling someone a "loser" is a good choice of words -- I agree that Hawking's comment is most likely one of the cases where it is not a good choice of words. I would say that Hawking is most well known for things other than his speaking abilities ;).
Could you mention what some legitimate reasons would be? For bragging purposes I find it nearly entirely pointless in most cases, mostly due to the fact that there's a very good chance the person doesn't know what they are actually saying by referring to their IQ. The fact that the questions, "what is intelligence?" and "what does it consist of?" are such highly researched and debated topics with many established (and sometimes conflicting) viewpoints brings me to this particular viewpoint.
In actuality, personally I find it more than worthless in most cases -- and perhaps damaging -- which is what Hawking may have been referring to as well. Carol Dweck's research shows that a belief in a fixed intelligence has massive negative repercussions in many parts of life. One's IQ is often seen as a "fixed" number in the mind of a person and hence feels that it destines them to a state of inferiority to the individuals with higher IQs. Firstly it is just not true that "intelligence" (in most definitions) is fixed, and secondly, empirically it is just not true that a person with a lower IQ is capable of less (ie. is inferior, or practically is destined to accomplish less) to a person with a higher IQ.
(Hey, it works!)
Also, you don't need quick, one-line, anecdote to explain why 1 (one) is not statistically significant. It's actually pretty obvious.
There's something to the IQ scores, but error bars are large and the meaning controversial.
What I'm finding in several places is that the fiqure was 125. But more importantly the low IQ figure was self reported by Feynman and done in high school. Who knows if that is the correct figure and who knows if he was sick the night before or tired or if there was an error etc. I'm not defending IQ tests but it's important to realize that the fact that Feynman said his IQ was X doesn't mean that the test or testing or reporting was flawed or he got someone elses score by accident.
I think this is clear and people not even considered geniuses can also perform this feat. The defining part is that geniuses seem to come by those alternatives so easily, its just always there. So for example if we devote years to programming we can tell ourselves OK, if i have a problem invoke all my years of experience and look at this problem from many different angles, we can formulate and combine our thinking into something unique that even surprises ourselves because the combination of all the data we we know to get this new idea is far greater then adding the single idea's and pieces of data that we have. Over time we can build on that to get better ideas.
But if i say ok, i know the method of thinking like X helps me do great things when im programming and i try to do the same for say math problems, if i havnt had the experience no matter what I tell myself, i just can not look at the problem from different perspectives or if i do, its not such a great leap, its incremental. Its still step by step, A->B not to A->C, it still follows a logical thought process and we do not surprise ourselves by our solution
For the genius it seems after reading something once or by some method unknown (and having no experience) they can still have all those different perspectives. Then it leaves us normal people thinking, how did they get from A->C without going through the normal steps A->B->C ... this is specially the case when the individual is very young and has managed to soak that information without college or any formal learning ...
I guess we can try and get so far, but for most normal people, we can do it to an extent in our field of expertise but still somewhat bound by previously learnt data that needs to be accumulated over a substantial period of time to get that A->C thinking .. without it problems in a differing field are still just solved step by step.
For example, consider the notion that IQ is a measure of capacity. To wit, let's use an extended and natural analogy -- a container.
Consider a notional container measured only by its depth.
A yard of beer is 36 inches (~91.5cm) tall and most people would consider this a lot of beer. This plays out in people who are extreme specialists -- extremely knowledgeable in only one or two areas. But are they geniuses?
So we have to consider breadth. I have a large mixing bowl I use when marinating meat that's about 26 inches (66.04cm) across, and most people would consider it to hold a lot of meat. This plays out in people who are extreme generalists, not particularly good in any one area, but can cut across disciplines easily.
Yet both containers pale when compared to a 55 gallon (~208.2L) drum in terms of volume. Yet the drum is not as tall as the yard of beer and not as wide as my marinating bowl!
But volume is not the only thing that matters!
I wouldn't pour molten steel into any of the containers above. And I've used stoneware that cracks when used with extremely cold liquids.
What about containers with different compartments that can hold both?
We also know about people who have perfect recall but almost no creativity, and creative geniuses that can barely remember their own name.
Can somebody who is a generalist only know about several topics or can they synthesize it into something new and novel?
How about the person that, regardless of depth or breadth, can see far reaching implications -- second, third, forth degree effects -- when new information is presented? Or the extreme tactical thinker that can react to new things with extreme speed?
Napoleon and Einstein are both commonly regarded as geniuses, but the nature of their intelligence couldn't be more different.
This statement is false. They could be more different in ways you can't even imagine, for no one currently completely understands the nature of intelligence.
Then after you have found you styles of thought dominant among geniuses, you have to see if they actually work as predictors.
I don't feel that the author of this article did these things.
It's like the author looked a some intelligent people and superficially extracted their secret. It's like looking at a successful company and concluding that the reason for their success is that almost everyone is titled an Associate rather than their flat hierarchy.
The author states:
>Recognizing the common thinking strategies of creative geniuses and applying them will make you more creative in your work and personal life.
Again, there is no evidence that this is a common thinking strategy and there is no evidence that if you were to mimic it, you too would benefit from it.
I hope the author and people who too easily agree with the author are aware of confirmation bias .
It doesn't even seem like you have to be much of a genius to do this...
I thought it was good that the author restricted himself to a description of genius traits, instead of implying that applying these traits would make one a genius. At least, until the summary, where he threw that out the window.
It's important to not engage in some kind of magic thinking here: altering your behavior patterns to match "genius" behavior is self-defeating. When one is dealing with the kind of outlier that a genius represents, wholesale emulation is an insufficient strategy to duplicate their success.
No emulation doesnt make you a genius; but maybe it can help to bring you just that tiny step closer?
If you're lazy, though, you can always just tail a genius, then steal his thunder :-D
There is an extra strategy that is missing and I feel is of utmost importance. You must be in the habit of normalizing your knowledge. You need to generalise and compose ideas into principles. Without doing so, it is extremely difficult to quickly and correctly compose and verify new ideas, draw relationships between them, and visualize at the appropriate level of abstraction.
Does anybody else keep a text file of recurring patterns that occur in thought, biology, architecture and nature?
Second, everyone can be a "genius" as long as they put a lot of work into anything. It doesn't take much to become better than the average person - you just have to be slightly better.
Once you start working on something for a long time and thinking about it more than 50% (arbitrary, but about right) of all your waking time, your brain will dedicate a big part of its new neurons and synapses towards that, leading to new thought that would've otherwise never occurred.
Genius also directly relates to discipline - if you don't have the self-control (whether through willpower or some sort of OCD-like disorder) to learn and create something, anything, you'll be just average.
I don't mean Leonardo Da Vinci and others who created new processes for painting - I mean specifically the squares, buckets of paint on canvas and Picasso-like LSD-induced paintings, which are just works of art, not genius. Any decent artist with Photoshop can do better nowadays.
IMO that's the best section of the article. Einstein learned by failing and reiterating. That's exactly the type of mentality that entrepreneurs should have.
I find that I tend to self-edit before I've even started on something, which prevents me from doing what I want. I chalk this up to over-ambitious perfectionism, which is a negative trait in this case.
It's often not even about working hard, training hard, or something. It's just having a proper state of mind, and the right conditions.
As simple as it sounds, it's complicated. If it was simple, we'd all be happy right now. Not because we'd feel like geniuses but because we'd be able to achieve _anything_ we want.
Even thus, some points of the article correlate with having a proper state of mind, for example, you need to be able to think out of the box (note: you don't need 3 f. paragraphs to express that idea). You need to attempt to have a complete understanding of things, from every angle.
But all this still boils down to will power and proper conditions.
My 2 genius cents anyway.
The laziness of the mind which so many of us are taking advantage of to control people, as it's so easy to let others think on your behalf.
And then again, this makes you right: the education system was made precisely for this. The education system might be actually one of those "genius" ideas.
By formatting people and putting some barriers in their minds, you make them controllable and productive, and thus, you may actually advance humanity in some ways. But at which cost?
..others, look for other, strange, non traditional right answers. I like those people.
You get people who are bright, but have virtually no curiousity and who stay within their specialism of knowledge, often due to setting a high value on others views, so not wanting to look stupid.
Conversely you also get creative and determined slow people. And they will thrash the merely bright in almost any problem that contains significant depths.
But it's unlikely that Feynman is "the last great American genius". Maybe the most well-known example is Chomsky (but there are no doubt many others), and he answers his emails quickly. So, it's not like we necessarily have to pore through notebooks and quips of dead people, guessing at their mental states.
It is easy for the average person to believe that building Twitter was hard, though surely it was. Our ability to understand things decidedly maps to things we can already understand.
To give a completely made up scenario about how this might have gone:
Stupid person: "Wow. Building twitter is hard. You type on a website and something comes to my phone. AMAZING."
Average person: "Eh. They probably just use some sort of service. I mean, if I can send a text, why is it amazing that somebody else can?"
Smarter-than-average person: "Twitter is down again? WTH? How hard is it to keep a website up? My Wordpress blog has never crashed, and all the posts in it are WAY more than 140 characters."
Smart person: "Yeah, I can see how scaling to x-thousand reads and x-hundred writes per second IS a big task. I guess you have to put in a really beefy database server to handle the writes and distribute the reads out to slaves, then do all your queries from there."
Smarter person: "If we get rid of relational database stores altogether, we can scale these records much better, and our only upper limit is memory."
Yes, it's a completely contrived example and I'm sure I probably insulted everyone who's ever done any Twitter-based naval-gazing, but that's what it is.
In short though, the average person is more easily fooled into thinking things are brilliant when in reality, they're made by equally average people who have studied in that particular field more than they have.
Upon talking to those folks, while the never stated it, I came to the conclusion that they were afraid of being wrong, or failing. I do my best to lead by example and fail spectacularly on tasks, only to learn and come up with a good solution when I can, but I am not sure how to communicate that failure on an iteration of 3 can be a huge positive. Even communicating that fact explicitly doesn't seem to mitigate that fear.
I suspect it comes from schooling, where incorrect answers are punished (with bad grades, peer judgement, teacher judgement, parent comments, etc).
As to the source of the fear coming from schooling, I'm not sure. I'd never punish one of my kids who got a bad grade because he applied some creative approach or reasoning that happened to be incorrect, but most cases of bad grades I've seen are due to simple lack of effort.