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How Geniuses Think (creativitypost.com)
261 points by tokenadult on Apr 29, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 94 comments

A reasonable book covering some of this topic is Origins of Genius by Dean Keith Simonton.

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 discussions like these, it's useful to go back to the origin of the word, in the Latin gignere, meaning "to beget or create." Different cultures and different times have applied the concept of "genius" to different settings, but almost all of them involved the creation of something groundbreaking.

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.

Yeah, I think "genius" is a romantic notion which is meant to be mysterious. (That is, a genius has a mysterious superhero quality, and you're not really supposed to understand what's going on, unless you too are a genius. Personally, I think it has to do with intellectuals' desire to spread mysticism about the nature of their work.)

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."

Lets "think like a genius" and reconsider this notion of 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.

Just like there's different types of intelligence, beauty, taste, etc. So I'm cool with your definition.

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?!"

Was Marc Kac:

"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."

Mensa, a worldwide organization of self-described geniuses ... Should they not be regarded as geniuses? Why or why not?

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" [1]. 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.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mensa_International#Membership_...

> 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."


"On the trip home from the Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm, prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman stopped in Queens, N.Y., and looked up his high-school records. 'My grades were not as good as I remembered,' he said, 'and my I.Q. was 124, considered just above average.' "

James Gleick. (1992). Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.

I think that many people share my personal opinion that genius (specifically 'creative genius') is to some degree quite undefinable.

Think of 'genius' as something you get for free.

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.

Not disagreeing but I think the story is more complicated than that. I think Applying yourself is necessary but not sufficient for even half the battle. Self Application is itself a skill that is randomly distributed across the population. Applying yourself is hard and takes constant training. It also requires a level of determination that itself might be influenced by genetics and certainly aspects of the environment from your pivotal formative years that were outside your control. As you go through your life, events outside your control will influence (positively or negatively) your ability to apply yourself and your mental environment will influence the direction and magnitude of the impact these events have on your ability to self apply. The interplay is intertwined.

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.

Many of the greatest people in arts, sciences, mathematics are simply people who worked hard and thought outside the box. There's a little bit of luck there too as it's random if another will recognise a person for their hard work. Even after they die, for example Gregor Mendel: a monk who discovered the principals of genetics was realised to be brilliant posthumously.

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.

cf. Talent is overrated Geof Colvin, 2008 & "Deliberate Practice" in the making of an expert, Harvard Business Review, K Anders Ericsson, 2008 http://www.coachingmanagement.nl/The%20Making%20of%20an%20Ex...

And hard work oversold.

Thank you. I've been quite sceptical of 10000 hours of Deliberate Practice, etc; esp. after seeing Tiger Woods play golf at the age of two : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxPmzIKBris

It's been a long standing tradition to oversell the power of hard work. I believe the word for it is "hopium".

hopium, I like it!

Never forget the lazy genius that simply doesn't feel like sharing his wealth of insight with noobs.

"The best part: whether or not you apply yourself is under your control."

That assumes free will... It may seem an absurd topic, but it's far from closed [1].

[1] http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl (search "free will")

Genius is a sort of myth. For example, people seem to have the idea that before Charles Darwin, biology was in a dark age without any ideas other than intelligent design or some such. Well, no, Darwin was actually relatively unoriginal in his ideas about evolution, which was already commonplace in biological circles. He really just added a bit of sciency-but-not-quite-scientific rigor and coined the term "natural selection", then got famous for it.

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.

> Darwin was actually relatively unoriginal in his ideas about evolution, which was already commonplace in biological circles. He really just added a bit of sciency-but-not-quite-scientific rigor and coined the term "natural selection", then got famous for it.

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.

There actually exists some "hard-wired" geniuses, but not the kind of genius we would use to describe e.g. Darwin. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xd1gywPOibg

edit: Found a better reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superhuman

Yet some people produce brilliant things, others don't. While I also think that it might be attainable for everyone (at least start from birth, not sure about turning into a genius in later age), not everybody becomes a brilliant producer. A lot of circumstances have to come together (for example Mozart's father was apparently also one of the most famous music teachers of his time and started to train him from an early age). Maybe you could hire a brilliant music teacher and start training your child from age 3 and produce a music genius. But few people choose to do so.

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...

There are many other canonical examples of geniuses that serve as a good foundation for the myth of Genius. Think about how daring it was to propose some of the most unconventional scientific insights when there wasn't even enough experimental evidence to justify them (why would light speed ever be constant? why would anyone ever think light is emitted in discrete packets?). Those ideas sounded crazy enough as it is, now imagine taking the extra mile to create whole scientific theories around them.

You have the light speed thing backwards. People had already had a fair amount of evidence that the speed of light was constant, it's just one of those things that's hard to accept / build a reasonable model for why that might be the case. Think of it as an open question if the experiments where inaccurate or the universe was just strange. Until relatively came along and said, assume the speed of light is constant what would that mean?

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

The genius leap (from which special relativity is derived) is the postulate that it's constant for regardless of the state of motion. The older research mentions nothing of the sort.

No, there had already been some experiments that should have been accurate enough to detect the orbital motion of the earth and it's effect on the speed of light.

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

I don't think anybody had postulated the invariance of the speed of light before Einstein (except perhaps the ballistic theory). The michelson-morley and related experiments were interpreted as a "failure to detect the motion of aether", not as proof for light speed invariance. What's more, we now know that the michelson-morley result is was not even what motivated einstein, but it was one of the first results explained by his theory. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelson-Morley_experiment

As a fleshed out theory, no. There is no privileged frame of reference in Newtonian mechanics, so that's not exactly a new idea. People had been measuring the speed of light for a while, so light having speed X and no privileged frame of reference is no great leap over the 50+ years they had been measuring the speed of light it had probably occurred to thousands of people as one of the possibility's. The aether idea and ballistic theory where a few of the many possibility's being considered back then.

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.

What an empty and contentless post!

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.

Do you disagree with the effort in trying to find the commonalities between high-performing people, or merely the stated results?

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 think that was precisely the author's point: viz., the word "genius" is vacuous, amorphous, and altogether a meaningless label affixed to people whom the plurality deem exceptional in some manner. I believe the author's intended message is that it's the producer/consumer dichotomy combined with divergent thinking that's ingenious, rather than raw brain power.

> Richard Feynman, who many acknowledge to be the last great American genius (his IQ was a merely respectable 122).

I've always wanted a quick, one-line, anecdote as to why IQ is bullshit. I think I just found it.

If the IQ test is bullshit, this anecdote and your reasoning aren't good reasons to conclude that for several reasons, and to mention a few:

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. [0]

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Feynman#Early_life

There's so much misinformation about what the IQ test is for. It has become common understanding that it's a measure of intelligence (or ability, or potential), however it was never created for that nor ever intended to be that. In addition, intelligence is often seen as a fixed thing. Any reasonable and practical definition of intelligence is in complete contradiction to this idea.

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.”

I like this one-liner:


"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 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 [1]. 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.

[1] 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.

I believe the underlying idea in Hawking's comment isn't that people shouldn't boast, but it's that no information of value is conveyed in the act of boasting about one's IQ. This is due to an understanding that the IQ test does not (nor was ever intended to) be a standard and fixed measure of intelligence[1] or potential. Therefore it is a moot point to boast about.

[1] Any measure of intelligence that doesn't take potential into account is essentially worthless as a measure of intelligence.

(I'm interested also in many of the things that your "about" says so I will take this one step further.)

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'm interested in your thoughts here.

Concerning a): 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 ;).

Concerning b): 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.

If you search hard enough, you can find a one-line anecdote to support any position.

"A witty saying proves nothing."


(Hey, it works!)

He almost certainly flubbed it on purpose, or is just lying. Also, it was never meant to differentiate geniuses.

Also, you don't need quick, one-line, anecdote to explain why 1 (one) is not statistically significant. It's actually pretty obvious.

How can there be a "last great American genius." Assuming genius is a statistical percentage of the population born every year, wouldn't there be just as many if not more currently than in the past?

The same way there can there be a "last Tuesday".

It's not bullshit, it's just that it isn't the only factor to keep in mind, and after a certain point, higher IQ doesn't seem to do much.

Likewise, vos Savant's score is a bit dubious: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_vos_Savant#Rise_to_fame...

There's something to the IQ scores, but error bars are large and the meaning controversial.

"merely respectable 122"

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.

On the other hand it's a Feynman story, so take the 122 figure with a huge grain of salt.

In the text it states that "Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken".

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 think a lot of people have their difference of perspective socialized out of them at a pretty young age. My oldest son has a long list of differences from the norm. I was very tolerant if his oddities. Then I got really sick and a) actively avoided being inculcated with the conventional view of my problem and b) bounced a lot of ideas off my son, who knows way more science than I know and was never broken to fit the normal social mold. Then I gradually got well. So I think it is very possible to cultivate that different point of view.

Yeh thats true, but i think the key is (as you suggested) he had many differences/oddities from the beginning (a very young age), you being a good father didnt tell him to change or fit the normal mold but encouraged that differences in thought. If that different way of thinking for your son are signs of genius then you cultivated it but its origins can not be explained or learnt by trying to think in the same way .... which frankly sucks.

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.

Sorry to not be clear. I meant that I figured out how to get myself well, in part by intentionally avoiding the conventional views of my condition. My son was enormously helpful and my academic record is reasonably respectable. But it was very much a conscious choice on my part to find another answer in part by intentionally putting on blinders.

I've long thought that the model of "genius" as a "really smart person" was a hopelessly flawed model. There are simply too many different kinds and measures of "smartness" to collapse all of them under such a simple umbrella.

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.

I totally agree and in fact I would go further to say that the notion of 'genius' is nothing more than an inchoate, rudimentary classification system used to group together successes or extremes in the realm of mental pursuits. Handy when you want to evince notions of extreme-ness but since there are thousands of different possible mental pursuits, the term is basically meaningless.

> 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.

First you have to define what you mean by "genius", preferably in some way that is at least generally consistent with the commonly understood meanings. Then you have to assemble an unbiased set (very difficult) of people that fit your definition. Then you have to see what styles of thought that you didn't explicitly or implicitly filter for by your definition are also largely (and disproportionately) present in your set of geniuses.

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.

This article lists a few characteristics that intelligent and successful (for some definition thereof) people have. The characteristics seem to be neither necessary nor sufficient and the examples are clearly cherry-picked. If there's any scientific or research basis for asserting them, the author hasn't shared.

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.

Thank you for pointing this out. I'm not sure why people just assume that what this author says is true. The author never shows that "geniuses" even think the way the author claims they do. Did Richard Feynman use this approach? Do a majority of people who have influenced their fields in large and meaningful ways also do this? Who knows, the author provides no evidence. I think a much better exposition on problem solving strategies is George Pólya's How to Solve It [0] and without the pseudoscientific analysis on genius.

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 [1].

[0] http://www.math.utah.edu/~pa/math/polya.html

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

That's basically the premise of Good to Great and Built to Last.

Has there ever been a book or news article that actually made an attempt to randomly sample individuals/companies and tease out relationships between some hypothesized factor and outcome?

It doesn't even seem like you have to be much of a genius to do this...

This article is quite interesting.

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.

Well, in the summary he cites some evidence that "geniusness" can be learned, at least if your teacher himself is a genius. "J. J. Thompson and Ernest Rutherford between them trained seventeen Nobel laureates" - quite a coincidence.

Of course, they were the top people in their fields and so attracted the top students. Having good people coming in helps with a person's production of great people.

Maybe they had just accumulated a good set of heuristics for doing good research.

i wonder though -- if geniuses think a certain way, will training yourself to think along those lines increase your brainpower by teaching you to think more critically? I've read a lot of stuff recently on the ability humans have to actually increase their intelligence (though it's still a pretty controversial subject).

No emulation doesnt make you a genius; but maybe it can help to bring you just that tiny step closer?

Of course you'll be closer to a "genius" if you act like one or better yet, have one as your mentor.

If you're lazy, though, you can always just tail a genius, then steal his thunder :-D

I have been working and thinking in many of these ways but as I am not prolific at creating revolutionary ideas I suspect that this mindset is not enough for genius to arise. The article also lacks consideration over the positional requirements for acclaim.

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?

First of all, IQ tests are bullshit.

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.

P.S. Just my opinion, please don't downvote (or downvote just this comment, it's separated for that reason): I don't believe creativity in arts equals genius. I find that most of the expensive pictures of old plain and simply suck and are only popular/expensive because of their exclusivity and because the people who can afford them are willing to pay that price (I understand that - I would probably want to buy the first painting a human ever made).

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.

I was recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, and I saw many paintings that were, in my view, works of genius. One in particular was a 19th century, full-length portrait of what was clearly a bored teenager. That is, I could clearly tell, through facial expression and posture, that this young woman was bored. My claim is that the artist who made it had a genius-level understanding of how to paint people. He had to be able to consciously recognize the visual cues that most of us unconsciously process, and he had to be able to convey that in paint. Because of the thought processes required to create it, I consider it a work of genius.

These 'squares' and 'buckets of paint' are part of a historical view to understanding the history of human development and I would consider you look at each period of art as more than just figurative representations of light, but as representations of how we view ourselves and our humanity. We can go back thousands of years and trace how society has grown through art, from the rock paintings of thousands of years ago when they believed the spirit of the animal existed in it's figurative representation, reflected in the animal worship and the full respect of nature of those cultures, to the 20th abstract work where advances in psychology, human rights, education, etc, lead us to the postmodern age we live in now, where not everything is black or white or is the way it is just because it looks a certain way. Art, great art, has a way of representing who we are, and I would contest your argument that it does not take a genius to unveil the intricacies of a human mind.


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.

The "making lots of stuff whether it's good or not" is my biggest issue - frankly, being prolific results in faster iteration on ideas, which contributes to genius.

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.

A more in-depth exploration of the topic is in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Re finding a needle in a haystack: On an email list for parents of gifted kids, some folks shared the unconventional "mom, you are a retard" reactions of bright kids to this proverbial problem. The one I recall: Set the haystack on fire. The needle will survive but the hay will not.

Genius is just a word. As someone said before, we're all geniuses. It's all about your willpower to use it, train it, or not.

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.

All these comments seem to be missing the point.. Sure these aren't the traits that make up 'genius, sure 'genius' probably can't even be quantified or reduced to this level, but nonetheless these are all qualities we can learn from and adapt as we pursue our own paths.

I stopped reading when they quoted Freud as a genius.

You have to consider how things were before Freud before dismissing him. Before Freud there was no idea that the mind subconsciously processed information. Although his ideas of how psychology works were very "infantile", they were the first attempt to investigate the subconscious, thus revolutionary.

I think Genius is the ability to take two different ideas, merge them, and come up with a new idea: invention through prediction. Children are amazing at this until it is torn out of them via the education system, peers and adults (in general).

I think a lot is due to side effects, such as the need to fit in / be like everyone else. The easiness of following what's already there, basically, the laziness of the mind.

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?

Agree with this point. I'm 26, and I find that I am most inventive and creative when I'm doing something others would label as "child-like."

I really like the point that there are often more than one possibly "right answers" and many people look to give the same answer everyone else is giving.

..others, look for other, strange, non traditional right answers. I like those people.

Most of these geniuses also fall under 10% of the worlds' population : Lefties.

No mention of polyphasic sleeping?

I tend to phrase this as intelligence by attitude.

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.

I don't know what a "genius" really is, unless it just means someone who's a) prolific in an intellectual field, b) releases high quality work and c) maybe contributed to a fairly "revolutionary" understanding of their field.

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.

Au contraire, i think, just like really great art, it's easy for an average person like me to identify genius when we see it.

Except that generally, the average person knows little about the inner workings of things.

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.

Twitter s not genius, it's great incremental technology. Wolfram alpha is genius

I think not having fear of being "wrong" must be a part of it also.

I think you are on to something here. I have worked with many very smart men and women who couldn't produce. I have know doubt that they were smarter than me (more knowledgable, quicker to answers, generally quicker to understand techniques and maths). Despite this, they would spend absurd amounts of time on fairly simple stuff. There was some need to "do it the right way" that led to effective paralysis. I'm not trying to diminish the importance of doing "it" right, but sometimes it is easier to just iterate than get the best solution from first priciples, particularly when we don't know the "right" way to begin with!

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).

I am working with some of those types of people right now. Researchers, who are undeniably smart, but seem to be far behind on their project goals, micro-managing incidental tasks, and not focusing on the big picture.

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.

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