Three Longs & Three Shorts

How to be a genius

Craig Wright is a professor at Yale where he teaches a course on “genius” (in the competitive job market these days, nothing less will do). His most recent book is The Hidden Habits of Genius: Beyond Talent, IQ, and Grit – Unlocking the Secrets of Greatness (2020). In this really interesting long essay he simplifies the secret sauce to becoming a genius into a simple mathematical formula.
First, Mr Wright – a musician and then a musicologist by training – helps us benefit from his years of researching geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven and Elizabeth I by defining the term ‘genius’: “A genius is a person of extraordinary mental powers whose original works or insights change society in some significant way for good or for ill across cultures and across time.”
Then he unveils the ‘genius equation’: “Here was a formula that students and the populace at large could immediately grasp:
G = S x N x D
Genius (G) equals Significance (S) of the degree of impact or change effected (Alexander Fleming’s life-saving penicillin vs Kanye West’s latest style of Yeezy sneakers) times the Number (N) of people impacted (about 200 million lives saved vs 280,000 pairs of shoes sold) times Duration (D) of impact (antibiotics have been around for 80 years; the life of a shoe is use-dependent).”
Mr Wright then points that in the context of this equation, it is easy to see why a genius is defined by the society and context in which he lives eg. if you put a mind like Albert Einstein in the middle of the Sahara Desert, the great man’s ability to think through complex physics is of little or no significance to anyone in the Sahara (so ‘S’ and ‘N’ are low in the above equation). “As the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said, for creativity to occur, it takes two to tango: an original thinker and a receptive society. Multiple choice: is an Einstein alone on a desert island a genius, a non-genius, or a genius in potential? Is the unheeded seer a prophet crying in the wilderness – or a lunatic?”
This interpretation of genius means that every society, every tribe contains within in people who deserve to be called geniuses by that tribe: “Take, for example, what I learned from young members of Native American descent. I remember in particular students from the Navajo Nation and from the Shoshone Tribe who had a similar – but, to me, radically new – way of thinking of human accomplishment, one that could be boiled down to ‘the genius of the community’. To them, the woman who designed a rug pattern, now replicated for generations, was a genius, but no one knew her name.”
This interpretation of genius – as an individual who by herself can trigger enormous positive impact – Mr Wright says is also uniquely Western. East Asians, for example, find the Western concept of ‘genius’ to be strange: “A Japanese student told me of an ‘anti-genius’ aphorism from his native country: ‘The nail that sticks up the most gets hammered down the hardest.’ Asian students generally expressed an intense curiosity about Western genius owing to the (for them) novel notion of a single transformative individual. Yes, more and more I came to see that genius is indeed cultural; the notion of individual immanent genius seems to have emerged during the 18th century, in part because it mapped well on to a Western, expansionist, capitalist ideal under which individual property, especially intellectual property, could increasingly be generated and would enjoy legal protection. I was never averse to any of that but now, at least, I was more mindful of the historical basis and bias of my intellectual leanings….Genius is not an absolute but a human construct that’s dependent on time, place and culture.”
There is one more finding that Mr Wright talks about which should make us more wary of foisting on our kids a Western educational construct underpinned by psychometric testing (given that most of don’t live in Western societies): “IQ, it turns out, is overrated and so, too, are other standardised tests, grades, Ivy League schools and mentors. Stephen Hawking didn’t read until he was eight; Picasso and Beethoven couldn’t do basic mathematics. Jack Ma, John Lennon, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, Charles Darwin, William Faulkner and Steve Jobs likewise were all academic underachievers.
If IQ is overrated, curiosity and persistence are not. Nor is a having a childlike imagination through adult life, the capacity to relax so as to allow disparate ideas to coalesce into new, original ones, and the ability to construct a habit for work so as to get the product out the door. Finally, if you want to live a long life, get a passion. Geniuses are passionate optimists who on average outlive the general populace by more than a decade.”