Does Genius Exist?
I was listening to Radiolab in the gym the other day and they were doing a really interesting interview with Malcolm Gladwell about the concept. The whole thing is here if you want to check it out and you can also download it on iTunes.
Gladwell rejects the classical idea of genius. Whether we're talking about artistic geniuses, or geniuses in math or science of what have you, he says the traditional notion that genius is this random bomb that drops on an individual and magically renders them brilliant is nonsense.
If I'm hearing him right he's saying that extraordinarily successful people, or "geniuses," become that way because of three basic factors:
Circumstances - One instance Gladwell talks about is how the high school Bill Gates attended happened to have a computer he could use to do some serious programming. Now, this was in 1968 we're talking about here, this was a rare thing. Just think how different Gates' life might have been if it wasn't for this extraordinary circumstance. Sure, he may have still gotten involved in computers later on, but would he have become who he was without the head start afforded by availability of that computer? Who knows.
Love - Gladwell says it's love for the game that's the key difference between the achiever and the non-achiever. Going back to Bill Gates, as a fifteen year old boy he made himself get out of bed from 2AM to 6AM five days a week just so he could program in addition to his regular schoolwork. Could he have done that if he didn't have a love for coding that was off the charts intense? Gladwell says it's this love that not only causes people to do the practice they need to do, but creates a fixation that leads them to think about their subject in a deeper and more complex way than others.
Practice - Or really I should say practice practice practice practice. Here, Gladwell sites the 10,000 rule, the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of focused practice to achieve mastery of a subject. So when Gladwell is talking about practice he is talking about a serious amount of practice. He's talking about a level of dedication that few people can muster.
The only thing really missing for me is some idea of talent. Gladwell is a little squirrelly on whether or not he believes in the existence of talent (he seems to give primacy to love) but for me it's gotta be in there somewhere, even if it's not the most important part of the equation. Heck, maybe talent is even too grand a word. Call it a knack. You start out life with a knack for words, or computers, or math, or hockey and when that collides with circumstances that support it and a love for it that fuels you to practice and develop that knack, then I think you have something.
And besides, if we look at highly successful people not as people touched by God, but rather as people who got where they are because of a number of factors, some of which can be controlled, maybe we can do a better job helping to nurture that success in ourselves and others. Gladwell's definition of genius isn't passive. It's something you strive towards.
That just seems more helpful, and more hopeful, to me.
What do you all think? Do you buy this way of looking at genius? Would you add anything to this list of factors that support success? What factors go you where you are?
Posted by Jeff Hirsch at Wednesday, August 04, 2010
The League of Extraordinary Writers is a group of debut YA authors who write science fiction and dystopian works. The ten of us have works that run the gamut of near-future mind control to far-future space travel, but they do have one thing in common: a future where the Earth we know now is twisted, gone.