Does Genius Exist?

Thought I'd take a small step back from the end of the world to talk about the notion of genius.

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?


Julie Weathers said...

I think he is so far off base it's unreal. Mozart started composing at three.

Leonardo Da Vinci's painting instructor never painted again when he saw Leonardo's work on a mural that was being painted by several students who each had equal access.

The stories go on of creative geniuses who had very humble beginnings, but something was always there. Something others could not touch if they practiced a hundred years.

LM Preston said...

I think genious does exist. In some cases it's on the edge of insanity.

B.E. Sanderson said...

For what it's worth, I think all of Gladwell's ingredients are necessary for true genius, but like you said, genius takes talent or a knack for something. I'd also substitute 'drive' for 'love' in the list. When I was young, I played the flute. I had all of Gladwell's ingredients and I even had a fair amount of talent, but I never had the drive it would take to really be great.

Sarah N Fisk said...

Personally, I think Gladwell is confusing the concept of "genius" with what it takes for a ingrained genius to manifest. There is something there that no amount of hard work or love or circumstance will attract.

For example, I had this friend in college who was, by all accounts, a kinematics (study of motion) genius. It took him two minutes to understand and apply concepts it took the rest of us weeks to develop a fuzzy understanding of. However, he doesn't care for the field. He cares about aerodynamics, which he doesn't have as much of a knack for. He got his bachelor's degree and moved on to the working world even though everyone tried to convince him to do research in the kinematics field. He's still a genius, but the world will never recognize him as such.

I read once that Joshua Bell's (world-class violinist) mother discovered him at the age of four stretching rubber bands across the handles of his dresser and plucking them to recreate sounds he had heard on a piano.

Marcia said...

Yes, genius exists; if it didn't, how do you explain not only the Mozarts and DaVincis, but the savants. Most of those who are both geniuses AND recognized as such are both gifted by God (in both the gift itself and perhaps a fortuitous circumstance like Gates's that lights the fire, and maybe even in drive) AND able to grasp that even the genius needs to work harder than anyone else. But there are still those few geniuses who, either because they aren't old enough yet to work at it, or don't have the capacity in other ways, just ARE.

Unknown said...

I love Malcolm Gladwell, but disagree about the concept of genius, which I view as an innate aptitude toward something specific--they're born with it. Whether that person becomes successful, however, is what they do with that talent. That's where those other factors come into play.

Gertie said...

Fascinating topic. It's interesting to me that "circumstances" could be synonymous with "privilege" in this case. How much does class play into our perception of genius? It certainly allows people access to the tools that they need (whether it be pianos or computers) to become the masters that they are.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

I think geniuses have a different perspective on matters than the rest of us do. They can look at a problem and come up with a solution that seems obvious in retrospect yet is still something the ordinary person would have never thought of. They're also not afraid to break the rules and try new things. For example, the Beatles did not have professional musical training, but they weren't afraid to incorporate new sounds into their music. Sometimes John Lennon would come up with an idea for a song (he'd want it to sound like monks chanting or a carnival), but he'd need the help of his producer, who did have musical training, to make it work. Sure, the factors like drive and talent are important, but so is creativity.

Jeff Hirsch said...

Interesting thoughts everyone! Sure, I don't deny, and don't think Gladwell would either, that there are some folks out there who fit the traditional definition of genius. Bolt out of the blue freaks of nature. I do think they are exceedingly rare though.

I even think if we look into some of the most famous examples of genius we'll see just as much drive (or love) and practice as we see talent. Would The Beatles have become what they did without those years of obscurity playing 8 hour sets 7 days a week in Hamburg? Would Mozart be Mozart if his father didn't have him crisscrossing Europe for 9 or 10 years playing constantly?

Another maybe related genius a state of being--something that you simply are whether you use it or not? Or is it active, talent raised to it's highest level through work and an almost ridiculous amount of dedication? In other words, is a seed a tree if it's never been planted?

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I didn't read the entire thing, but just glancing at it, I'm wondering: what about child geniuses? You know, those children who can write brilliant music at the age of four, or those kids that understand *insert topic* better than adults. I happen to believe that there are certain cases where genius exists. Of course, if you are just talking 'Bill Gates' type genius, you are right, he had to work at it and love what he was doing, really be involved.

Jeff Hirsch said...

Hi Kathryn,

I think child geniuses are an interesting case. From everything I've ever read (and I'm by no means an expert) these sorts of child prodigies, at least in the arts, are generally imitative rather than truly creative in their own right. They paint just like Monet. They play just like Coltrane. It's amazing but not really new.

I can't think of a case where the creative work of someone earlier than, say, their teens ever really stood the test of time. Going back to Mozart, sure he was composing when he was 5 but not anything that anyone is listening to anymore. As far as I can tell he didn't compose a really significant piece of music until his teens, after he had been practicing for ten years or more. Which is still pretty amazing I reckon.

Sarah N Fisk said...

Another maybe related genius a state of being--something that you simply are whether you use it or not? Or is it active, talent raised to it's highest level through work and an almost ridiculous amount of dedication? In other words, is a seed a tree if it's never been planted?

I think what many of us are saying is that it's both. We can have a genius that is recognized and exercised, but we can also have one that's not. Maybe we need two different words? :-)