Want to know how to be a genius? There are five things you can learn from looking at those who are the very best.
1) Be curious and driven
For his book Creativity, noted professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did interviews with 91 groundbreaking individuals across a number of disciplines, including 14 Nobel Prize winners. In 50 Psychology Classics Tom Butler-Bowdon summed up many of Csikszentmihalyi's findings including this one:
Successful creative people tend to have two things in abundance, curiosity and drive. They are absolutely fascinated by their subject, and while others may be more brilliant, their sheer desire for accomplishment is the decisive factor. [50 Psychology Classics]
2) It's not about formal education. It's about hours at your craft.
Do you need a sky-high IQ? Do great geniuses all have PhD's? Nope. Most had about a college-dropout level of education.
Dean Keith Simonton, a professor at the University of California at Davis, conducted a large-scale study of more than three hundred creative high achievers born between 1450 and 1850 — Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Beethoven, Rembrandt, for example. He determined the amount of formal education each had received and measured each one's level of eminence by the spaces devoted to them in an array of reference works. He found that the relation between education and eminence, when plotted on a graph, looked like an inverted U: The most eminent creators were those who had received a moderate amount of education, equal to about the middle of college. Less education than that — or more — corresponded to reduced eminence for creativity. [Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else]
But they all work their asses off in their field of expertise. That's how to be a genius.
"Sooner or later," Pritchett writes, "the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing." [Daily Rituals: How Artists Work]
In fact, you really can't work too much.
If we're looking for evidence that too much knowledge of the domain or familiarity with its problems might be a hindrance in creative achievement, we have not found it in the research.
Instead, all evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. The most eminent creators are consistently those who have immersed themselves utterly in their chosen field, have devoted their lives to it, amassed tremendous knowledge of it, and continually pushed themselves to the front of it. [Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else]
3) Test your ideas
Howard Gardner studied geniuses like Picasso, Freud, and Stravinsky and found a similar pattern of analyzing, testing, and feedback used by all of them:
…Creative individuals spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on what they are trying to accomplish, whether or not they are achieving success (and, if not, what they might do differently). [Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi]
Does testing sound like something scientific and uncreative? Wrong. The more creative an artist is the more likely they are to use this method:
In a study of thirty-five artists, Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi found that the most creative in their sample were more open to experimentation and to reformulating their ideas for projects than their less creative counterparts. [Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries]
4) You Must Sacrifice
10,000 hours is a hell of a lot of hours. It means many other things (some important) will need to be ignored.
In fact, geniuses are notably less likely to be popular in high school. Why?
…the single-minded focus on what would turn out to be a lifelong passion, is typical for highly creative people. According to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who between 1990 and 1995 studied the lives of ninety-one exceptionally creative people in the arts, sciences, business, and government, many of his subjects were on the social margins during adolescence, partly because "intense curiosity or focused interest seems odd to their peers." Teens who are too gregarious to spend time alone often fail to cultivate their talents "because practicing music or studying math requires a solitude they dread." [Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking]
At the extremes, the amount of practice and devotion required can pass into the realm of the pathological. If hours alone determine genius then it is inevitable that reaching the greatest heights will require, quite literally, obsession.
My study reveals that, in one way or another, each of the creators became embedded in some kind of a bargain, deal, or Faustian arrangement, executed as a means of ensuring the preservation of his or her unusual gifts. In general, the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal existence. The nature of this arrangement differs: In some cases (Freud, Eliot, Gandhi), it involves the decision to undertake an ascetic existence; in some cases, it involves a self-imposed isolation from other individuals (Einstein, Graham); in Picasso's case, as a consequence of a bargain that was rejected, it involves an outrageous exploitation of other individuals; and in the case of Stravinsky, it involves a constant combative relationship with others, even at the cost of fairness. What pervades these unusual arrangements is the conviction that unless this bargain has been compulsively adhered to, the talent may be compromised or even irretrievably lost. And, indeed, at times when the bargain is relaxed, there may well be negative consequences for the individual's creative output. [Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi]
5) Work because of passion, not money
Passion produces better art than desire for financial gain — and that leads to more success in the long run.
"Those artists who pursued their painting and sculpture more for the pleasure of the activity itself than for extrinsic rewards have produced art that has been socially recognized as superior," the study said. "It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards who eventually receive them." [Dan Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us]
Join 45K+ subscribers. Get a free weekly update via email here.
More from Barking Up The Wrong Tree...
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Watch out, China — America is working on dogfighting drones
- How liberals are unwittingly paving the way for the legalization of adult incest
- Why America won't have enough money to battle ISIS
- Why the Chinese military is only a paper dragon
- The troubling persistence of eugenicist thought in modern America
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover revealed the worst of both shows
- 11 facts yü should know about the umlaut
- Libertarianism's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea
Subscribe to the Week