Being a Genius - sometimes

What is genius?

Our interest in this question was piqued by reading Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by Andy Hunt. This book begins with the idea that your brain is a machine (or a computer) and that you can get the most out of it by running it properly. Rather than resorting to energy drinks etc., Hunt discusses the habits that can help make you "smarter". Two ideas we took away from the book that have been especially helpful are the "ideas book" and "Mind Maps".

The "idea book" is a small notebook you carry around with you to write your ideas down in as they come to you. Most of us have ideas all day long but never retain them, much less act on them. Every day, you should set aside time to review the ideas in your book, expand on them, discard the unworkable ones and determine next steps for the workable ones. The overall effect of this is to keep you moving forward with your ideas.

A "Mind Map" is a drawing that helps you visualize the way ideas are connected in your brain. It is quite literally meant to be a map of your mind, or least the part of it that is concerend with some topic. We've used them here at realgenius and have found that they tend to bring ideas to our attention that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Another very good book that's been making the rounds here recently is Davind Shenk's The Genius In All Of Us. Shenk reexamines the role of genetics in genius arguing, convincingly that it is behavior, commitment and passion that gives rise to what we call genius, not good genes. Also discussed is the "10,000 hours" theory which says that it takes about 10K hours of disciplined, focused study and pratice to achieve mastery in any field. It doesn't matter what the field is, from cooking to quantum physics, it'll take you about 10K hours to become a master. The 10K theory is also discussed in Andy Hunt's book, by the way.

Shenk maintains a blog for the book here.

The 10,000 Hour theory was popularized by Malcom Gladwell. About his book Outliers, Publisher's Weekly said:

     "Outliers begins with a provocative look at why certain five-year-old boys enjoy an advantage in ice hockey, and how these advantages accumulate over time. We learn what Bill Gates, the Beatles and Mozart had in common: along with talent and ambition, each enjoyed an unusual opportunity to intensively cultivate a skill that allowed them to rise above their peers."     

Towards the end of the book, Gladwell makes the following statement that we heartily agree with:

     "To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success...with a society that provides opportunities to all."     

If this statement seems outrageous or foolish, we encourage you to go read Outliers and judge for yourself the three hundred pages of gathered research with which Gladwell leads up to this statement.

     In addition to the 10K theory of mastery, Gladwell discusses the importannce of "cultural legacy" which can limit what we consider possible, and the ways in which we feel capable of acting. Gladwell examines the role of cultural lecagy in causing plane crashes and provides compelling evidence for the power of legacies over our thinking. Here at rgi, we're not sure what the full implications of this really are, but we're intrigued, to say the least.

We lean towards the idea that human civilization is moving gradually from the belief that abilities and privileges are either granted by God or passed on via heredity, to the idea that they are created through individual and group efforts. Those who's sense of worth derives from the belief that they have "good genes" or that they are "right with god" will of course resist the idea that actions matter more than origins, but as Shenk explains quite clearly, the notion of genetic determination is really not supported by the science around genetics: it's merely a popular mis-conception.

So the good news is that if you want to be a genius, you've got a shot. The bad news is, it's going to be a lot of work, you need to be passionately committed to your goal, and you'll need to sustain that commitment and passion over several years of hard, focused work. Clearly it's best to start young, when you have more free time, and someone else is paying the bills. Further, for such a long term commitment, choice of goal is crucial. Do you really want to dedicate a big chunk of your life to masterin, say, sculpting with popsicle sticks? We're not judging the world's many great popsicle sculptors here, we're just saying that if you are going to spend years mastering something, you should think pretty carefully about what you'll do with that ability once you have it.