What makes up a Genius? Most of us in North America imagine the “geniuses” who come up with great new ideas as people who seem to have everything lined up, who don’t need anyone else because it’s their singular genius that makes the day. True brilliance shows in people who get everything done the right way, quickly and efficiently. They are born that way, ready to go.
The science writer Bill Bryson’s description of Ernest Rutherford, the early 20th century physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his investigations into radiation, will therefore feel more than a little shocking:
For all his success, Rutherford was not an especially brilliant man and was actually pretty terrible at mathematics. Often during lectures he would get so lost in his own equations that he would give up halfway through and tell the students to work it out for themselves. According to his longtime colleague James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron, he wasn’t even particularly clever at experimentation. He was simply tenacious and openminded. For brilliance he substituted shrewdness and a kind of daring. His mind, in the words of one biographer, was “always operating out towards the frontiers, as far as he could see, and that was a great deal further than most other men.” Confronted with an intractable problem, he was prepared to work at it harder and longer than most people and to be more receptive to unorthodox explanations.[A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition, 2005 (2003), New York: Broadway Books, pp. 171]
That short quotation about “operating out towards the frontiers” comes from (I think) David Wilson’s Rutherford: Simple Genius (1983). It drives home the first feature of genius, one that I have made several times here:
Intelligence deals with our ability to have longer or farther horizons in our thinking.
This time horizon appears to grow at an innate rate, or at least the rate seems fixed for most of us by the time we are in our 20s. Our ability to see out the complexity and uncertainty of the future grows in a predictable path. This determines our capacity for work. The higher the capacity, the larger the work you can; that is, the farther you can think out into the future, handling the increasing uncertainties as time horizons grow.
Think of it as the size of your intelligence “bucket”: you can’t fill it more than it can hold. Those two liters of Kool-Aid won’t fit into that one liter jug, as my daughter can attest.
Owen Jacobs, who led the Behavioral and Social Sciences part of the Army Research Institute — and who wrote key articles with Elliot Jaques and other on this — believes that the rate can be changed with massively great effort. Which is interesting, because it ties into the second quality of Real Genius.
Hard work matters. A lot.
Rutherford didn’t just think out towards the frontiers. He was certainly famous for his brilliant insights, a intuition that uncannily found the answer without all the mucking around in the equations that others did. But those writers often forget the years of hard work Rutherford put in to have the knowledge to put those insights together.
According to Bryson’s chapter on him, Rutherford personally performed hundreds off failed experiments, without using the usual lab slaves. At the time, Scientists were men who thought up Big Ideas that were then implemented or tested by lab workers, always underpaid and often women with no chance of advancement in the field. It was much like the case of software developers who have never supported a production system.
After several years of this, he had seen so many results that he could make connections that others couldn’t. He had the capacity to see things that others couldn’t because he had put in the hours doing the basic hard work to get the knowledge to then “intuit” the pattern.
It’s not just his capacity but his tenacity. Rutherford was willing to do scientific drudge work often reserved for female assistants, spending hours watching the experiment fail to produce any results. This marriage of capacity, personality and situation is what led to him change the world of physics.
Think of the bucket analogy again. You may only have a bucket that is so big. But what have you done to fill it? There is no shortcut, really, to fulfilling your capacity. You have to fill the bucket.
It needs to include a lot of reading, often scattershot. Owen Jacobs, in a presentation in Toronto a decade ago, said that one of the things high-potential officers had in common was a massive pile of books by the bedside, so to speak. They read often and widely. It gave them the fodder they needed to make bizarre connections across domains that are necessary to address our toughest problems. In today’s information-driven world of the Creative Class, this is something you just have to do.
But it can’t just be reading. You have to do things and doing takes time and practice. You have to learn and gain mastery. Researchers say that while being a Genius at something may take 20,000 hours, being pretty darn good at it may take only 1,000. But it still takes time.
And it takes stinking at it for awhile. You can’t be good at something right away.
One component of genius is beyond your control at this point in your life. The other is still something you can take control of.
What are you doing to fill your bucket?[Title explanation: I actually paid money in the 1980s to see that film….]
Image credit: Sand bucket on the beach of Punta del Este, Uruguay. David (CC BY 2.0).