The 3 Traits of a Genius


What is Genius?

With all the hoopla surrounding the upcoming Superbowl and Peyton Manning, it’s not surprising to see articles like this one in Slate stating that Peyton Manning is a genius:

After a tenth 4,000-yard passing season, a career-best 68.8 completion percentage, and a chance to win his second Super Bowl ring this Sunday in Miami, it’s time to state the obvious: Yes, Peyton Manning is obsessive. But he’s also a genius. The two go throwing-hand in football-glove. It’s understood that extraordinary athletes like Manning and Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are freaks. But they’re respected freaks because they do something valued by society.

As well as stating that Manning is a football genius, the article goes on to point out that an interesting point. Society only calls you a genius if you are obsessed with something it finds valuable (like football). What if your “genius” was jumping the further than anyone else on a pogo stick. Would people actually call you a genius or would they call you insane?

So in order to be a genius you at least have to be great at something that society values, but what are the other common attributes of a genius? Malcolm Gladwell gave a speech in 2007 at the New Yorker Conference where he described three traits common to geniuses: Obsession, Isolation and Insight.

1) Obsession

Genuises are obsessed with the one thing that they do. Andre Agassi was hitting 2500 tennis balls a day — a million a year before he was even a teenager.
And what about Peyton Manning? Here’s how the Slate article described his obsession:

A common theme in virtually every profile of Peyton Manning is the Super Bowl quarterback’s legendary devotion to football. At age 12, he exhorted his pee-wee linemen to block harder. He started deconstructing NFL game video in high school. He arrived at college six weeks early to work out with upperclassmen. A few days after the Indianapolis Colts made him the first pick of the 1998 draft, he had the team playbook memorized. He orders rookies to meet him on the field at 8 a.m. the Monday after they are drafted. He falls asleep watching tape in the basement of his Indianapolis home

Wow! This guy is football crazy, but you gotta love his devotion. I imagine the hardest thing would be keeping up this level of interest in one thing. Agassi got to a point where he hated tennis because he played it so much. It has to be hard to maintain that level of intensity.

2) Isolation

Geniuses typically work on their craft at the expense of social connections. A biography of Warren Buffet described how his wife would have people over, but instead of visiting he would spend his time in his room reading financial reports.
It reminds me of quote from Randy Pausch, author of the bestselling Last Lecture. When asked how he got tenure early, he replied:

Call me at my office at 10 o’clock on Friday night and I’ll tell you

While geniuses may be physically isolated they typically build on the research and key discoveries of others in reaching their key insight.

3) Insight

Usually, after years of toil, the genius comes to a key insight that garners him long-lasting recognition. The canonical example of the flash of insight is the story of Newton sitting under an apple tree. While sitting there an apple dropped on his head and in a flash of insight he had the theory of gravity.

While this story sounds great, there are many who doubt its authenticity, including Scott Berkin who wrote an excellent book on the Myths of Innovation:

Now my point here is not to say epiphanies never happen. Most creative people have them now and then, and I do too (but I argue they are overrated and do not eliminate the hard work and risk that follows them. Newton worked for a decade to complete his theory on gravity that he became famous for). I’m also not questioning Newton’s genius – he was one. But reasonable doubt about this legend is warranted given the extremely thin evidence we have.

So for you future geniuses out there it’s time to start getting obsessed, isolating yourself and focusing on an insight. Don’t worry, it should only take roughly 10 years of focused study.

Life After Life: What Happens After We Die?


What happens after we die? It’s the question that I think everyone has pondered at one time or another. Yet, it’s a tough one to answer. It’s not like you can easily gather evidence. There isn’t exactly a steady stream of people that we can ask about life after death and it’s not anything you want to try out.

We can look to our churches and holy texts to see what they have to say. Most would say that there is some kind of afterlife, and that there is a spirit that lives on in some form or another, but they are pretty light on the details.

Luckily, as medical technology has advanced, doctors are beginning to bring more and more people back from death’s door. Some of them are actually “clinically” dead (ie – without a steady heartbeat) before being brought back. What would they say from their experience being nearly-dead and would their stories match?

That’s the question that Dr. Raymond Moody set out to study in his now classic book Life After Life. He collected the stories of hundreds of Near Death Experience (NDE) survivors and published them in a book along with his analysis. What he found is that even though the people and the cause of their near-death varied, their actual experiences while “dead” were surprisingly similar. 


Almost all of the people he studied went through a variation of the following “stages” in their NDE roughly in this order:

  • Hearing the News – Many report hearing doctors or accident spectators pronounce them dead and later (after being resuscitated) are able to repeat the exact words back.
  • Feeling Peaceful – Even though many of the stories he collected were gruesome car accidents or war wounds, the people who experienced them described their first feeling as that of peace and comfort.
  • The Noise – After dying, many report hearing a noise that’s most often described as a ringing or buzzing. Sometimes it takes the form of bells or something more musical.
  • The Dark Tunnel – After hearing the noise, many recall being pulled through into a dark tunnel.
  • Out of Body – Throughout the experience, they describe being out of their body and seeing it on the operating table or still behind the wheel of the crashed car.
  • Meeting Others – Many report seeing other people such as departed family members or old deceased friends.
  • Being of Light – They recall meeting a “being of light” that takes many forms (depending on a person’s religious background) and who communicates with them in a non-verbal way usually asking them to say what they had done with their life and if they were ready to die.
  • The Review – After seeing the being of light, they report seeing something akin to a slideshow of their lives starting from when they were young to the present.
  • Effect on Lives – After coming back to life, many report being forever changed and seeing life as deeper and more precious. They also emphasize trying to be as loving as possible to the people they interact with.

The most startling aspect of these stages is how similar they are across individuals regardless of race, geography, ethnicity or religious belief. According to the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS):

No significant correlation has been found between religious beliefs and the likelihood or depth of the near-death experience. No significant correlation has been found between age, race, sexual orientation, economic status and the likelihood, content or depth of the near-death experience.

So NDEs know no cultural boundaries though some stories are more fantastic than others.

Maria’s Shoe

One classic NDE story that adds validity to the out of body stage is that of “Maria’s Shoe” as described by the IANDS:

Kimberly Clark Sharp (1995) was a social worker in Harborview Hospital in Seattle when Maria was brought in unconscious from cardiac arrest. Sharp visited her the following day in a hospital room, at which point Maria described leaving her body and floating above the hospital. Desperate to prove that she  had in fact left her body and was not crazy, she described seeing a worn dark blue tennis shoe on the ledge outside a window on the far side of the hospital. Not believing her but wanting to help, Sharp checked the ledge by pressing her face against the sealed windows and found a shoe that perfectly matched the details Maria had related


So what can we learn from Dr. Moody’s research? The first is that even though it was published over 25 years ago it has yet to be shot down by newer research. If nothing else, further research from groups like the IANDS has helped support it.

That said, there are competing theories, such as a neurological one which states that a dying brain starved of oxygen will formulate a tunnel, show beings of light, and life reviews as coping mechanisms. The problem with this theory is that it does not explain how people report NDE’s even when their brain’s are healthy such as during childbirth and some accidents.

For those looking for some evidence of what happens after we die, this book is a great place to start. For those who have recently lost a loved one or fear death themselves, the stories of NDEs provide a measure of comfort.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place    
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish    
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down    
With patriarchs of the infant world,—with kings,    
The powerful of the earth,—the wise, the good,     
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,    
All in one mighty sepulchre.

-William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis

You Can Only Be Yourself


There is a tendency when reading about the achievements of others to try and follow their path. To say that they made it through life in a specific way, why can’t I just follow their path? But this is a mistake. There are things you can learn from the lives of others, but you can also get stuck down dead-ends trying the follow someone else’s path.

Follow Your Bent

Why is this?

It really boils down to skills and environment. Everyone is bent in a specific way. And for the most part, you can’t change that. Even though I like and admire the achievements of Teddy Roosevelt, I have to realize that my personality is nothing like his. So the path that he took in his life is not a path that I could take. I’m not going to bowl people over with my enthusiasm like he did.

Well why not try and become more enthusiastic? It can’t be that hard…right? Most of the research today suggests that you’re much better building on your strengths rather than trying to improve your weaknesses. At the end of the day, your success comes from your strengths in spite of your weaknesses. No one remembers what Lance Armstrong was poor at, only what he was really, really good at.

There’s a great quote from Lincoln during the civil war where someone asks why he doesn’t get rid Grant because he is a hopeless alcoholic. After recently going through a string of generals who never pressed their advantage against the enemy, Lincoln replied

I cannot spare this man. He fights!

In other words, it didn’t matter that Grant was a drunkard. What mattered was that he had the courage to take the fight to the enemy. In the end, Lincoln was wise to overlook Grant’s faults and focus on his strengths. We all need to do the same with ourselves. We can’t follow someone else because we have our own strengths that may not be the same.

Find Your Roy

Not only are we bent in different ways than others, but our environment is different. We are surrounded by different people.

A while back I was reading the autobiography of Phil Vischer called Me, Myself &  Bob. In his book, he describes the rise and fall of Veggie Tales (the animated series based on 3-D generated vegetables and positive messages). He talks about how he built his empire in his basement when everyone thought he was crazy. But after he became hugely successful, he began to think that he could be the next Walt Disney. He was always amazed by what Disney had accomplished. Now here was his chance to do the same.

His company was highly successful with producing half-hour episodes so the next step was to move into feature films just like Walt did. But there was a problem. How should his studio finance the incredible expense of a feature film? At the time, they were flush with cash and all of the 5-year projections looked great so they chose to self-finance the feature film. The only problem was the film cost way more than anyone expected and 5-year projections were horribly inaccurate. By the end, his studio went bankrupt.

After much reflection, Vischer summarizes what happened:

In hindsight, perhaps the simplest explanation for the failure of Big Idea Productions is this: I never found my Roy. I never found the person who could look rationally at my ideas and then, in love, say no. There were numerous people ready to say no to me, but we didn’t have the sort of relationship Walt and Roy had, so I was always hesitant to trust them. As a result, I didn’t trust their “no’s.” So I barreled ahead, on my own, clutching my ideas like a child clutching a prized stuffed animal in a roomful of strangers whose motives he can’t discern.

Phil could not follow Walt because he did not have Roy. His environment was different. He would have been better off focusing on what he could do with the people he had rather than trying to following the pattern set out by Walt. At the end of the book, Vischer finally comes to grips with the fact that he cannot be Walt and he even makes amends at Walt’s statue in Disneyland.

That’s a lesson we all need to learn because at the end of the day we can only be ourselves. 

Creating Your Perfect Working Space


A Room Of One’s Own

Recently, I’ve been building out an old garden shed behind my house to be a little getaway – a place where I can go when I need to focus on writing or work. With three kids in the house, sometimes it can be hard to find a quiet place inside.

This exercise got me thinking about what it takes to make the perfect working space. I know this varies by person, but for me I like to have the following:

  • No Distractions: I work better when I can be heads down and get into the flow. Once I’m interrupted it takes a while to get back into it again so I try to find places where I can work without interruptions — this includes physical and electronic distractions. So I try to keep my email closed and only check it every few hours.
  • To Do List: I like to have a physical list in front of me with a few key tasks to get done. Then I love to slash through each one as I finish it. That tends to motivate me and give a feeling of accomplishment.
  • Music: I prefer to have light music playing (usually with no words) to really block out the world and focus. For me, classical music is perfect.
  • Materials at Hand: I hate digging around trying to find my work stuff so having everything out in the proper place just makes it easier to shift into “work mode”. I do the same thing with running and try to lay out all my running clothes the night before an early morning run.

This is what works for me, but I’m always interested in the creative spaces that other people do their best work in. Let’s take a look some of the interesting places where writers perform their mysterious craft…

To Each His Own

Poets and writers magazine describes some wonderfully unique examples of where writers write:

Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up;  […]

Ben Franklin wrote in the bathtub,

Jane Austen amid family life,

Marcel Proust in the confines of his bed.

Balzac ate an enormous meal at five in the evening, slept till midnight, then got up and wrote at a small desk in his room for sixteen hours straight, fueled by endless cups of coffee.

Toni Morrison found refuge in a motel room when her children were small;

E. B. White sought it in a cabin on the shore.

One more that I love is JK Rowling writing the first Harry Potter book longhand at her local coffee shop. Could you imagine being the owner of that shop and finding out that the single mother who was always hogging a table in your shop became one of the best selling writers of all time?

Where I Write

Another more visual example is the Where I Write project by Kyle Cassidy. He photographed a variety of Sci-Fi authors in their offices. Here is a small sampling (many more at his site):



I have to say I like the decidedly low tech approach of Joe Haldeman (above). All he needs are some candles, a notebook and a fountain pen.

In my opinion, the hardest thing to do in our modern world is to disconnect. To not take the cell phone with you and not get sucked into researching some obscure topic on Wikipedia. So when you build your perfect working space, make sure you don’t ruin it by bringing your cell (or at least put it on silent).

…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…
— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Does Running Technique Matter: Pose vs Chi?


For many years, I’ve read and been taught that in order to be a better runner, you just need to run more miles. In other words, running is often considered a “training” sport and not a “technique” sport. As long as you can put the miles in, then you can finish the race.

But a new set of books is challenging the notion that technique is not involved in running. Both books focus on improving running form to make it more efficient and less impactful thereby increasing your speed and reducing injuries. It definitely makes sense to me, given that the best runners often have the best form. And form is so important to so many other sports, it seems that it must have some impact on running as well.

Let’s take a look at the two leading proponents of technique-based running: ChiRunning and The Pose Method.


ChiRunning was created by Danny Dreyer, an American Ultramarathon runner and T’ai Chi practitioner. Here is the description of ChiRunning from his website:

ChiRunning combines the inner focus and flow of T’ai Chi with the power and energy of running to create a revolutionary running form and philosophy that takes the pounding, pain, and potential damage out of the sport of running. The ChiRunning program increases mental clarity and focus, enhances the joy of running, and turns running into a safe and effective lifelong program for health, fitness, and well-being.

This is a little too much marketing language for me, so let’s try to unwrap what ChiRunning is all about. After reading the ChiRunning Book, I’d summarize its key lessons into three parts:

  1. Finding the “Chi” in ChiRunning
  2. Learning the ChiRunning Technique
  3. Applying the ChiRunning Exercises

The book starts by describing the advantages of ChiRunning and how to be “mindful” when running. This section often strikes runners as a little out there without a lot of practical benefit. It does work to set-up the rest of the book, but is probably a bit long and too focused on eastern mysticism for my taste.

The next section gets into the heart of the book. It begins to walk through the different aspects of the ChiRunning technique such as proper posture and “the lean”. I found this portion of the book to be excellent in providing the mental framework for what ChiRunning actually is. 

The final section outlines many exercises to help you perfect ChiRunning such as leaning against a wall to feel the proper lean. It also begins to give you techniques to focus on during your next run. These are all highly actionable and overall seem like ideas that would be worth trying for any interested runner.

Pose Method

The Pose Method is very similar to ChiRunning, but without the T’ai Chi influence and with more of a focus on key poses. Here is the description from their website:

The Pose Method is a system for teaching of human movement developed by a 2-time Olympic Coach Dr. Nicholas S. Romanov in 1977 in the former Soviet Union. The name of the method comes from the word "pose" or "body position".

If you analyze the movement of any body through time and space, you will clearly see that the body passes through an infinite number of positions. Most of the positions (or poses) are transitional movements and are the result, not the cause, of proper positioning.

The Pose running book follows a similar structure to the Chi Running book:

  1. Intro and Benefits of Pose Running
  2. Description of Pose Running Technique
  3. Application of Pose Running Technique

The first section of the book describes the history of how Dr. Romanov arrived at the Pose method. It walks through the history of running along with his personal journal as a coach and scientist. It serves the same purpose as the other book, and is mainly used to give back story and describe benefits of the technique.

The second section gets into what pose running actually is by describing key poses, free falling and rapid strides (among other things). Each section is graphically illustrated to give a visual idea of what he’s describing.

The last section gives a large variety of exercises that help one to learn the Pose Method and to strengthen their muscles. Overall this book a has a more scientific feel and less eastern mysticism as compared to ChiRunning. Though ChiRunning might be better for beginners who just want the basics without a lot of scientific details.

Key Concepts

In many ways, Pose and Chi are very similar. Let’s take a quick look at the key concepts covered by both:

  • The Lean: The lean is a fundamental concept in both methods. It is best illustrated by the graphic at the top. The idea is that you gently lean forward from the ankles (not from the waist) and allow gravity to propel you forward. This uses less effort, and turns running into falling forward and catching yourself.
  • Straight Line: Both methods use a similar graphic to the one at the top of this post to ensure that a straight line can be drawn from the foot to the neck. Both have exercises to encourage your straight line posture.
  • Relaxation: Both methods encourage relaxation when running and state that tensed muscles is often what leads to injuries. ChiRunning states that only your lower abs should be tight while the rest of your body should be loose. The Pose Method talks about how must runners pound the pavement too hard by not working with gravity. It encourages them to loosen up, and gently lift their legs rather than pushing off.
  • Minimalist Shoes: Both methods argue that running shoes with thickly padded heals encourages poor running form such as heal striking. ChiRunning has a certified minimalist shoe that was created in conjunction with New Balance. The Pose Method goes even further and has a whole chapter on the benefits of running barefoot. The pose method is also recommended by many barefoot runners such as the famed Ken Bob.

In my opinion the differences are relatively minor with ChiRunning having more of a focus on mindful running and meditation while the Pose Method takes a more scientific approach. At this point, it’s too early for me to tell which is better. I’ve read both books, but have just started to put them into practice.

At the end of the day though, I’m for anything that can help me run faster and longer without injury. I will let you know if these books deliver on their promises…