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.
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.
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.
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.