Elizabeth I of England (c1588), artist unknown. One of three known as the Armada portraits and on display in Woburn Abbey. Courtesy Wikipedia


How to be a genius

I travelled the world and trawled the archive to unearth the hidden lessons from history’s most brilliant people

by Craig Wright + BIO

Elizabeth I of England (c1588), artist unknown. One of three known as the Armada portraits and on display in Woburn Abbey. Courtesy Wikipedia

Don’t get me wrong – yes, I’m a professor at Yale University, but I’m no genius. When I first mentioned to our four grown children that I was going to teach a new course on genius, they thought that was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. ‘You, you’re no genius! You’re a plodder.’ And they were right. So how did it come to pass that now, some dozen years later, I continue to teach a successful course on genius at Yale, and have written an Amazon Book of the Year selection, The Hidden Habits of Genius (2020). The answer: I must have, as Nikola Tesla urged, ‘the boldness of ignorance’.

I started my professional life trying to be a concert pianist, back in the days of the Cold War. The United States was then trying to beat the Soviet Union at its own games. In 1958, Van Cliburn, a 23-year-old pianist from Texas, won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition, something akin to the Olympics of classical music. And then in 1972, Brooklyn’s Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in chess. Because I had shown an interest in music, and was also tall with enormous hands, I, too, would become the next Cliburn, at least so my mother declared.

Although our family wasn’t wealthy, my parents managed to provide me with a Baldwin grand piano and find the best teachers in our hometown of Washington, DC. Soon, I was packed off to the prestigious Eastman School of Music, where, once again, every opportunity was placed before me. And I had a strong work ethic: by the age of 21, I had engaged, by my estimation, in 15,000 hours of focused practice. (Mozart had needed only 6,000 to get to the level of master-composer and performer.) Yet, within two years, I could see that I would never earn a dime as a concert pianist. I had everything going for me except one: I lacked musical talent. No special memory for music, no exceptional hand-eye coordination, no absolute pitch – all things very necessary to a professional performer.

‘If you can’t compose, you perform; and if you can’t perform, you teach’ – that’s the mantra of conservatoires such as the Eastman School of Music. But who wants to spend each day in the same studio teaching other likely soon-to-fail pianists? My intuition was to find a larger arena in a university. So off I went to Harvard to learn to become a college professor and a researcher of music history – a musicologist, as it’s called. Eventually, I found employment at Yale as a classroom instructor teaching the ‘three Bs:’ Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Yet the most captivating composer I ran into there was an M: Mozart. My interest in him accelerated with the appearance of the Academy Award-winning film Amadeus (1984). For a time, the entire world seemed obsessed with this funny, passionate and naughty character.

Thus it was a movie, of all things, that caused me to shift the focus of my academic research to Mozart. Yet the cardinal principle of scholarship I’d been taught at Harvard remained the same: if you seek the truth, consult the original primary sources; the rest is simply hearsay. Thus, over the course of 20 years, I went in search of Mozart in libraries in Berlin, Salzburg, Vienna, Krakow, Paris, New York and Washington, studying his autograph (or handwritten) music manuscripts. I found that Mozart could effortlessly conceive of great swaths of music entirely in his head, with almost no corrections. What Salieri said of Mozart in Amadeus no longer seems so fanciful: here ‘was the very voice of God’.

To hold in your hands the divine pages of a Mozart autograph – even if wearing the oft-required white gloves – is at the same time an honour and an exhilaration. The fluctuating angles of his pen, changing size of his note heads and varying tints of ink provide an insight as to how his mind is working. As if invited into Mozart’s study, you watch as this genius, empowered by his huge natural gifts, enters a creative zone, and the music just pours forth.

What other genius, I wondered, worked like Mozart? Here again, it was the autograph manuscripts that drew me in. Who among us has not been attracted to the fascinating designs of Leonardo da Vinci – his sketches of ingenious machines and instruments of war, as well as pacifist paintings? Unlike the original manuscripts of Mozart, the drawings and notes of Leonardo (some 6,000 pages survive) have mostly been published in facsimile editions, and many are now available online.

If Mozart could hear in his head how the music ought to go, Leonardo, judging from his sketches, could simply see in his mind’s eye how the machine should work or the painting should look. Here, too, Leonardo’s natural technical facility is manifest, as seen in the hand-eye coordination that results in correct proportions and the cross-hatching lines that suggest three-dimensional perception. Likewise evident is Leonardo’s relentless curiosity. We watch his mind range across an endless horizon of interconnected interests; on one page, for example, a heart becomes the branches of a tree, which then become the tentacles of a mechanical pulley. How do all these seemingly disparate things of the world hang together? Leonardo wanted to know. With good reason, the cultural historian Kenneth Clark called him ‘the most relentlessly curious man in history’.

Mozart in music, Leonardo in art; what about the everyday world of politics? Here the perfect subject of a study of genius was close at hand: Elizabeth I, queen of England. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale owns copies of every history of her reign written by her contemporaries. The secret to her success? Elizabeth not only read books voraciously (three hours a day was her wont) but also people. She read, she studied, she observed, and she kept her mouth shut (Video et taceo was her motto). By knowing all and saying little, Elizabeth ruled for nearly 45 years, laid the foundations of the British empire and fledgling capitalist corporations, and gave her name to an entire epoch, the Elizabethan era.

Fascinating! I was learning so much. Why not have students learn along with me – after all, that’s why we have these young people cluttering up the place! And that’s how my genius course – or ‘Exploring the Nature of Genius’ – came to be.

Perhaps it takes a non-genius to analyse how exceptional human accomplishment happens. During my years at Harvard and at Yale, I met a lot of smart people, including a half-dozen Nobel Prize winners. If you’re a prodigy with a great gift for something, you can simply do it – yet might not be aware of why and how. And you don’t ask questions. Indeed, the geniuses I met seemed too preoccupied with committing acts of genius to consider the cause of their creative output. Maybe an outsider looking in has a clearer overview of how the magic gets done.

Year after year, increasing numbers of Yale students enrolled in my course to find the answer but, from the very first, something unexpected happened, and I should have seen it coming: the appreciation of genius turns out to be gender-biased.

Although the ratio of Yale undergraduates is now 50/50 male-female, and although the genius course is a general humanities class open to all, annually the enrolment in that class skews about 60/40 male-female. Students at Yale and other liberal arts colleges vote with their feet and, despite favourable course evaluations, women at Yale don’t seem to be as interested in exploring the nature of genius as their male counterparts are.

Why, I wondered. Are women less excited by competitive comparisons that rank some people as ‘more exceptional’ than others? Are they less likely to value the traditional markers of genius in a winner-take-all world – things such as the world’s greatest painting or most revolutionary invention? Does the absence of female mentors and role models play a part? Why take a course in which the readings, once again, will be mostly about the triumphant accomplishments of ‘great [mostly white] men’? Was the very way I’d framed this course perpetuating, once again, an unconscious bias against women and the assumption of a white cultural supremacy?

Happily, I ultimately ‘capped’ the course at 120 students and, thus, could do bit of social engineering. I was at liberty to admit whom I wished and thereby assure a representative proportion of women and minority students. The aim was not to fill quotas, but to increase diversity of opinion and inspire robust argumentation, things especially useful in a course in which there’s no answer.

‘There is no answer! There is no answer! There is no answer!’ chanted 120 eager undergraduates in the first session of the ‘genius course’, as I urged them on. Students typically want an answer to put into their pocket as they leave class, one they can later deploy on a test – but I felt that it was important to make this point immediately. To the simple question ‘What is genius?’ there’s no answer, only opinions. As to what drives it – nature or nurture – again, no one knows.

Is an Einstein alone on a desert island a genius, a non-genius, or a genius in potentia?

The question ‘Nature or nurture?’ always provoked debate. The quant types (mathematics and science majors) thought genius was due to natural gifts; parents and teachers had told them that they’d been born with a special talent for quantitative reasoning. The jocks (varsity athletes) thought exceptional accomplishment was all hard work: no pain, no gain. Coaches had taught them that their achievement was the result of endless hours of practice. Among novice political scientists, conservatives thought genius a God-given gift; liberals thought it was caused by a supportive environment. No answer? Call in the experts: readings from Plato, William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin to Simone de Beauvoir followed, but each had his or her own take.

The students hoped for something more concrete. Some wanted to know if they were already geniuses and what their futures might hold. Most wanted to know how they, too, might become a genius. They had heard that I’d studied geniuses from Louisa May Alcott to Émile Zola, and thought that I might have found the key to genius. So I asked: ‘How many of you think you already are or have the capacity to be a genius?’ Some timidly raised their hands; the class clowns did so emphatically. Next: ‘If you’re not one already, how many of you want to be a genius’? In some years, as many as three-quarters of the students raised their hands. Then I asked: ‘OK, but what exactly is a genius?’ Excitement turned to puzzlement, which was followed by a two-week quest to formulate a definition of genius, one that usually ended with the following sort of hypothesis:

A genius is a person of extraordinary mental powers whose original works or insights change society in some significant way for good or for ill across cultures and across time.

Only gradually, and not until I’d written my book The Hidden Habits of Genius, did I come to see that this complex verbiage might be simplified into something akin to a ‘genius equation’.

Here was a formula that students and the populace at large could immediately grasp:

G = S x N x D

Genius (G) equals Significance (S) of the degree of impact or change effected (Alexander Fleming’s life-saving penicillin vs Kanye West’s latest style of Yeezy sneakers) times the Number (N) of people impacted (about 200 million lives saved vs 280,000 pairs of shoes sold) times Duration (D) of impact (antibiotics have been around for 80 years; the life of a shoe is use-dependent). Although the ‘genius equation’ was not a foolproof formula, at least here was a useful way to frame a discussion over the course of an academic term.

Some bright students immediately countered: what about the genius who has the capacity to change the world but doesn’t, owing to a lack of either volition or opportunity? Supposing Albert Einstein had lived on a desert island, and conceived of the photoelectric effect, E = MC2, special relativity and general relativity – but communicated his ideas to no one. Would he still be a genius? Suppose he’d communicated those ideas only to the other 12 denizens of the island. Would we have Einstein the genius with a very, very lower-case ‘g’? Suppose he had the capacity to communicate his potentially transformative insights to the entire world, but no one wished to change – and nothing did. The equation G = S x N x D presupposes a causer and an effect. As the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said, for creativity to occur, it takes two to tango: an original thinker and a receptive society. Multiple choice: is an Einstein alone on a desert island a genius, a non-genius, or a genius in potentia? Is the unheeded seer a prophet crying in the wilderness – or a lunatic?

While the students wrestled with these metaphysical issues, they also had more mundane concerns. What to do with Kim Kardashian? She might be a ‘business genius’ owing to her capacity to use social media over the worldwide web. But she didn’t invent the worldwide web. (That was Tim Berners-Lee.) What about athletes such as the all-time Olympic gold medal-winner Michael Phelps, considered a ‘locomotive genius’? But who conceived of the modern Olympic Games? (Pierre de Coubertin.) The New York Times has called the six-times Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick a ‘defensive genius’. But who invented the game of football? (Walter Camp.) Yo-Yo Ma is called a ‘musical genius’ owing to his superb performances of classical composers. But who’s the genius, Ma or Mozart? The College of Business Administration of the University of Nebraska at Omaha offers an annual course titled ‘The Genius of Warren Buffett’. But is money (and the amassing of it) genius, or is money a source of empowerment to be used later by other true geniuses?

With the above questions I was encouraging students to think. But just as often, the students, owing to their diverse backgrounds, were teaching me.

Take, for example, what I learned from young members of Native American descent. I remember in particular students from the Navajo Nation and from the Shoshone Tribe who had a similar – but, to me, radically new – way of thinking of human accomplishment, one that could be boiled down to ‘the genius of the community’. To them, the woman who designed a rug pattern, now replicated for generations, was a genius, but no one knew her name. Then there was the Olympic medal-winner in the class. He confessed that he believed his accomplishments were due to natural gifts, but that his Chinese mother, he later reported, thought them mostly the result of hard work. Similarly, several Chinese students independently informed me that Thomas Edison is still held in great esteem in that country because of his aphorism that genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. Meanwhile, the brilliant conceptual scientist Nikola Tesla, who disparaged Edison’s lumbering unscientific ways, is little-known there.

A Japanese student told me of an ‘anti-genius’ aphorism from his native country: ‘The nail that sticks up the most gets hammered down the hardest.’ Asian students generally expressed an intense curiosity about Western genius owing to the (for them) novel notion of a single transformative individual. Yes, more and more I came to see that genius is indeed cultural; the notion of individual immanent genius seems to have emerged during the 18th century, in part because it mapped well on to a Western, expansionist, capitalist ideal under which individual property, especially intellectual property, could increasingly be generated and would enjoy legal protection. I was never averse to any of that but now, at least, I was more mindful of the historical basis and bias of my intellectual leanings. And thus, my student-provided education went.

In the end, what had begun, for me, as a stereotypical view of the flamboyant genius – usually a male brainiac with a super-high IQ who, even as a youth, has sudden ‘Aha!’ insights, and is perhaps a bit crazy and certainly eccentric – had evolved into a more sober, sometimes philosophic assessment.

Many great minds, it turns out, are not-so-great human beings

Genius is not an absolute but a human construct that’s dependent on time, place and culture. Similarly, genius is relative. Some people simply change the world more than others. Accordingly, genius presupposes an inequality of output (the exceptional thoughts of an Einstein, or the music of a Bach) and generates an inequality of reward (eternal fame for Bach, fabulous riches for Amazon’s Jeff Bezos). That’s just the way the world works. Acts of genius are usually attended by acts of destruction; that’s generally called progress.

What’s not pure genius? IQ, it turns out, is overrated and so, too, are other standardised tests, grades, Ivy League schools and mentors. Stephen Hawking didn’t read until he was eight; Picasso and Beethoven couldn’t do basic mathematics. Jack Ma, John Lennon, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, Charles Darwin, William Faulkner and Steve Jobs likewise were all academic underachievers.

If IQ is overrated, curiosity and persistence are not. Nor is a having a childlike imagination through adult life, the capacity to relax so as to allow disparate ideas to coalesce into new, original ones, and the ability to construct a habit for work so as to get the product out the door. Finally, if you want to live a long life, get a passion. Geniuses are passionate optimists who on average outlive the general populace by more than a decade.

And the end of term usually brought an epiphany: many great minds, it turns out, are not-so-great human beings.

Remember that question from the beginning of the course, ‘How many of you want to be a genius?’ with its three-quarters affirmative response? Now, in the final class I asked: ‘Having studied all these geniuses, how many of you still want to be one?’ Now, only about a quarter of the group said: ‘I do.’ As one student volunteered: ‘At the beginning of the course, I thought I did, but now I’m not so sure. So many of them seem like obsessive, self-centred jerks – not the kind of person I’d want as a friend or a suitemate.’

Point taken: obsessive and self-centred. Think of Charles Dickens, whose daughter Katey recalled:

My father was like a madman … He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.

Or of Ernest Hemingway, whose third wife, the much-honoured war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, said of him: ‘A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.’ Then there is Steve Jobs who warrants, according to his biographer Walter Isaacson, a separate index entry: ‘Offensive behaviour of.’ Even Marie Curie didn’t merit high marks as a parent, according to her daughter Ève:

[Our paternal grandfather] was [our] playmate and master far more than [our] mother, who was ever away from home – always kept at the laboratory of which the name was endlessly rumbling in [our] ears … my young years were not happy ones.

Thus, a last class takeaway applicable to all: be on guard if there’s a genius in your midst. If you work for a genius, you might be berated or abused, or you could lose your job. If someone close to you is a genius, you might find that his or her work or passion always comes first. Yet to those so abused, made miserable or redundant, exploited or ignored, sincere thanks is in order for ‘taking one for the team’, the team being all of us who subsequently benefit from the greater cultural good that ‘your’ genius has done. To paraphrase the writer Edmond de Goncourt: almost no one loves the genius until he or she is dead. But then we do, because now life is better.