Is There Such a Thing as an Unaccomplished Genius?

David Schenk has a good new post on genius. He asks,

So which it: Is genius a raw ability that may or may not be activated, or is it a mature skill set visible only upon its deployment? The distinction might seem trivial, but the popular ambiguity of the word’s meaning goes to the heart of discussion and debate about intelligence and talent. Is there such a thing as an unaccomplished genius? Can a person be a genius without actually doing great things?

He thinks not. Below are some excerpts from his reasoning:

1. High I.Q. does not = Genius.

I.Q. tests do a reasonably good job of measuring an individual’s analytical intelligence, and ranking it among the general population. But raw analytical intelligence is a far leap from the ground-breaking creativity and dynamism that we commonly associate with genius. Not surprisingly, I.Q. tests cannot predict who will show even inklings of genius…Accepting that high I.Q. does not correlate to real genius means has two immediate implications:

1) One does not necessarily need extraordinary school-smarts to make extraordinary contributions in their chosen field

2) While we should demand excellence everywhere in society, we should not burden young academic stars with unfair expectations of future genius. A high I.Q. is a nice start, a useful ingredient, but nothing more.

2. Genius is not a kernal, but a kaleidescope.

Study after study shows that what we think of as genius (and more ordinary talent) is never the result of a single ability, but rather a massive aggregation of distinct qualities, each critical. They include: curiosity, persistence, flexibility, resilience, risk-taking, and passion.

3. Genius is relative.

The essence of genius lies in a person breaking out of a conventional paradigm: Einstein conceiving of E=MC2, Mozart composing his Requiem, Proust writing Remembrance of Things Past. No one would today accuse me of genius for being able to discuss the theory of relativity or being able to write at great length about the relationship of sense and memory. Yesterday’s genius is tomorrow’s ordinary knowledge or experience. (Thanks, Pete).

If genius is all about challenging the intellectual/artistic status quo, then it doesn’t exist until that challenge is actually mounted. We might say that we suspect someone of having the potential for genius, that we have high hopes for someone. But without the revelation of the actual ground-breaking idea or work, the genius clearly has not fully formed.

4. Genius is subjective, and rhetorical.

Except for a small handful of transcendent figures, the planet will never agree on who is and who isn’t a genius. People wield the term loosely (recklessly?) and for a variety of reasons. In a TV studio recently, former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson called me a genius (before they started rolling tape) for writing a book he likes. I happen to believe that my friend Dan Seiden is a musical genius, but you’ve never even heard of him and so far no record executive is inclined to agree.

Not only can we not agree on who is and isn’t a genius — we can’t agree on why someone is a genius. Is David Byrne a genius because of his unique mind — or is it his unique songs, or his life-long, inspiring eclecticism? Is the savant Daniel Tammet — who can verbalize pi to 22,500 decimal places and who learned the Icelandic language in a week — a genius because an accident of biology makes him one of fifty true savants, OR is he a genius because he may be the only savant in the world who can elegantly articulate what he’s going through? Reasonable people will argue one or the other.

8 comments on “Is There Such a Thing as an Unaccomplished Genius?
  • One of my brothers has an I.Q. of 160. He would disguise the fact that he was reading Plato in class in elementary school by covering the book with a surfing magazine.

    Yet he’s never produced anything intellectually noteworthy that I know of.

    I think genius is more about effort and persistence than about innate ability.

  • I’d like to believe otherwise, but can’t skake the thought that most geniuses are born with their abilities. They probably have to work to achieve their potential, but that potential is inborn. Something in the brain of Einstein or Mozart, for example, is different than the brains of others. Where that difference lies is a mystery, but it lies somewhere, I believe.

  • Right. But I guess my point is that if another person were worked just as hard, it’s quite possible that person would not have achieved the level of ability that Mozart achieved.

    So the work + the inborn potential=his genius.

  • Thanks for linking to Schenk’s blog earlier – I am now a reader.

    Regarding Mozart, I was under the impression that his father began intensively training him *after* he discovered that his son had some serious talent. However, is it a coincidence that the son of one of Europe’s leading music teachers displayed talent from an early age?

    You could attribute this to exposure to music, however there are many people with music teacher parents who did not display similar talent. Personally I side with Sean in saying that it is determined from birth, or at least a very young age, and basically down to luck.

    ‘It was hard work that made him a “genius”‘

    Unfortunately the predisposition to work hard was also determined by his brain chemistry – a result of his genetic makeup.

  • “Unfortunately the predisposition to work hard was also determined by his brain chemistry-”

    It’s true that the brains of geniuses like Einstein have more neural connections (slices of his brain are preserved), but those connections can be developed by effort.

  • There’s this old truism about genius in that it’s “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. I think that should settle the issue.

    But the need for a good environment to demonstrate one’s talent is indeed a prerequisite. Just as you need a good canvas to paint that beautiful portrait.

  • Genius is one of those things it is impossible to define, or at least to write a definition that everyone can agree on.

    We really don’t know what makes up genius, we just know it when we see it. I don’t think anyone becomes a genius by trying to be one.

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