I’ve been thinking about this topic for awhile now, but have held myself back from writing about it because genius has such elevated connotations. We confer that term to people (usually men) after they have accomplished a large body of work, and typically after they’re dead (Einstein, Da Vinci, Picasso….) But what if genius was something we all had, we just don’t tap into it? I have studied how adults learn for 23 years and I believe genius is not necessarily so lofty. Let’s unravel it.
Because of the problematic way in which genius has been studied, some of our previously held beliefs about it are open to question. The problems are two-fold. First, scholars have selected isolated individuals who they believe to be geniuses (which may be true), but then these scholars deduce what genius is by listing the qualities that these men have. For example, Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci were both very visual thinkers. In fact, Einstein went on to claim that words don’t contribute much to his thinking process. Because of this, scholars have ascertained that “Geniuses make their thought visible.” I question that. A second problem is that scholars select individuals retroactively, looking back over the body of work an individual has produced over the course of his life. Scholars thus deduce that geniuses are highly productive people. That might be a true statement, but it’s not interesting, nor is it helpful for understanding how adults learn and operate in the world.
So let’s look at qualities of genius that are helpful:
(1) Geniuses look at problems in many different ways. Geniuses are people who can “rise above” a situation and explore many options. They are not stuck in one-way thinking.
(2) Geniuses can find and make connections between dissimilar things. Along with this, they can tolerate ambiguity, holding two incompatible subjects together until they find a connection. I would guess that geniuses enjoy the state of “not knowing” and waiting for the answer to appear.
(3) Geniuses think metaphorically. This follows from number 2 above. The physicist Neils Bohr believed that if you hold opposites together, then you suspend your thought and your mind moves to a new level. That’s what we do when we think metaphorically—metaphors are a bridge between two dissimilar things. (By the way, if you want to fall in love with Neils Bohr, watch the PBS documentary Copenhagen. I watched it months ago and it’s still “working” me.)
(4) Geniuses have the ability to play with concepts and ideas. They may juggle elements into impossible juxtapositions or shape wild hypotheses. (This is why we don’t often give them credit until they’re dead. When they’re alive, we’re too busy dis-crediting them.)
(5) Geniuses are open to unexpected thoughts, ideas and solutions. In Getting Messy, I discuss the importance of openness in learning. As adults, it’s easy to fall into the role of expert, or at least, “been there, done that.” Being open to learning is an important quality of genius.
(Funny how all these qualities apply to the creative process, as well. Imagine that.)
We can see then that genius has nothing to do with thinking harder or better or more rapidly. In fact, genius does not correspond to IQ. One of the most recent individuals awarded the title of genius was physicist Richard Feynman, whose IQ of 122 was far lower than many other run-of-the mill physicists. Genius involves stepping out of our typical thinking modes (since our minds are very good at looping through the same scenarios over-and-over; they are not very good at coming up with novel ideas.) What’s required is opening ourselves up to a more expansive place, where novel possibilities can be discovered. I call this the “fertile field.”
Although I don’t specifically use the term “genius” in my book, Getting Messy, I do explore these underlying qualities in much more depth. In Chapter Two I discuss the importance of openness in learning, and Chapter Three is about metaphorical thinking and the imagination. Chapter Six is all about bridging polarities and holding opposites, in order to reach a more expanded place within ourselves.
It’s 3:18 AM. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep now…
Sources: “A Theory about Genius” article by Michael Michalko, How to Think Like Leonard da Vinci by Michael Gelb.