By Craig Wright, PhD, October/2020(336p.)
This was a fantastic book that grew out of a popular course at Yale University, where author Craig Wright has been teaching for over forty years. Wright got a PhD in musicology from Harvard after he recognized that despite thousands of hours of dedicated training, he would never be a world class pianist, and much less a genius, as he defines one. “If you can’t create, you perform, and if you can’t perform, you teach,” he observes of his career. Given the author’s background, it was not surprising that the book gives musical geniuses more attention. That said, he reaches well beyond music in search of greatness by profiling an eclectic list of prominent geniuses like Einstein, Picasso, Jobs, Musk, Bezos, and Winfrey. And while I admit to having been initially turned off by the subtitle’s suggestion that this was one of those “you too can become a genius” books, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the subject was presented. Wright’s stories and practical insights can certainly be used to inspire excellence, but the more subtle, and perhaps more powerful, lesson from the book is that identifying a real genius is harder than it seems. “Everybody is a genius,” Einstein is said to have sarcastically noted, “But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
While the book is indeed structured like a “how to” manual, with advice and instructions on becoming a genius, Wright acknowledges upfront that very few people fit the bill, and also that few people should even want to. As Wright explains in Chapter 12 and again emphasizes in the book’s Epilogue: “Many great minds turn out to be not-so-great human beings. … So many of them seem like obsessive, self-centered jerks—not the kind of person I’d want as a friend or a suitemate. … To paraphrase the writer Edmond de Goncourt, almost no one loves the genius until he or she is dead.” But still the book concludes with a tribute to the importance of geniuses and the contributions they make. To reinforce this message, he quotes German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who cleverly noted in 1819: “A person of talent hits a target that no one else can hit; a person of genius hits a target that no one else can see.”
To set a framework for his book, Wright defines a genius as “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. In brief, the greatest genius produces the greatest impact on the greatest number of people over the longest period of time.” He notes that some people who are popularly referred to as “geniuses” don’t really make his cut. “To identify the true geniuses,” he explains, “we can begin by removing the majority of actors, actresses, and performers. Talented as they may be, those who work through something already formed by someone else—a screenplay or a musical composition, for example—are not geniuses.” Neither are famous athletes like Michael Phelps and Roger Federer, or extraordinary investors like Warren Buffett, according to Wright. “Money is a fuel of genius, but is not genius per se. The genius rests in what is done with the opportunity money affords.”
One of the first traits of genius that Wright focuses on is hard work. “Have you ever heard of a lazy genius?” he asks, “No. Geniuses have a habit of working hard because they are obsessed.” As he does throughout the book to illustrate this point, he goes on to list several quotes by famous geniuses: “If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius” (Michelangelo); “I should get discouraged if I could not go on working as hard or even harder” (Vincent van Gogh); “Genius is the result of hard work” (Maxim Gorky); “I didn’t believe in weekends. I didn’t believe in vacations” (Bill Gates); “There is no talent or genius without hard work” (Dmitri Mendeleev); “What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work” (Stephen King); “I worked very hard when I was young so I don’t have to work so hard now” (Mozart); “People may not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get” (Frederick Douglass); “No one ever changed the world with a forty-hour work week” (Elon Musk); and “God gives talent. Work transforms talent into genius” (Anna Pavlova).
Wright disagrees that practice is the key to genius, as suggested in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated. “Practice may make the old perfect,” he observes, “but it does not produce innovation.” He offers his own failure to become a performing classical pianist as evidence that hard work alone doesn’t cut it. “I entered and was graduated from the prestigious Eastman School of Music,” he recaps. “By the age of twenty-two, I had practiced approximately 18,000 hours, yet I knew that I would never earn a dime as a concert pianist. I had every advantage: huge hands and long, thin fingers, the best training, and a strong work ethic. I lacked only one thing: a great gift for music.” But at the same time that he espouses the importance of talent, Wright downplays the relevance of how it is achieved. “The great fame of a few prodigies—Mozart and Picasso, for example—clouds our judgment,” he explains. “Their lives suggest that the prodigy-to-genius journey is the norm and that the state of being a prodigy is a necessary precondition to that of being a genius. But most geniuses, like Einstein, were, at the very least, “later” bloomers. Most creative writers and artists—people in non-rule-based fields—fall into the category of later-day geniuses. So, too, do most political leaders—Lincoln, King, Gandhi, and Angela Merkel, for example—who possess the capacity for empathy. Of the seven most prominent creators of the twentieth century studied by Howard Gardner in his book Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi (1993), only one, Picasso, was a prodigy.”
One key point of the book is that while “genius is an explosive and seemingly random event arising from a combination of many personal phenotypes,” this explosion often takes its time to occur. “Charles Darwin’s early academic record was so poor that his father predicted he would be a disgrace to his family. Winston Churchill was likewise a poor student, admitting that ’Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn.’ Nobel Prize winners William Shockley and Luis Alvarez were rejected by the Stanford genius test because their IQ scores were too low. The transformative novelist J. K. Rowling has confessed to having ‘a distinct lack of motivation at university,’ her undistinguished record the result of spending ‘far too long in the coffee bar writing stories and far too little time at lectures.’ Similarly, Thomas Edison described himself as being ‘not at the head of my class, but the foot.’ Einstein graduated fourth in his class of five physicists in 1900. Steve Jobs had a high school GPA of 2.65; Jack Ma [ ] took the gaokao (the Chinese national educational exam) and scored 19 out of 120 on a math section on his second try; and Beethoven had trouble adding figures and never learned to multiply or divide. Walt Disney was a below-average student and often fell asleep in class. Finally, Picasso could not remember the sequence of the letters in the alphabet and saw symbolic numbers as literal representations: a 2 as the wing of a bird or a 0 as a body. Standardized tests might have failed to recognize all those geniuses.”
It’s in Chapter 12, titled Move Fast and Break Things, that Wright focuses on the negative side of genius. “Sometimes Jobs was a genius,” he points out, “and sometimes he was just a jerk.” Among the several examples of geniuses with destructive personalities, Wright was particularly critical of Picasso (with his women) and Zuckerberg (with his users). “Nobody has any real importance for me,” Picasso once said to his first wife. “As far as I’m concerned, other people are like those little grains of dust floating in the sunlight. It takes only a push of the broom and out they go.” Indeed, it appears that one of the side effects of Picasso’s genius was tragedy: An early girlfriend hanged herself in 1977; his second wife shot herself in 1986; and another girlfriend underwent electric shock therapy and joined a convent before dying in 1997. As harsh as Wright was on Picasso, he saved his biggest swing for Zuckerberg by pointing to a text exchange leaked to the press and published in a 2010 Business Insider article, where the genius referred to his users as “dumb fucks” for trusting him with their data. Wright then tells us what has changed since those early Facebook days: “Apparently not much, except that the number of us dumb fucks has grown to 2.7 billion.”
One of the more interesting insights I got from the book was the concept of thinking in opposites, which is covered in Chapter 10. “To discover the East, Christopher Columbus sailed west. To inoculate people against smallpox, Edward Jenner injected them with pox. Instead of luring the customer to the goods, Jeff Bezos brings the goods to the customer. According to Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion, “For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “I must be cruel only to be kind.” The above contrarian insights exemplify the process of “thinking opposite,” an age-old strategy deeply embedded in the arts and sciences, as well as in industry. If you want to better understand an object or concept, conceive of the opposite.” Well to form, Wright quotes several geniuses to illustrate the concept: “The farther backward you look, the farther forward you can see” (Winston Churchill). “I always know the end of the mystery before I begin to write” (bestselling murder mystery writer P. D. James). “You get what you don’t pay for.” (Jack Vogel). He then concludes the chapter with a parenting tip: “After telling a child a bedtime story, reverse the process and have the child tell you one—encourages visionary thinking on the part of both teller and auditor.”
Another fascinating trait of genius is that most remain children inside. “When I was a child I could paint like Rafael,” Picasso once said, “but it took me a lifetime to paint like a child.” Indeed, as Wright observes, Michael Jackson wrote his greatest hits before he was twenty three. McCartney, which Wright argues was the primary creative force behind the Beatles (though some believe that it was John Lennon), was most creative between ages seventeen and twenty-seven, with none of his later songs matching the impact of his early ones. Walt Disney, who lived from 1901 to 1966, and famously claimed that “I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us,” introduced his most prominent character, Mickey Mouse, in 1928, when he was in his 20s.
In conclusion, this was an informative and entertaining book. While packed with advice and practical insights on how to emulate genius, it is far from merely a “how to” book. The information was well researched and presented, with careful attention to avoid over-generalizing and making unsubstantiated claims. As with most books that I find this valuable and fulfilling, this one was as much an investment book as anything else, because it highlighted the amazing things that happen when genius strikes. Needless to say, few things can be more profitable than investing in the company of a genius.
Introduction: Hitting the Hidden Target
How do we explain this “longing for genius,” as the writer George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) expressed it in 1872? Beneath our excessive popular use of this term rests a serious, timeless, and profoundly human desire to understand the unknown. To do so, we simplify, attributing the complex agency of many previous thinkers to a single, exemplary individual: “the genius.” Often the genius assumes the qualities of a savior and thus gives humanity hope for a better world. At the same time, the genius provides solace—an explanation, even an excuse, for our own shortcomings. “Oh, well, no wonder, she’s a genius!” But still we wonder: How is the magic trick done? What is hidden beneath the surface? Discarding the myths surrounding those exceptional individuals, what were or are their lives and habits really like? And what can we learn from them?
The list of recognized geniuses from the Middle Ages—Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Joan of Arc might come to mind—is short. Did the lights go out in the Dark Ages? No. Genius was simply co-opted and “rebranded” by the Catholic Church. In classical times one made a wish to one’s genius; in the Middle Ages one prayed to a spiritual force with the name of a patron saint, not only for salvation but also to cure an illness or to find a lost comb. The great creations of the era—the soaring Gothic cathedrals, for example—were the handiwork of mostly nameless, faceless humans inspired by an external divine spirit, the Christian God. With the Renaissance, transformative thinkers on earth regained a face and a name: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and William Shakespeare were just a few such geniuses. Some Italian poets and painters were also dubbed il divino, as in il divino Leonardo—the divine Leonardo. Now they, too, like the saints, enjoyed divine powers as semideities. Their hands could shape the ideas that the mind of God might conceive. During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, however, genius and God parted company. God withdrew, leaving the individual as the lone possessor of genius. Genius was now wholly immanent—it came with birth and rested within the individual.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer cleverly made this point in 1819: “A person of talent hits a target that no one else can hit; a person of genius hits a target that no one else can see.”
As early as 1919, Nikola Tesla foresaw radio, robots, solar heating, and a cellular smartphone “not bigger than a watch.” Today two-thirds of the people on the planet are connected by the sort of internet phone that Tesla predicted. In 1995, while working at a quantitative hedge fund in New York, Jeff Bezos observed that traffic on the internet had increased 2,300 times over the previous year; he also realized that driving from store to store was an inefficient way to acquire merchandise. He envisioned Amazon and started with books. Twenty years later, his company had grown into the world’s largest e-commerce marketplace, selling nearly every product imaginable. The only absolute in life, it turns out, is change, and the genius sees it coming.
To set a framework for this book, let me give you my definition for today: 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. In brief, the greatest genius produces the greatest impact on the greatest number of people over the longest period of time.
With the importance of creativity in mind, we see that many individuals popularly referred to as “geniuses” today are merely celebrities. To identify the true geniuses, we can begin by removing the majority of actors, actresses, and performers. Talented as they may be, those who work through something already formed by someone else—a screenplay or a musical composition, for example—are not geniuses. Creativity and creation are key, which is why Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and Beethoven, but not Yo-Yo Ma, may be considered geniuses. The same goes for most great athletes: as impressive as the record-breaking Phelps and Federer may be, they score no creativity points. Others invented the game. What about billionaire financial wizards, such as Warren Buffett? Needless to say, amassing money is different from effecting change. Money is a fuel of genius but is not genius per se. The genius rests in what is done with the opportunity money affords.
“If you can’t create, you perform, and if you can’t perform, you teach”—that is the mantra of conservatories such as the Eastman School of Music, where I began my education as a classical pianist. Unable to compose or to earn a living as a performer, I moved on to grad school at Harvard, earning a Ph.D. and becoming a classroom teacher and researcher of classical music history—a musicologist, as it is called. Eventually, I found employment at Yale teaching the “three B’s” of classical music: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Yet the most fascinating character I met was an M: Mozart. He was funny, passionate, naughty, and hugely gifted, wrote music like no other, and seemed like a decent human being. One of my several trips to Florence caused me to research its native son Leonardo da Vinci. I quickly saw that Leonardo and Mozart had many of the same enablers of genius: extraordinary natural gifts, courage, a vivid imagination, a wide variety of interests, and a “go for broke” approach to life and art.
But what are they? Here is a preview that summarizes the principal focus of each chapter in this book: Work ethic (chapter 1) Resilience (chapter 2) Originality (chapter 3) Childlike imagination (chapter 4) Insatiable curiosity (chapter 5) Passion (chapter 6) Creative maladjustment (chapter 7) Rebelliousness (chapter 8) Cross-border thinking (chapter 9) Contrarian action (chapter 10) Preparation (chapter 11) Obsession (chapter 12) Relaxation (chapter 13) Concentration (chapter 14) IN ADDITION, THROUGHOUT THESE CHAPTERS, I OFFER PRACTICAL insights about genius such as these: IQ, mentors, and Ivy League educations are greatly overrated. No matter how “gifted” your child is, you do him or her no favor by treating him or her like a prodigy. The best way to have a brilliant insight is to engage in creative relaxation: go for a walk, take a shower, or get a good night’s sleep with pen and paper by the bed. To be more productive, adopt a daily ritual for work. To improve your chances of being a genius, move to a metropolis or a university town. To live longer, find your passion. Finally, take heart, because it is never too late to be creative: for every youthful Mozart there is an aged Verdi; for every precocious Picasso, a Grandma Moses. IN THE END, READING THIS BOOK LIKELY WON’T MAKE YOU A GENIUS. It will, however, force you to think about how you lead your life, raise your children, choose the schools they attend, allocate your time and money, vote in democratic elections, and, most important, how to be creative. Unlocking the habits of genius has changed me and my view of the world. Perhaps a careful reading of this book will change you as well.
Chapter 1: Gift or Hard Work?
Geniuses have a habit of not recognizing their own hidden gifts and leaving it to others.
Leonardo’s archrival Michelangelo had a photographic memory and perfect hand/eye coordination that allowed him to draw lines in precise proportional relationships. Tesla was a fast study because he, too, had an eidetic memory and could quote, among other things, every line of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent van Gogh, Vladimir Nabokov, and Duke Ellington were all born synesthesiacs; when they heard music or observed words or numbers, they saw colors. Lady Gaga is, too. “When I write songs,” she said in a 2009 interview in the Guardian, “I hear melodies and I hear lyrics but I also see colours; I see sound like a wall of colours.” In 1806, Ludwig van Beethoven, in the midst of one of his famous temper tantrums, barked at the high-ranking Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, “Prince, you are what you are through the accident of birth; what I am, I am through myself. There have been and will be thousands of princes; there is only one Beethoven.”
Mozart was also born with an extraordinary phonographic memory (memory for sounds) as well as a motographic one, meaning that he could instantly move his hands to the right place or key on the violin, organ, and piano, coordinating musical sounds in his mind with the spot that would create them. All of his musical gifts were evident by the age of six. That could only be nature. Twenty-three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps has the body of a shark and sometimes races one. But Phelps was born with an ergonomic advantage: he is the perfect height for swimming (six feet, four inches), has atypically big feet (flippers), and possesses unusually long arms (paddles). Normally, as Leonardo’s famous Vitruvian man shows, a person’s reach is equal to his or her height; Phelps’s wingspan (six feet, seven inches) is, however, three inches longer. But Phelps, as suggested above, is no genius. Gifted as he is, he has done nothing to change the discipline of swimming or influence an event at the Olympic Games. Simone Biles, whom the New York Times calls “the greatest American gymnast of all time,” presents a different case. Her extraordinary athletic ability has revolutionized gymnastics. On August 9, 2019, she became the first person to execute a double flip dismount from the balance beam and also a triple-double flip in a floor exercise, bringing the number of gymnastics skills named after her to four. Each new move required judges to create a new “difficulty point score.” In contrast to swimmer Phelps, transformative gymnast Biles is short (four feet, eight inches), compact, and densely muscular. As a result, she can stay tightly tucked in twists and flips, thereby maintaining speed. “I was built this way for a reason, so I’m going to use it,” she said in 2016,11 referring to her compact frame. Yet at the same time, as she emphasized in a MasterClass online educational video in 2019, “I really had to focus on the fundamentals, such as doing the drills, doing a lot of all the basics, doing the mental work, so that I could be where I am today.” Nature or nurture?
The point is this: genius is an explosive and seemingly random event arising from a combination of many personal phenotypes—among them intelligence, resilience, curiosity, visionary thinking, and more than a dash of obsessive behavior.
Have you ever heard of a lazy genius? No. Geniuses have a habit of working hard because they are obsessed. Moreover, in public proclamations they tend to value their parental units of heredity (“gifts”) far less than their own labors, as the following quotes from a few Western geniuses suggest: “If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius” (Michelangelo); “I should get discouraged if I could not go on working as hard or even harder” (Vincent van Gogh); “Genius is the result of hard work” (Maxim Gorky); “I didn’t believe in weekends. I didn’t believe in vacations” (Bill Gates); “There is no talent or genius without hard work” (Dmitri Mendeleev); “What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work” (Stephen King); “I worked very hard when I was young so I don’t have to work so hard now” (Mozart); “People may not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get” (Frederick Douglass); “No one ever changed the world with a forty-hour work week” (Elon Musk); and “God gives talent. Work transforms talent into genius” (Anna Pavlova). I once believed that, too. Here’s a joke you may remember: A young musician arrives in New York City and naively asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The response: “Practice!” I tried that, and it didn’t work. Hard work has its limits. My training in music started at age four on an Acrosonic upright piano with lessons from the amiable Ted Brown and within six years progressed to a six-foot Baldwin grand and the best teachers in Washington, D.C. to become a concert pianist—to be the next Van Cliburn was my aim—I entered and was graduated from the prestigious Eastman School of Music. By the age of twenty-two, I had practiced approximately 18,000 hours, yet I knew that I would never earn a dime as a concert pianist. I had every advantage: huge hands and long, thin fingers, the best training, and a strong work ethic. I lacked only one thing: a great gift for music. I was talented, yes, but I had no exceptional sense of pitch, musical memory, or hand/ear coordination, nothing extraordinary. I did, however, have one negative genetic endowment: I was susceptible to stage fright—not an asset when the difference of a millimeter on a piano or violin can spell the difference between success and failure. Still today, this “failure to launch” as a pianist causes me to ask: Does hard work alone transform talent into genius? Does practice really make perfect?
The promise of the 10,000-hour rule was attractive, and many people jumped onto the “practice” bandwagon, including first-rate humanists such as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and David Brooks (“Genius: The Modern View”), as well as the popular bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell (“The Trouble with Geniuses” in his book Outliers: The Story of Success). But there’s a problem—actually two. First, at the outset, the Berlin psychologists failed to test students for natural musical ability. They did not compare apples to apples but rather compared the talented to the truly gifted. Extraordinary natural ability makes practice fun and easy, encouraging the participant to want to do more.24 Parents and peers tend to be impressed by those to whom things come effortlessly, and they offer praise, thereby strengthening the positive feedback loop. Ericsson and company have confused cause and effect. Practice is a result. The initial catalyst is the natural gift.
Practice may make the old perfect, but it does not produce innovation.
Obviously there are two very different routes to creative genius, one immediately evident (gifts), the other more covert (laborious self-improvement).
Across industries, research shows that the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years. For example, at Google, once employees are two or three years out of college, their grades have no bearing on their performance.” Grant’s explanation: “Academic grades rarely assess qualities like creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social, emotional and political intelligence. Yes, straight-A students master cramming information and regurgitating it on exams. But career success is rarely about finding the right solution to a problem—it’s more about finding the right problem to solve.” Grant’s conclusion calls to mind a joke long kicked around the halls of academia: “The A students get hired to teach in the universities, and the B’s get relatively good jobs working for the C’s.”
More important, consider these false negatives—those geniuses who might not have done well on a standard IQ test and would not have been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Charles Darwin’s early academic record was so poor that his father predicted he would be a disgrace to his family.50 Winston Churchill was likewise a poor student, admitting that “Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn.” Nobel Prize winners William Shockley and Luis Alvarez were rejected by the Stanford genius test because their IQ scores were too low. The transformative novelist J. K. Rowling has confessed to having “a distinct lack of motivation at university,” her undistinguished record the result of spending “far too long in the coffee bar writing stories and far too little time at lectures.” Similarly, Thomas Edison described himself as being “not at the head of my class, but the foot.” Einstein graduated fourth in his class of five physicists in 1900. Steve Jobs had a high school GPA of 2.65; Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba (the Chinese equivalent of Amazon), took the gaokao (the Chinese national educational exam) and scored 19 out of 120 on a math section on his second try; and Beethoven had trouble adding figures and never learned to multiply or divide. Walt Disney was a below-average student and often fell asleep in class. Finally, Picasso could not remember the sequence of the letters in the alphabet and saw symbolic numbers as literal representations: a 2 as the wing of a bird or a 0 as a body. Standardized tests might have failed to recognize all those geniuses.
Apposite here is a saying attributed to Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Chapter 3 Avoid the Prodigy Bubble
BROADLY SPEAKING, THE WORD “PRODIGY” CONNOTES “AN AMAZING or marvelous thing, something out of the ordinary course of nature,” and it is not necessarily tied to youth.8 A three-hundred-pound turtle on the Galápagos Islands is a prodigy of nature, as is a four-thousand-year-old California redwood tree. Nevertheless, a “prodigy” is commonly understood today to be a young person possessing talents far beyond his or her years, a young person with the capacities of a mature adult. Picasso could draw at age three; John Stuart Mill at six wrote a history of Rome; and Bill Gates, on a math test of eighth to twelfth graders in Washington State, got the highest score—as an eighth grader. To us, such talent is inexplicable.
Take the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, for example, who was a child prodigy. Although his exceptional playing gives us great pleasure today, Ma readily admits that he is not a genius. He is not a composer and will leave us nothing but interpretations of the works of others. Think of all those geniuses who hit their prime later in life, van Gogh, Cézanne, Jackson Pollock, Antonín Dvořák, Giuseppe Verdi, Michael Faraday, and Toni Morrison among them. Shakespeare did not reach the peak of his creative powers until about age thirty-six, by which time Mozart was dead. Darwin’s genius lay in his extraordinary patience; he did not publish his revolutionary On the Origin of Species until he was fifty. Some domains, especially the observational sciences, are predicated on long-term perception and measurement. To a degree, then, prodigy is “domain dependent.”
IF FURTHER PROOF OF ORIGINALITY IS NEEDED, BY THE TIME THE Mozarts returned to Salzburg in 1766, the now ten-year-old Wolfgang had written nearly a hundred works of this sort on his own, including forty keyboard pieces, sixteen violin sonatas, and at least three symphonies. In his preteen years, he composed a transformative masterpiece, Missa Solemnis, K. 139 (Waisenhausmesse) (1768), commissioned by and premiered before Empress Maria Teresa in Vienna.
Is a life crisis the precipitating event from which springs an artist voice or a scientific vision? Are independence and resilience forged in the crucible of an early-life trauma? Of course, as Yoko Ono said, “No one should encourage artists to pursue tragedy so that they might become a good artist.” But the number of geniuses who have lost a parent, most often a mother, at a critical age is striking: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Newton, Bach, Beethoven, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, William Wordsworth, Abraham Lincoln, Mary Shelley, Clara Schumann, James Clerk Maxwell, Curie, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Paul McCartney, and Oprah Winfrey. Is “genius the child of sorrow,” as President John Adams said? Does pain generate a different worldview? Lady Gaga suggested as much when she stated in a 2009 interview in the Guardian, “I do think that when you struggle, your art gets great.”18 One quip of the poetic genius Dylan Thomas may be relevant here: “There is only one thing worse than having an unhappy childhood, and that is having a too-happy childhood.”
The great fame of a few prodigies—Mozart and Picasso, for example—clouds our judgment. Their lives suggest that the prodigy-to-genius journey is the norm and that the state of being a prodigy is a necessary precondition to that of being a genius. But most geniuses, like Einstein, were, at the very least, “later” bloomers. Most creative writers and artists—people in non-rule-based fields—fall into the category of later-day geniuses. So, too, do most political leaders—Lincoln, King, Gandhi, and Angela Merkel, for example—who possess the capacity for empathy. Of the seven most prominent creators of the twentieth century studied by Howard Gardner in his book Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi (1993), only one, Picasso, was a prodigy.
Chapter 4 Imagine the World as does a Child
Pablo Picasso initially lost custody of his inner child and had to work to get it back. “Every child is an artist,” he said. “The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.” Picasso contended that as a child he was preternaturally skilled at drawing, much like an adult. In fact, before the age of fourteen he could create realistic masterpieces. “When I was a child I could paint like Rafael,” he said, “but it took me a lifetime to paint like a child.”
Picasso seems to have destroyed almost all his childhood work. As he told it, he was forced to skip his artistic childhood but gradually willed upon himself the childlike imagination that provided a catalyst for later creative innovation. Critics such as Gertrude Stein found in Picasso’s earliest Cubist works (1907) attempts to see and draw as children do, reducing art to the elementary forces of line, space, and color. Later, around 1920, when Picasso entered his neoclassical period, he painted figures with cartoonishly large limbs, hands, and feet. That style Picasso attributed to a recurring childhood dream: “When I was a child, I often had a dream that used to frighten me greatly. I dreamed that my legs and arms grew to an enormous size and then shrank back just as much as in the other direction. And all around me, in my dream, I saw other people going through the same transformations, getting huge or very tiny. I felt terribly anguished every time I dreamed about that.” As Picasso said with his typical oxymoronic wit, “It takes a very long time to become young.”
Jackson wrote his greatest hits before the age of twenty-three; nothing he did thereafter matched the musical or commercial success of his 1982 Thriller album. McCartney, arguably the primary creative force behind the Beatles (though some believe that it was John Lennon), was his most creative between ages seventeen and twenty-seven, before and during his success with the group. Try as he might, none of McCartney’s later songs matched the impact of his early ones. “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age,” said the novelist Aldous Huxley.22 Walt Disney (1901–1966) did just that and thereby transformed the world of entertainment. “I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be six or sixty.” The story line of a Disney film is invariably a fairy tale or imaginary adventure. In addition to creating such megahits as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Cinderella (1945), Treasure Island (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Robin Hood (1952), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Mary Poppins (1964), Disney created child-oriented TV shows such as Disney’s Wonderful World and The Mickey Mouse Club, built Disneyland, and started Disney World and Epcot Center. What child in the West in the last fifty years has not played with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, or Goofy? And it all began with a child-friendly character named Mickey Mouse. “He popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood,” Disney recalled in 1948. Thereafter, on TV, in animated cartoons, or in films, Disney himself always provided the voice, indeed inhabited the role, of Mickey.
AT THE 2015 GENIUS GALA AT LIBERTY SCIENCE CENTER IN NEW Jersey, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos explained youthful creativity in these words: “You have to have a certain childlike ability to not be trapped by your expertise.
“Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination,” Walt Disney said. “But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it.”
IN SUM, WHAT CAN WE CONCLUDE FROM THIS FORAY INTO THE minds of childlike geniuses over the centuries? That the least helpful thing we can say to our children, as well as to ourselves, is “Grow up!”
Chapter 5 Develop a Lust for Learning
Leonardo da Vinci has been called “the most relentlessly curious man in history.” That’s hyperbole, perhaps, but Leonardo asked a lot of questions, both of others and of himself. Consider, for example, a single day’s “to-do” list that he wrote while in Milan around 1495.8 Calculate the measurement of Milan and its suburbs. Find a book describing Milan and its churches, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cordusio. Discover the measurement of the Corte Vecchia [old courtyard of the duke’s palace]. Ask the Master of Arithmetic [Luca Pacioli] to show you how to square a triangle. Ask Benedetto Portinari [a Florentine merchant passing through Milan] by what means they go on ice at Flanders? Draw Milan. Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night. Examine the crossbow of Maestro Gianetto. Find a Master of Hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill, in the Lombard manner. Ask about the measurement of the sun, promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese.
What made Leonardo so curious? Among the earliest attempts to explain his inquisitiveness was a theory advanced in 1910 by the genius Sigmund Freud. Strange as it may seem today, Freud attributed Leonardo’s curiosity to the fact that he was apparently gay, which had “caused him to sublimate his libido into the urge to know.”10 Freud believed he saw physical evidence of Leonardo’s gayness in the androgynous faces Leonardo depicted in some of his paintings, most notably his St. John the Baptist (Figure 5.1), as well as in the artist’s handwriting.
Is homosexual passion really a spur of curiosity and ultimately creativity, as Freud suggests? Not according to a 2013 report in The International Journal of Psychological Studies that summed up current research on the matter in these terms: “The present findings were compatible with previous studies that homosexuals are no more or less creative.” Although the life experiences of gay individuals may open up new vantage points of otherness, homosexuals are apparently no more or less likely to be curious—and become creative geniuses—than are heterosexuals.
This raises the question: When a genius is in the height of passionate investigation, does he or she notice discomfort? Michelangelo didn’t bewail his fate as he reached up for four years, sixteen hours a day, during his “agony” beneath the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Isaac Newton seems not to have complained when he stuck a large needle into his eye and wiggled it around to measure the effect on his perception of color. Nikola Tesla soldiered on after more than once shocking himself with high-voltage electric current. Do the fires of creative curiosity drive away pain?
In addition to studying physics, math, and electrical engineering, mostly on his own, Tesla drank in philosophy and literature. He claimed to have read all of the multiple volumes of Voltaire as well as committed to memory Goethe’s Faust and several Serbian epics—feats possible owing to his photographic memory.
So from childhood Musk read “from when I woke up until when I went to sleep.” Eventually, he read so much that he seemed to know everything. Musk’s mother recalled that whenever her daughter, Tosca, had a question, she’d say, “Well, go ask genius boy.”41
Eleanor Roosevelt would have said curiosity. As she declared in 1934, “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”45 Indeed, recent research has linked curiosity to happiness, satisfying relationships, increased personal growth, increased meaning in life, and increased creativity.46 Moreover, curiosity may play a role in the very survival of our species, as Jeff Bezos suggested in a 2014 interview on Business Insider: “I think it’s probably a survival skill that we’re curious and like to explore. Our ancestors, who were incurious and failed to explore, probably didn’t live as long as the ones who were looking over the next mountain range to see if there were more sources of food and better climates and so on and so on.”47 Like Musk with his SpaceX program, Bezos, via his Blue Origin private space company, is looking with curious eyes over to the next planet.
Said a family friend, Max Talmey, of Einstein’s youth, “In all those years, I never saw him reading any light literature.”
Mark Twain is believed to have once said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Einstein seems to have riffed on that idea when he observed with irony, “Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” EINSTEIN SHOULD NOT HAVE EXPECTED OTHERWISE. MOST SCHOOLS—even top-flight colleges and universities—don’t explicitly teach the most important thing to learn in life: how to become a lifetime learner. Thus emblazoned over the entry arch to every academic institution should be these words: Discipule: disce te ipse docere (“Student: learn to teach thyself”).55 Students may receive information and learn methodologies in school, but the game changers of this world acquire the vast majority of what they know over time and on their own. Perhaps the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov got close to the truth when he said in 1974, “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”56 SHAKESPEARE WAS ONCE CHASTISED BY HIS CONTEMPORARY BEN Jonson for having “little Latin and less Greek”—but at least the Bard had acquired some Latin and Greek. Mozart and Michael Faraday never had any formal schooling. Abraham Lincoln had a total of fewer than twelve months. Leonardo became the foremost medical scientist of his day without training in medical science. Michelangelo, Franklin, Beethoven, Edison, and Picasso never went beyond a bit of primary school. Elizabeth I and Virginia Woolf were homeschooled. Einstein left high school but after a year returned to prep for college. Tesla abandoned university after a year and a half and never returned. To be sure, most dropouts do not become geniuses or success stories. But prominent among the dropout titans of recent history are Bill Gates (Harvard), Steve Jobs (Reed College), Mark Zuckerberg (Harvard), Elon Musk (Stanford), Bob Dylan (University of Minnesota), Lady Gaga (New York University), and Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State). Jack Ma never went to college, and neither did Richard Branson, who dropped out of high school at age fifteen. Creative force Kanye West dropped out of Chicago State University at age twenty to pursue a musical career; six years later he released his first album to great critical acclaim and commercial success: The College Dropout (2004). The point is not to encourage dropping out but rather to observe that these transformative figures were somehow able to learn what they needed to know. Here successful people and geniuses share a common trait: most are lifelong learning addicts. It’s a good habit to have.
WISE PERSON ONCE OBSERVED, “EDUCATION IS WASTED ON THE young.” But education doesn’t have to go only to the young. Today, young and old alike can learn independently, as the world has learned during the COVID-19 shutdown of 2020. Online Tech Ed platforms—such as Coursera (Yale and other universities), edX (Harvard and MIT), and Stanford Online—offer nearly one thousand high-quality courses to the general public, and most are entirely free.
Chapter 6. Find Your Missing Piece
Van Gogh tried various things before he found his passion. Only after pursuing careers as a gallery dealer, a teacher, a bookseller, and a street minister did he turn to art at age twenty-nine. His fellow painter Paul Gauguin spent six years as a seaman and then eleven as a stockbroker before painting became his sole passion at age thirty-four.
THE PHILOSOPHER JOHN STUART MILL OBSERVED IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY that happiness is something that happens to us while we are pursuing some other purpose; it approaches us stealthily and sideways, “like a crab.”13 Marie Curie came to realize that she had been happiest while boiling pitchblende in a shed. In The World as Will and Idea (1818), the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer connected passionate distraction to genius: “Genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight, thus of entirely renouncing one’s own personality for a time.”14 In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this transcendent state simply that: “flow.” All creative individuals—composers, painters, writers, coders, architects, lawyers, and chefs—experience a flow state when looking for that missing piece. Happiness sneaks up on us like a crab. Time flies by—we forget our emails, forget lunch.
Ultimately, Newton identified the year of the second coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it: 2060. AS THE STORIES OF NEWTON’S FOOL’S GOLD AND DOOMSDAY PREDICTION suggest, passion may sometimes lead the genius astray.
A less-than-stellar student, Darwin washed out of the medical program at the University of Edinburgh in 1827 before moving on the next year to the University of Cambridge, where he seems to have majored in drinking, gambling, hunting, and shooting.
…here Darwin sounds like filmmaker Orson Welles, who said, “I’ve spent most of my mature life trying to prove that I’m not irresponsible.”
According to his lab assistant Edward Johnson, Edison averaged eighteen hours a day at his desk: “He does not go home for days, either to eat or sleep,” even though his house was only a few steps away.35 In 1912, at age sixty-five, Edison invented and had installed in his office a punch-in-and-out time clock, so that he, the boss, could calculate the number of hours he worked each week. For Edison, like Elon Musk, it was a badge of honor to outstrip, even humble, his own workers. At the end of a week, he would call in reporters to broadcast the self-aggrandizing news: that he had worked twice as many hours as his employees.36 What drove Edison’s passion? He had, even more than Darwin, a competitive ego. “I don’t care so much about making my fortune,” he said in 1878, “as I do for getting ahead of the other fellows”;37 and similarly in 1898, “If you want to succeed, get some enemies.”
But once you’ve found your passion, be careful. “The secret of life,” the sculptor Henry Moore said, “is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of every day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.”
Chapter 7: Leverage Your Difference
Martha Graham: “When I stopped dancing I lost my will to live.”
Chuck Close cannot recognize faces in part because he cannot conceptualize three-dimensional images, but he can do so if the subject is two-dimensional. To create a portrait, Close takes a photograph of a face and then divides the two-dimensional image into a myriad of small incremental units, each of which he paints separately in a distinctive manner. For a portrait of his friend Bill Clinton (2006; Figure 7.2), Close created an assemblage of 676 individual diamonds. What resulted was something akin to an atomization of the face, a disassemblage that causes us to realize that a person—and every potential genius—is a composite of countless small elements that may or may not come together. Close points specifically to Clinton’s disassembled teeth: “Each tooth was separate, and I had to smoosh them together so they look like teeth.”48 Forced to see the world in a different way, the prosopagnosiac Chuck Close improvised his way to a solution. Close’s portrait of Clinton today hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., both a president and a disability memorialized.
Straus would have none of it. He and his wife had spent much of their lives accommodating and embracing the human potential of their son in all its diversity and fullness. “For the autistic person,” Straus said, “the special interests or skills arise not in spite of the autism but precisely because of it: autism enables the skill. Disability is a difference, not a deficit that requires medical professionals to remediate, normalize, or cure.” When class time ran out, only one conclusion could be agreed upon by both sides: here was an urgent ethical dilemma relevant to millions. Would we want to eliminate autism, or any disability, if we could? Are not these “other” psychological profiles merely alternative modes of intelligence that might lead to genius? Martin Luther King, Jr., valorized the unbalanced when he said, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”
“When individuals were compared based on their initial levels of optimism, the researchers found that the most optimistic men and women demonstrated, on average, an 11 to 15 percent longer lifespan, and had 50–70 percent greater odds of reaching 85 years old compared to the least optimistic groups.”71 Although the physiology of the “why” remains unknown, the important fact becomes clear: optimists, like geniuses, live longer. But geniuses—the creatively maladjusted—are mainly optimists.
Chapter 8: Rebels Misfits, and Troublemakers
In 2016, the administration of President Barack Obama conceived a plan to replace Alexander Hamilton with Tubman on the ten-dollar bill. But the growing fame of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton had increased the recognition of the father of the Federal Reserve System, so Tubman was redeployed to replace the “populist” slaveholder President Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. But then U.S. voters elected the “populist” Donald Trump president. Trump promptly put a portrait of Jackson next to him in the Oval Office and put the plan to place Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill on hold.
As Steve Jobs once wondered, “Why join the navy when you can be a pirate?”
Chapter 9: Be the Fox
IN AN INTERVIEW IN WIRED IN 1996, STEVE JOBS SAID, “CREATIVITY is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
In the case of math and music, at least, there is a hidden connection. Math is patterns of numbers, and, if we look more deeply, music is as well. Music has two primary elements: sound and duration. Pitches and harmonies are measured in precise vibrations (sound waves) per second, and rhythms are set by proportional durations written in time signatures such as 4/4. We all respond to mathematically organized pitch patterns when we enjoy a pleasing melody and to durational patterns when we dance to a consistent beat in exercise class. Music and math are logic-based processes that produce aesthetic satisfaction,22 and many great minds have linked the two. Leonardo da Vinci was a professional-level musician on the viola da braccio, and Galileo, the son of a world-famous music theorist, played the difficult lute. Edward Teller, the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” was an excellent violinist and Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel Prize winner who gave us the first formulation of quantum mechanics, a skilled pianist. Max Planck, likewise a Nobel laureate in physics, wrote songs and operas. Albert Einstein, the personification of genius, said that had he not become a physicist, he would have become a musician.23 His favorite composer was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Here the observation of Berkeley psychologist Donald MacKinnon can be applied to the arts as well as the sciences: “Some of the most creative scientific achievements have been accomplished by men who, trained in one field, enter upon another.”27 You need to cross-train.
PABLO PICASSO, ANOTHER BRILLIANT POLYMATH, FAMOUSLY SAID, “I do not borrow, I steal!”
Darwin was a fox in hedgehog’s clothing.
But Edison had blundered. DC is not an effective means by which to wire a large city or a nation because it requires expensive generators to create new current about every half mile, depending on the load. To build out his capital-intensive DC system, Edison needed money and decided to sell progressively larger amounts of his Edison Electric stock to J. P. Morgan and his partners, who, within a decade, had ousted Edison and turned Edison Electric first into Edison General Electric and then simply into General Electric. With Edison no longer in control, J. P. Morgan and General Electric switched to AC.
“Cognitive entrenchment can limit creative problem solving if the expert fails to look beyond his existing schemas for new ways to tackle a challenge,” said David Robson in his 2019 book, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes.
The geniuses of this chapter, however, teach a different lesson. They instruct us to wander widely, combine things, cross-train, be fearless, keep our eyes open, avoid sunk cost syndrome, and have the boldness of ignorance. They also implicitly caution us against thinking that education must lead immediately to that job of a lifetime. In the 1920s, a tech engineer’s “half-life of knowledge” was thirty-five years; in the 1960s, it was a decade; and today it is five years at most. The lesson for all of us is: stay nimble.
Thus, aspirational young people majoring in the STEM fields would do well to heed the advice of the Nobel laureate/violinist Albert Einstein, who, in a talk in 1950, disparaged specialization and concluded, “Every serious scientific worker is painfully conscious of this involuntary relegation to an ever-narrowing sphere of knowledge, which threatens to deprive the investigator of his broad horizon and degrades him to the level of a mechanic.” We all need hedgehogs to fix the things we dearly love, but to create a new and improved world, better call Mr. Fox.
Chapter 10 Think Opposite
To discover the East, Christopher Columbus sailed west. To inoculate people against smallpox, Edward Jenner injected them with pox. Instead of luring the customer to the goods, Jeff Bezos brings the goods to the customer. According to Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion, “For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “I must be cruel only to be kind.” The above contrarian insights exemplify the process of “thinking opposite,” an age-old strategy deeply embedded in the arts and sciences, as well as in industry. If you want to better understand an object or concept, conceive of the opposite.
It took Musk five tries, but he did it. As he said in a 2013 TED Talk, “Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counter intuitive.”3
“I always know the end of the mystery before I begin to write,” says the bestselling murder mystery writer P. D. James.6 Mystery writers often establish “who done it,” where, and how and then go back to the beginning to lead the reader through their story. Indeed, “murder mysteries are backward creatures,” wrote the mystery writer Bruce Hale in “Writing Tip: Plotting Backwards.”
In 1905, Einstein showed how these oppositional theories might be reconciled, with his theory of wave-particle duality. Waves of light hit a material, which then emits a stream of photoelectrons (Einstein’s photoelectric effect). “We have two contradictory pictures of reality,” he said. “Separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.” This duality became part of quantum physics—a new orthodoxy made of paradox. In addition, the photoelectron’s energy is always inversely proportional to the light’s wavelength—an embedded antithesis. Illuminating the conundrum of light brought Einstein the Nobel Prize in 1921. … In layman’s terms, forces could pull in a straight line and a curve depending on the speed of the object and the force of the gravitational field. Newton wasn’t wrong, but his theory of gravity was not accurate under all circumstances. Newton’s apple might fall straight down, but in Einstein’s space-time it would curve. Similarly, the fact that a single atom can behave like two separate atoms under certain circumstances is the fundamental logic behind the emerging field of quantum computing and the computer of the future.
As Musk announced loudly in a public post of 2006 titled “The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan,” his agenda was to: Build sports car Use that money to build an affordable car Use that money to build an even more affordable car. . . . Don’t tell anyone.
The following shtick appears in Chris Rock’s stand-up comedy special “Bigger and Blacker”: Gun control? We need bullet control! I think every bullet should cost five thousand dollars. Because if a bullet cost five thousand dollars, people would start to think before they shoot, wondering if they can afford it. . . . We wouldn’t have any more innocent bystanders, or if we did, the shooters would be going around saying “Give me my property back!” [condensed and sanitized]
Winston Churchill: “The farther backward you look, the farther forward you can see.”
Jack Vogel: “You get what you don’t pay for.”
Oscar Levant: “What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left.”
After telling a child a bedtime story, reverse the process and have the child tell you one—encourages visionary thinking on the part of both teller and auditor.
Chapter 11: Get Lucky
In Shakespeare’s time only about .8 percent of the world’s population could speak English; today about 20 percent can. Shakespeare was lucky: a rising tide lifted his posthumous boat.
The Mona Lisa is the one painting that almost everyone in the world can identify, but why? In part, its fame is due to the lasting impact of the art theft; it would be the most sensational news story in the West until the sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912.6 In a broadcast commemorating the centenary of the heist, National Public Radio described this as “The Theft That Made the ‘Mona Lisa’ a Masterpiece.” Hyperbole, perhaps, but statistical evidence supports the claim. Using collection data in the Yale University Library, I calculated the number of books and articles listed on the subject of either “Michelangelo” or “Leonardo da Vinci” prior to 1911. They skew 68 percent to 32 percent in favor of the former. But in the entries after 1911, the ratio is about fifty-fifty. Consulting standard reference works on the two artists and the number of words assigned to each, with 1911 again the tipping point, the ratios go from seven to five for Michelangelo to two to one in favor of Leonardo. If public interest be any sort of benchmark of genius, the caper of a museum worker serendipitously enhanced Leonardo’s standing.
The bold moves made by the titans of tech—Larry Ellison, Musk, Brin, Bezos, Gates, and Zuckerberg—all required a change of venue for their perpetrators.
Silicon Valley draws the best tech minds from around the world by an aggressive use of the H-1B visa, known as “the genius visa” because it allows for the immigration of highly skilled foreign workers. “Nearly all the great advances in civilization . . . have been during periods of the utmost internationalism,” said the historian Kenneth Clark. Do we still feel the same about that southwest border wall in the United States?
Chapter 12: Move Fast and Break Things
Some geniuses are moral and, knowingly or unknowingly (according to the law of unintended consequences), destroy things. Some are immoral or amoral and destroy things. Some destroy institutions as part of the inevitable process of change; others destroy people as a means of generating psychic energy to feed their obsessions. Destroying things doesn’t make a person a genius, but all creative geniuses make a habit of doing it.
…her book Small Fry: A Memoir (2018), Brennan-Jobs described how her father, Steve, would frequently use money as a way to confuse or frighten her. “Sometimes he decided not to pay for things at the very last minute,” she wrote, “walking out of restaurants without paying the bill.
Sometimes Jobs was a genius, and sometimes he was just a jerk.
To make sure the destructive force of AC was evident to all, he [Edison] sent a film crew employing his new motion picture camera to record the event. His short film survives today and is available on YouTube. Often the warning “viewer discretion advised” is a tease to drum up more viewers. Here it is not.
Perhaps the novelist Aldous Huxley exaggerated when he said ironically, “As a man [Newton] was a failure, as a monster he was superb.” His fellow physicist Stephen Hawking summed up Newton in just seven words: “Isaac Newton was not a pleasant man.”
Einstein himself acknowledged his self-centered nature when he spoke of “my pronounced lack of need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities. I am truly a ‘lone traveler’ and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart.”
Thomas Edison said, “Restlessness is discontent, and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure.”
More could be said about Picasso as Minotaur, but the point is made. He was a monster. And like every revolutionary, this monster could last only as long as the public allowed, as he himself realized. “They [the public] expect to be shocked and terrorized,” he said. “If the monster only smiles, then they’re disappointed.” Picasso didn’t disappoint, but his artistic terror left collateral damage. To Picasso, it didn’t matter. “Nobody has any real importance for me,” he told Françoise Gilot. “As far as I’m concerned, other people are like those little grains of dust floating in the sunlight. It takes only a push of the broom and out they go.”51 Out went his half-crazed first wife, Olga, who stalked Picasso wherever he went until she died in 1954; Marie-Thérèse, who hanged herself in 1977; his second wife, Jacqueline, who shot herself in 1986; and Dora Maar, who underwent electric shock therapy and joined a semimonastic convent, dying in 1997. Wounded but surviving was Françoise Gilot, who later married a second genius, the aforementioned Dr. Jonas Salk. Arianna Huffington, the creator of Huffington Post, hit the nail on the head with the title of her 1988 comprehensive biography of the artist: Picasso: Creator and Destroyer.
Typical of his thinking then was what he said to a friend in an online exchange, as reported on Business Insider: ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard ZUCK: just ask ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one? ZUCK: people just submitted it ZUCK: i don’t know why ZUCK: they “trust me” ZUCK: dumb fucks What has changed? Apparently not much, except that the number of us dumb fucks has grown to 2.7 billion.
Chapter 13: Now Relax
Much of the surrealist Salvador Dalí’s art looks like the visions one might experience in a dream. Dalí was so obsessed with the creative power of dreams that he would intentionally fall asleep with a spoon in his hand. When he nodded off, the spoon would clatter to the floor, awakening him to the need to capture his sleep-induced thoughts at that somnambulant moment and put them on canvas.
Keith Richards claims that the song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” came to him in his sleep in a hotel room in Florida, where he had left on a slow-turning tape recorder that captured the opening motif of the tune.9
McCartney has told this story about the origins of “Yesterday” many times: how it came to him when awakening from a dream at his girlfriend’s house and how he went to the piano to set some chords to it. Not believing that a melody could be the product of a dream, he went around for weeks, asking friends such as the producer George Martin, as well as fellow Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison, about its source. “‘What is this song? It must have come from somewhere. I don’t know where it came from.’ Nobody could place it, so at the end I had to claim it as my own. Well, that’s pretty magical, you wake up one morning and there’s this tune in your head.
Sometimes even experienced musicians have to relax and get out of their own way. For years, when teaching my Yale course Listening to Music, I would tell students that Mozart had been able to play the piano when upside down. Then I would say, “Actually, it’s not that difficult,” and prove it. I would lie on my back on the piano bench, cross my hands, reach for the keys, and then play. (A video demonstration is posted on my website.) [couldn’t find it]
Chapter 14: Time to Concentrate
Many great minds throughout history seem to have possessed a photographic or eidetic memory—the ability to recall an image after only seeing it once—and used it as a tool of concentration. Once, when in a tavern, Michelangelo argued with fellow artists over who could create the ugliest image. Michelangelo drew his way to victory and said he owed it to the fact that he had seen and could remember all the graffiti in Rome.16 Those around Picasso believed that he, too, had a photographic memory for visual images, for he once described an assumed-to-be-lost photograph in every detail, later to have his mnemonic powers validated when the image resurfaced.17 James Joyce was known to his Jesuit teachers at Clongowes Wood College as “the boy with the ink-blotter mind.” Elon Musk was called “genius boy” by his mother because, she said, he possessed a photographic memory.
Epilogue: Unexpected Outcomes
Thus, my cohort of geniuses has taught me that it is impossible to predict who will become a genius; no longer will I make the mistake of judging a young person’s potential based on standardized tests and grades, or even prodigious acts. Indeed, I would caution all parents against pushing their children along the prodigy track. Let’s all check back in twenty years to see if that prodigy has begun to change the world—few do.
Finally, my Yale students and I have experienced one enduring insight that we perhaps should have seen coming: Many great minds turn out to be not-so-great human beings. At the beginning of the course, I invariably ask the students, just to get a laugh and provoke discussion, “Who here is a genius? All geniuses, please raise your hands.” A few souls do so timidly; the class clowns elevate emphatically for all to see. Next I ask, “But if you are not already a genius, how many of you would like to be one?” To this about three-quarters of the class responds affirmatively. In the final session of the course, I ask, “Having studied all these geniuses, how many of you still want to be one?” Now, only about a quarter of the group says, “I do.” As one student volunteered on the point: “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-centered jerks—not the kind of person I’d want as a friend or a suitemate.” Point taken: obsessive and self-centered. As much as we stand to benefit from the habits of genius, be on guard if there is one in your midst. If you work for a genius, you may be berated or abused, or you may lose your job. If someone close to you is a genius, you may find that his or her work or passion always comes first. Yet to those so abused, made redundant, exploited, or ignored, we offer sincere thanks 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.
It takes a village to write my books. Helpful inhabitants thereof include our four children, to whom the book is dedicated, as well as fellow dedicatees Dr. Fred and M.A. Sue Finkelstein, our best friends and spirited co-debaters for forty-five years, and finally my sharpest critic, my beloved wife, Sherry, who read every word of everything more than once.