How the genius myth is counterproductive

March 5, 2011 by Joshua
in Blog, Creativity

[This post is part of a series on creativity. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

The term genius sounds like a compliment. Virtually everyone values intelligence and genius implies extreme intelligence. Say the word genius and names like Einstein, Da Vinci, Mozart, and Shakespeare come to mind. Who wouldn’t want to be like them? (The term also describes extremes other than intelligence, like athletic ability, for example, to which this post applies equally.)

Today I’ll talk about problems with the concept of genius; tomorrow some more productive alternatives.

The term also separates and divides. It implies they are different from us. People use the term to protect themselves from realizing what they could have been — that is, out of fear. It also helps sell magazines and movie tickets: look at this oddity unlike us; he or she is better than you could be, but don’t worry, he or she had advantages you never could.

Einstein worked hard at keeping current with physics — his work at the patent office showed up in his thought experiments leading to relativity, he helped organize friends to talk about science, he had to work harder than someone in academia to get his early papers published, for example.

Yet few people call Einstein a hard worker or accomplished or diligent. Or if they do, it’s after they call him a genius. Calling Einstein or Mozart hard workers or diligent implies they are like us or, more relevantly, that we are like them. Or could be if only we attempted what they attempted. But we haven’t, so we don’t so we won’t feel like losers. Instead we imply that they are separate from us, that they have a gift — supposedly supernaturally given or genetically random — that gave them an advantage we don’t have.

The problem is that no gap exists between these people and us — only shades of gray. Einstein had plenty of peers, many of whom explained experimental results he couldn’t and found mistakes of his. Moreover, the problems he solved were never apparent before his time and would doubtlessly have been solved eventually without him. Newtonian mechanics are incompatible with electricity and magnetism. Much of the math resolving them had been worked out. Someone was going to reconcile them.

Some people point out that even among their peers, Einstein and Mozart stood out. That’s an effect of any competitive system. Someone always has to achieve the most, but differences at that level are small. The difference between the fastest and second fastest sprinter is a hundredth of a second, yet one gets all the accolades, the other almost nothing. The difference in accolades results not from the difference in times but in what sells newspapers. Same with genius. Who wants to read an article titled “Einstein was smart, but others were equally smart, you just don’t relate to their work as well“? No, people buy, “Einstein: the inside story of his genius”.

Moreover, people confuse how big the effects of an idea with the intelligence to create the idea. Einstein’s ideas were about the foundations of physics, so they were about the nature of reality so everyone connects with them at some level. People who discover esoteric topics may have overcome as-big challenges, but no one gets the discoveries, so no one calls them genius. The people who worked out the middle steps before Einstein (Poincare and Lorentz come to mind) or who contributed after him were likely equally intelligent, but the public doesn’t learn their names.

In summary, the term genius is romantic, palliative, inaccurate, divisive, and discourages people from realizing their potential, but it sells magazines and movie tickets.

Tomorrow: alternatives to the genius myth.

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3 responses on “How the genius myth is counterproductive

  1. Pingback: » Productive alternatives to the genius myth Joshua Spodek

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