What Makes a Genius?

When I’m doing my creativity workshops the biggest hurdle to overcome is people’s belief that only certain people can be creative and only certain people can become genii. In fact people believe that certain babies are born genii. Unfortunately for this belief there is no evidence to back it up. There is no evidence that ‘genius’ is genetic. Certain tendencies are genetic but that’s a very different thing. A tendency does not make a genius.

Look at children. They are rubbish at everything. They are no good at maths, they can’t draw properly, they can’t play cricket or football very well and they certainly can’t sing. I’ve even come across people who are shocked at that statement. But it’s obvious! Children are rubbish at everything…. compared to adult standards.

I was the best artist in my primary school. I could draw better than the whole school. But that didn’t make me a creative genius. If you were to look at my drawings from then they look rubbish. Good for an eight year old but appalling by adult standards. For some reason, when I first picked up a pencil I had a ‘tendency’ to be a tiny bit better at it than the other kids. Other kids had a tendency to be a tiny bit better at football than me. I am useless at football today but I’m a better player than the best kid in the school back then.

By having this tendency of being good at drawing and bad at football meant that I focused my attention on improving the thing I got praise for and avoiding the thing I got laughed at for. I knew I was good at art and I knew I was rubbish at football. That type of strong belief is powerful. Whether you think you’re good at something or think you’re bad at something you’re always right.

We all agree Mozart was a genius. His father Leopold was one of Europe’s leading musical teachers and a prolific and successful composer of instrumental music. When Wolfgang was about three years old Leopold gave him intensive musical training, including instruction in clavier, violin, and organ. Wolfgang had learned several pieces at the age of four and started composing at age five. Mozart clearly had a tendency, but not necessarily a ‘talent’ for music. He had a talent for concentration and learning. The environment was right and Mozart got better and better. So was Mozart born a music genius? We’ve no way of knowing. Had another baby been substituted without Leopold knowing would that baby have become a musical genius because of that training? Perhaps.

In the early 1970s in an underground bunker near San Diego, Robert Klark Graham set up a genius sperm bank. He collected samples from donor genii of the day and the women of America could pay up and then conceive a baby with half its DNA coming from a recognised genius. 217 children were conceived in this way. Now how many of those children, now in their 30s, are recognised as genii? The answer is the same amount that you’d find in any random sample of 217 people. Just having DNA isn’t good enough. It may help you to be tall but it won’t make you a basketball player.

Dedication and training is what makes a genius. Einstein said so. Leonardo Da Vinci said so. Since they are the people our society holds up to be genii in the first place we have no option but to believe them. We can all be genii. It’s only our belief that we can’t that prevents us.

For more see:


4 comments on “What Makes a Genius?

  1. This is about as good and brief a summary of genius as one can find. Unfortunately, educators have come to rely too heavily on standardized tests. While such measures tell us something, they are unsatisfying in terms of understanding the extraordinary intellect. When one really examines the life and accomplishments of geniuses such as Einstein, the “perspiration” he spoke of becomes ever clearer. Still there are aberrations–beautiful and inexplicable–such as the so-called idiot savants, which hint at some possibility of improving neuronal configurations.

    My personal definition of a genius is anyone whose mental powers are so extraordinary that exceptionally intelligent observers’ jaws drop when witnessing a display of these abilities. I find this definition generally silences all those parents who believe that their little ones are exceptional.

    I think there should be less standardized testing (that is not to say that finding better outcomes assays is not a worthy goal)and more intense attention given to developing better educational techniques (based on learning styles). More attention to creating favorable educational environments for all is sorely needed.

    Achievement in any field requires discipline and hard work. No notable genius did not apply themselves to their craft with heroic diligence. My favorite “genius” of all, the Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, was fond of quoting his measured IQ of 120. Regarded as a “genius’ genius,” Feynman’s childhood environment, intellectual curiosity, tenacity, and hard work combined to bring him to a level of intellectual achievement that places him among the greatest thinkers in history. He is a shining example of the weight we should be placing on nurture rather than nature. To be sure, nature will produce its exceptions, but we are cheating our species with our inexcusable lack of devotion to the study of and application of science to the advancement of the human mind. Can anyone disagree with how seriously we are neglecting the children of our species in this regard?


  2. SO true. And schools in the U.S. tend to measure only certain types of genii. Left brainers, for the most part. Those who are likely to be diligent (and perhaps a bit vicious) in the business world.

    It’s interesting to me that the manmade things that impact us emotionally the most–music, art, creative writing, beautiful architecture, etc.– are in the very subjects that tend to be downsized or deleted from curriculum when budgets are tight.



  3. Exactly right. I agree fully with this concept. Many people have preconceptions as to what may make a person intelligent, but few recognize the potential behind intellectualism and a fervor for learning and knowledge. Great article and perception.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s