There are differing ideas on what exactly constitutes a genius but we certainly can point one out when we see one; Einstein, Da Vinci, Newton, Curie, Buffet, Gates.
These six people are unarguably geniuses and there are many more. So, how did they become geniuses? Obviously, they are incredibly smart but what other factors may have been in play?
This is a question that scholars have been studying for hundreds of years. Are you born with genius or can it be cultivated?
Here we will look at exactly what a genius is and some of the research and theories around how genius can be cultivated in people.
What is a Genius?
There is no one, single definition of what a genius is. That is part of the reason that it can be so hard to figure out exactly how a genius person came to be.
Many define genius’ as people who have an IQ over 140. Having an IQ this high means that you have an IQ higher than 99.5% of people in the world. There are two slight problems with using this definition of genius though.
First, is that there are many different IQ tests so the results are not as standardized as they could or should be.
Second, these tests have only been in existence since recently. Scientists have studied and measured intelligence since the late 19th century but the was first real IQ test was not developed until 1904.
This means that many geniuses from history never took an IQ test so their prescribed “IQs” are really just guesses.
If IQ isn’t the best way to define a genius, then where else can we turn?
Dean Keith Simonton is a professor of Psychology at UC-Davis, an expert in the field of intelligence and the author of books such as Genius, Creativity, and Leadership, Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity, and Genius 101: Creators, Leaders, and Prodigies.
Simonton defines geniuses as people who:
In Simonton’s definition intelligence is only one piece of the puzzle. There are other factors that go into genius that go beyond a person’s natural smarts.
These are the factors that lead the people who study intelligence to believe that genius can be cultivated in the right circumstances.
The Geographical Factor
A big factor that seems to play a role in cultivating genius is where the person is from. There have been hotbeds of genius throughout the years where a disproportionate amount of geniuses come from the same general geographic location.
Cities like Athens, Florence, Calcutta, Vienna, Hangzhou, and Seattle all have produced a number of geniuses during different times in world history.
This trend seems to speak to the fact that environmental factors were in play for the people who grew up in these situations.
Most people believe that creative genius is a reaction to a challenge. This is one reason these places may have been a fertile breeding ground for genius.
Ancient Athens was a notoriously harsh place to live and Florence had been almost wiped out by the plague just a few years before the Renaissance happened.
Another thing all these places share is a large number of immigrants. Having a diverse culture leads to being exposed to many ways of thinking.
It also produces a group of people who have to work harder than others to succeed. Two of the geniuses mentioned above, Einstein and Curie, were immigrants along with many other geniuses.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
This is a theory most famously introduced by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success.
It proposes that to master any complex endeavor, it takes 10,000 hours (about 10-years) of dedicated practice to do so. This is based on a theory by psychology professor Anders Eriksson and others of the “10-Year Rule”.
This theory dovetails nicely with the “endurance” piece of Simonton’s definition as well. Geniuses must have lots of time spent on their given field in order to reach a genius level.
In Gladwell’s book, he points to many examples of how people who we now recognize as geniuses came to be because of unusual circumstances that led to them spending 10,000 hours on their given craft.
He references the fact that the Beatles played over 1,200 times in Hamburg, Germany over a 4-year period to meet the 10,000-hour rule. He also talks about Bill Gates and how he had access and the ability to spend a lot of time with one of the only computers in the country when he was a teenager.
It is stories like these and others that you can find that are associated with genius that show what a pivotal role practice plays in developing genius. This is another factor that is cultivated and not created at birth.
Allowing Independent Thought
Another important factor that can create genius but also limit genius in otherwise very smart people is specialization. Genius seems to react well to the more possibilities it is presented with. Writer Eric Weiner who wrote The Geography of Genius calls it the “possibility of possibility”.
The need for independent thought in multiple fields is illustrated by the fact that many geniuses were geniuses in more than one area.
Leonardo da Vinci is the most famous case of this as he was a brilliant painter, inventor, scientist, and more. He is not the only one though.
Isaac Newton was a physicist, mathematician, and philosopher. Aristotle was both a philosopher and a physician. Benjamin Franklin was both a scientist and an incredibly skilled politician and diplomat.
None of these people specialized in just one thing and that seems like another key to cultivating genius. The ability to have a range of diverse thought allow geniuses to grow and excel in any direction that their mind wants to take them.
The Importance Of Motivation
One last way that genius may be able to be cultivated is through motivation. This means both internal and external motivations.
This is the “enthusiasm” piece of Simonton’s genius definition. The first way you see the effect of motivation on genius is with how hard their early years are.
Most geniuses come from a difficult background, hence a large number of immigrant geniuses as we discussed before. There are also a large number of geniuses who lost a parent at an early age. This early struggle seems to provide the motivation many geniuses need to flourish.
These struggles create internal motivation but external motivation is important as well. Encouraging and supporting potential geniuses to choose their own path is something that lends itself to cultivating genius.
There have been many studies done that show people find more success in fields that they are personally connected and that they value as being important to them and people they respect. This applies to everyone and geniuses are no different.
So, can genius be cultivated?
As with most difficult questions, there is no simple answer. It is something that people have and will study, argue over and theorize about for generations to come.
There does have to be some innate level of intelligence you are born with to create genius.
However, there is a lot of evidence that becoming a true genius goes way beyond just your natural level of intelligence.
There are sociological and environmental factors at play as well as things you can do to encourage genius to develop.
Genius may be able to be cultivated at in the end, that is enough reason encourage a person who seems like they have the IQ it may take pursue these strategies.