Despite the widely-held belief that geniuses are all child prodigies, a race apart from ordinary mortals, a British psychologist claimed yesterday that the secret of their success lay more in hard work than in any innate intellectual gifts.
Professor Michael Howe, of Exeter university, told the British Psychological Society's annual conference in Winchester that as extraordinary as geniuses with exceptional scientific or creative talents are, they have much in common with ordinary people.
"Genuine creative achievements depend more on perseverance over the long haul than on prodigious childhood skills. We cannot all be geniuses but we can learn from them.
"What makes geniuses special is their long-term commitment. They struggle very hard and they keep on persisting. They enjoy their work.
"They excel at concentrating and persevering. Their efforts are focused, and all geniuses have a firm sense of direction."
Like everybody else, even the greatest minds that have ever existed have had to struggle and strive to achieve their goals.
Professor Howe pointed to Charles Darwin, who was wrongly believed by many to have been "an aimless young man who unaccountably turned into a great genius".
In fact, he was the most capable and best-prepared young biologist of his generation.
Albert Einstein, who many thought was a failure at school, was in fact always a high achiever and came from a family with strong scientific interests.
But it was not only geniuses with a scientific bent who had made enormous efforts to equip themselves with special qualities.
"The Bronte sisters did not suddenly begin writing great novels. They perfected their writing skills through intense preparation over a period of many years.
"And George Eliot had an excellent training. She was immensely diligent and made herself into a superb scholar and writer through her serious and sustained effort."
Neither was it the case that every genius was once a child prodigy. Many child prodigies did not go on to be particularly productive adults while some - including Charles Darwin - were unexceptional in their youth.
And while almost all of the world's greatest musicians and composers were child prodigies, including Mozart, Handel, JS Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Debussy, even the most exceptionally able still took at least 10 years of hard study to become a major composer.
Professor Howe, author of the book Genius Explained, said that virtually all geniuses also had a firm sense of purpose and a strong motivation to achieve.
This was combined with a capacity to concentrate for long periods of time and to resist distractions - abilities particularly honed by scientists such as Isaac Newton, Darwin and Einstein.
A third shared attribute of geniuses was the capacity to focus efforts towards specific goals. Many geniuses also benefited from a supportive home environment.
"Absorbing the lessons of geniuses will not make everyone into a genius but numerous ordinary people can benefit from the insights that exploration of genius can reveal."
Geniuses Are Made, Not Born
By Scott Barry Kaufman | Aug 07, 2012Share
Individual differences exist, but genius is ultimately made.
In her 2011 album, Lady Gaga made the bold empirical claim that we are just Born This Way. This set off intense debates among academic psychologists about the role of nature and nurture in determining genius. Was Gaga right?
In one sense, Gaga was on the right track. If there's anything we've learned from over 25 years of twin and adoption studies -- conducted on over 800,000 pairs of twins and more than 50 different samples -- virtually every single psychological trait -- from IQ to persistence to artistic ability to schizophrenia to autism to marital status to television viewing -- is heritable. The heritability of human characteristics is so robust that Eric Turkheimer named it the First Law of Behavioral Genetics.
These findings vindicate Gaga -- they counter the belief that we are born into this world as blank slates, completely at the mercy of the external environment. There's such a thing as individuality, at least partly rooted in our biology. But much to the dismay of many scientists, Gaga left out some important technical caveats. She didn't mention the fact that heritability has very little to do with the potential for change. At the now infamous "On the Veracity of Gaga's Empirical Claims" Conference held in Venice Italy, one insightful young scholar raised the point: What if you're born with some tendencies you don't want to be born with? Are you just stuck that way?
This caused a flurry of discussions, and it was generally agreed upon that just because a trait is heritable (and virtually all of our psychology traits are heritable), doesn't mean that the trait is fixed or can't be developed. After all, the tendency to watch reality television is probably heritable, but parents can exert enormous control by banning their children from watching Snooki destroy her life.
Psychologists also realized that the actual heritability estimate isn't all that informative either. Eric Turkheimer came along and showed everyone that the heritability of IQ is quite high in enriched environments, but extremely low in poorer households. This showed environment matters and that you can't take the heritability estimate of a trait at face value. What's more, you can't make inferences about an individual based on heritability calculations -- which are based on large populations of people at a particular point in time.
Researchers eventually agreed that it was time to take the major insights they gleaned from decades of twin and adoption twins and move on. Next stop: the search for tiny molecules. Unfortunately, things turned out to be trickier than anticipated. No single gene could be found to explain more than a fraction of the variation in any trait. Even when potential genes were found, they rarely replicated. Twin studies showed that the genes were there somewhere, but modern genomics research suggested that it would be no simple matter figuring out how a very large number of interacting genes (which are always interacting with the environment) influence the development of complex psychological traits.
What has become evident is that none of our traits come prepackaged at birth. Baby M.J. didn't pop out doing a windmill dunk. All traits are developed -- no exceptions. This does not mean, however, that people don't differ in the rate at which certain abilities are developed. The precocious feats of prodigies and prodigious savants show loud and clear what one can achieve when you have what Martha J. Morelock refers to as a "rage to learn". Prodigies appear to be the ones pushing their parents; not the other way around.
But while getting a perfect score on the SAT at age 12 is impressive, precocity is no guarantee of later success. Likewise, a lack of early precocity is no guarantee of failure. We must stop referring to the precocious as "geniuses" and see their feats for what they are: early signs that the child may be ready to start the long, arduous path to acquire the expertise required to learn, or even change, existing paradigms.
One thing is for sure: there's far more possibility we could be getting out of all children than we are even close to realizing. So many children are tuned out, because we aren't appreciating the path they want. Instead, we give everyone the same preset path to follow and expect them to be naturally motivated to deliberately practice down that path. This goes against everything we currently know about what it takes to succeed.
Genius involves figuring out who you are, and owning yourself. It's about amplifying your best traits and compensating for the rest. Geniuses grab life by the horns, and persevere amidst setbacks. They take control of their lives, instead of waiting for others to open up doors. In this very important sense, greatness is completely, utterly, made.
© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman.
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Authors note: This article was originally part of a larger debate at The Huffington Post in which I took the born, not made position. Thus the title. Of course, my position is that genius is influenced both by biological and environmental factors. With that said, I do believe (as stated above) that at the end of the day, geniuses are those who fully embrace who they are, and what they are passionate about, persevere amongst setbacks, and do not let the expectations of others get in their way.
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