How To Be A Genius

Geniuses don’t exist in the present. Think of the people you’ve met: Would you call any of them a genius in the Mozart, Einstein, Shakespeare sense of the word? Even the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants don’t call their winners geniuses.

We throw the g-word around where it’s safe: in reference to dead people. Since there’s no one alive who witnessed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart pee in his kindergarten pants or saw young Pablo Picasso eating crayons, we can call them geniuses in safety, as their humanity has been stripped from our memory.

Even if you believe geniuses exist, there’s little consensus on what being a genius means. Some experts say genius is the capacity for greatness. Others believe it’s that you’ve accomplished great things.

Forget this pointless debate. Chasing definitions never provides what we want: a better understanding of how to appreciate, and possibly become, interesting creative people. Instead let’s run through the history of geniuses and pull out some telling patterns.

1. Have a great, or horrible, family

Picasso, Mozart, Beethoven, Einstein and Goethe are popular geniuses whose parents were interested in their creative lives. Mozart and Beethoven both had fathers who were professional musicians and they were taught by them during childhood to play instruments. Can you guess what Picasso’s dad did? Yes, he was a painter, and he spent many hours with young Pablo.

One popular legend surrounding Einstein is that he was obsessed with a compass given to him by his dad. The more potent factor in his development was family friend Max, who taught Einstein science and philosophy. Then, of course, there’s Van Gogh. The only healthy relationship he ever had was with his brother Theo.

2. But lousy families can make geniuses, too.

Beethoven’s dad was cruel, torturing him during practice sessions. Unlike many child prodigies who burn out at adolescence, Beethoven kept his passion for music. Leonardo da Vinci barely knew his father.

Isaac Newton was also born to a single-parent home and hated his stepfather. From that broken relationship may have come the seed of unrest that fueled his independent life and ideas.

3. Be obsessed with work

Show me a genius and I’ll show you a workaholic. Van Gogh produced 2,000 works of art between 1880 and 1890 (or 1,100 paintings and 900 sketches). That’s four works of art a week for a decade. He didn’t even get started until age 25.

Da Vinci’s journals represent one clear fact: Work was the center of his life. He had neither a spouse nor children. Picasso was a machine, churning out 12,000 works of art. He said, “Give me a museum and I’ll fill it” and made good on that boast. Shakespeare wrote more than 40 plays, plus dozens of sonnets, poems and, of course, grocery lists.

4. These are people who sacrificed many ordinary pleasures for their work.

The list of lazy geniuses is short. There are burnouts, suicides and unproductive years in retreat–but none could be called slackers. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers contends that the key to any success is 10,000 hours of practice.

The debate over talent vs. effort is moot: History makes it clear you always need extraordinary effort.

5. Have emotional or other serious problems

For all their brilliance, most geniuses did not live well-adjusted lives. Picasso, Van Gogh, Edison, Einstein and Nietzsche (and most major modern philosophers) were often miserable. Many never married or married often, abandoned children and fought depression.

Newton and Tesla spent years in isolation by choice and had enough personality disorders to warrant cabinets full of pharmaceuticals today. Michelangelo and da Vinci quit jobs and fled cities to escape debts.

Kafka and Proust were both hypochondriacs, spending years in bed or in hospitals for medical conditions, some of which were psychological. Voltaire, Thoreau and Socrates all lived in exile or poverty, and these conditions contributed to the works they’re famous for.

Happily positive emotions can work as fuel, too. John Coltrane, C.S. Lewis and Einstein had deeply held, and mostly positive, spiritual beliefs that fueled their work.

But the real lesson is that all emotions, positive or negative, provide fuel for work and geniuses are better at converting their emotions into work than more ordinary people.

6. Don’t strive for fame in your own lifetime

Most people we now consider geniuses received little publicity in their lifetimes compared with the accolades heaped on them after their deaths. Kafka and Van Gogh died young, poor and with little fame.

Desiring fame in the present may spoil the talents you have. This explains why many young stars have one amazing work but never rise to the same brilliance later: They’ve lost their own opinions. Perhaps it’s best to ignore opinions except from a trusted few and concentrate on the problems you wish to solve.

To focus on learning and creating seems wise. Leave it to the world after you’re gone to decide if you were a genius or not. As long as you’re free to create in ways that satisfy your passions and a handful of fans, you’re doing better than most, including many of the people we call geniuses.


Scott Berkun is the best-selling author of the books Making Things Happen and The Myths of Innovation.
He has also worked at Microsoft ( MSFT – news – people ), taught creative thinking at the University of Washington and runs a popular blog at http://www.scottberkun.com.