Einstein. Beethoven. Picasso. Jobs. The word genius evokes these iconic figures, whose cultural contributions have irreversibly shaped society.
Yet Beethoven could not multiply. Picasso couldn’t pass a 4th grade math test. And Jobs left high school with a 2.65 GPA.What does this say about our metrics for measuring success and achievement today? Why do we teach children to behave and play by the rules, when the transformative geniuses of Western culture have done just the opposite? And what is genius, really?
Professor Craig Wright, creator of Yale University’s popular “Genius Course,” has devoted more than two decades to exploring these questions and probing the nature of this term, which is deeply embedded in our culture. In The Hidden Habits of Genius, he revealswhat we can learn from the lives of those we have dubbed “geniuses,” past and present.
Examining the lives of transformative individuals ranging from Charles Darwin and Marie Curie to Leonardo Da Vinci and Andy Warhol to Toni Morrison and Elon Musk, Wright identifies more than a dozen drivers of genius—characteristics and patterns of behavior common to great minds throughout history. He argues that genius is about more than intellect and work ethic—it is far more complex—and that the famed “eureka” moment is a Hollywood fiction. Brilliant insights that change the world are never sudden, but rather, they are the result of unique modes of thinking and lengthy gestation. Most importantly, the habits of mind that produce great thinking and discovery can be actively learned and cultivated, and Wright shows us how.
Gift or Hard Work?
IQ or Many Qs?
There is no answer! There is no answer! There is no answer!” one hundred eager undergraduates chanted in the first session of my “genius course,” as I urged them on. Students typically want an answer to put into their pocket as they leave class that they can deploy later on a test, but I felt that it was important to make this point immediately. To the simple question of what drives genius—nature or nurture—there really is no answer.
This issue always caused debate in my class. The quant types (math and science majors) thought genius was due to natural gifts; parents and teachers had told them that they had been born with a special talent for quantitative reasoning. The jocks (varsity athletes) thought exceptional accomplishment was all hard work: no pain, no gain; coaches had taught them that their achievement was the result of endless hours of practice. Among fledgling political scientists, conservatives thought genius a God-given gift; liberals thought it was caused by a nurturing environment. Nature or nurture? Each side had supporters among my students. Similarly, geniuses throughout history have taken sides.
Plato said that the capacity to do extraordinary things was a gift of soothsayers and gods.1 But Shakespeare seemed to place great faith in free will and independent initiative when he wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves” (Julius Caesar). On the other hand, in his autobiography, the English naturalist Charles Darwin declared that “Most of our qualities are innate.”2 More recently, the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir declared, “One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius.”3 Back and forth the argument goes: natural endowment versus hard work.
Geniuses have a habit of not recognizing their own hidden gifts and leaving it to others. Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), the acclaimed biographer of the great Renaissance artists, marveled at Leonardo da Vinci’s innate talents with these words: “Sometimes in a supernatural fashion a single body is lavishly supplied with such beauty, grace, and ability that wherever the individual turns, each of his actions is so divine that he leaves behind all other men and clearly makes himself known as a genius endowed by God (which he is).”4 One of Leonardo’s gifts was keen visual observation; he had the capacity to “freeze frame” an object in motion—the outreached wings of a bird in flight, the legs of a galloping horse off the ground, the eddies of a rippling river. “The dragonfly flies with four wings, and when those in front are raised those behind are lowered,” Leonardo recorded in a notebook around 1490.5 Who knew?
Leonardo’s archrival Michelangelo had a photographic memory and perfect hand/eye coordination that allowed him to draw lines in precise proportional relationships.6 Tesla was a fast study because he, too, had an eidetic memory and could quote, among other things, every line of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent van Gogh, Vladimir Nabokov, and Duke Ellington were all born synesthesiacs; when they heard music or observed words or numbers, they saw colors. Lady Gaga is, too. “When I write songs,” she said in a 2009 interview in the Guardian, “I hear melodies and I hear lyrics but I also see colours; I see sound like a wall of colours.”7
In 1806, Ludwig van Beethoven, in the midst of one of his famous temper tantrums, barked at the high-ranking Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, “Prince, you are what you are through the accident of birth; what I am, I am through myself. There have been and will be thousands of princes; there is only one Beethoven.”8 To this we might respectfully reply, “True enough, Ludwig, but you, too, are an accident of birth. Your father and grandfather were professional musicians, and likely from them you inherited, among other things, your gift of perfect pitch and musical memory.”
Perfect pitch is heritable and runs in families, though it is a talent given to only about one in ten thousand. Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Mariah Carey, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Stevie Wonder, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Mozart were similarly endowed with absolute pitch. Mozart was also born with an extraordinary phonographic memory (memory for sounds) as well as a motographic one, meaning that he could instantly move his hands to the right place or key on the violin, organ, and piano, coordinating musical sounds in his mind with the spot that would create them. All of his musical gifts were evident by the age of six. That could only be nature.
Twenty-three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps has the body of a shark and sometimes races one.9 But Phelps was born with an ergonomic advantage: he is the perfect height for swimming (six feet, four inches), has atypically big feet (flippers), and possesses unusually long arms (paddles). Normally, as Leonardo’s famous Vitruvian man shows, a person’s reach is equal to his or her height; Phelps’s wingspan (six feet, seven inches) is, however, three inches longer. But Phelps, as suggested above, is no genius. Gifted as he is, he has done nothing to change the discipline of swimming or influence an event at the Olympic Games.
Simone Biles, whom the New York Times calls “the greatest American gymnast of all time,” presents a different case.10 Her extraordinary athletic ability has revolutionized gymnastics. On August 9, 2019, she became the first person to execute a double flip dismount from the balance beam and also a triple-double flip in a floor exercise, bringing the number of gymnastics skills named after her to four. Each new move required judges to create a new “difficulty point score.” In contrast to swimmer Phelps, transformative gymnast Biles is short (four feet, eight inches), compact, and densely muscular. As a result, she can stay tightly tucked in twists and flips, thereby maintaining speed. “I was built this way for a reason, so I’m going to use it,” she said in 2016,11 referring to her compact frame. Yet at the same time, as she emphasized in a MasterClass online educational video in 2019, “I really had to focus on the fundamentals, such as doing the drills, doing a lot of all the basics, doing the mental work, so that I could be where I am today.”12 Nature or nurture?
THE EXPRESSION “NATURE VERSUS NURTURE” WAS POPULARIZED BY Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, in his book Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences (1869). Galton studied nearly a thousand “eminent” individuals—all but a handful being males of British birth, including some of his own relatives. You don’t have to be a genius to guess Galton’s opinion on the matter: genius runs in direct family lines and is hereditary; your potential is bequeathed at birth.
On the first page of Hereditary Genius, Galton said that it would be possible “to obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or of doing anything else,” as well as “a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.”13 Forget, if you can, that Galton’s notion of selective breeding was the starting point for eugenics, which led to the death camps of National Socialism. Galton was simply wrong: you can’t create a superhorse, or a “gifted race of men,” by selective breeding.14 To make the point, return with me to the 1973 Kentucky Derby and meet a horse named Secretariat.
On a sunny spring afternoon, May 5, 1973, I stood on the outside back rail at the three-quarter-mile post at Churchill Downs. In my hand I held two two-dollar “win” tickets, one that I had bought on a horse named Warbucks and one that I had purchased for a friend on the favorite, Secretariat. As the horses entered the track for their warm-ups, Warbucks appeared first, coming in at 7-to-1 odds. The horse seemed small, but perhaps there was no correlation of size and speed in horse racing. A few horses later, at 3-to-2 odds, appeared Secretariat, a huge creature with a massive chest and shiny chestnut coat. And he had swagger. If God were a horse, he would look like this.
Off they went. Secretariat won the mile-and-a-quarter race in one minute and 59⅖ seconds, and he still holds the record for the Derby and the other Triple Crown races as well. My horse came in dead last. Not having the gift of foresight, I waited in line for forty minutes to collect the three dollars on my friend’s two-dollar bet. I should have given him the three bucks and kept the ticket to sell today on eBay. But who could then have foreseen the existence of eBay and that Secretariat, today called a “genius racehorse,” would become the horse of the century and perhaps of all time?
Talent may be heritable, but genius is not. Genius—or exceptional accomplishment, in the case of a horse—is not generational but more akin to a perfect storm. At the time of the autopsy of Secretariat, his twenty-one-pound heart weighed twice that of his father, Bold Ruler. Secretariat came from a good but by no means exceptional bloodline, and he left no exceptional progeny. Of the four hundred offspring he sired, only one ever won a Triple Crown race. Similarly, most geniuses don’t come from obviously exceptional parents.15 Yes, there are six pairs of Nobel Prize− winning fathers and sons and one mother and daughter (Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie).16 Perhaps the more compelling case is the cohort of Johann Sebastian Bach and his three sons Carl Philipp Emanuel, Wilhelm Friedemann, and Johann Christian. But these families are the exception that proves the rule. Think of Picasso’s four children (none was a brilliant painter), look at the art of Marguerite Matisse on the web, or listen to a piano concerto by Franz Xaver Mozart (supermusical ear but no imagination), and ponder why geniuses tend not to produce geniuses. Think of all the geniuses—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Tesla, Tubman, Einstein, van Gogh, Curie, Frida Kahlo, King, Andy Warhol, Jobs, Toni Morrison, and Elon Musk—who seem to come out of nowhere. Einstein implied that ancestry is not a good predictor of genius when he said, “The exploration of my ancestors . . . leads nowhere.”17 The point is this: genius is an explosive and seemingly random event arising from a combination of many personal phenotypes—among them intelligence, resilience, curiosity, visionary thinking, and more than a dash of obsessive behavior.18 Psychologists call it “emergenesis”;19 we laymen prefer the term “perfect storm.” It can happen, but it’s a long shot.
Galton didn’t know of the work of Gregor Mendel, the genius who gave us a scientific understanding of the units of heredity called genes. Nor could Galton have known of Havelock Ellis’s work A Study of British Genius (1904), which attempted statistically to demonstrate that geniuses are most often firstborn males, conveniently forgetting the female Elizabeth I (third child in birth order), Jane Austen (seventh), and Virginia Woolf (sixth), for example.20 Today, the thinking of Galton, Mendel, and Ellis forms the basis of what is called biological determinism or the “blueprint for life” theory: your genes provide a template on which is engraved all that you will become. But as you might suspect, the predeterminative “blueprint theory” of genius is not the answer.
Perhaps the answer is to be found in the modern science of epigenetics. Epigenes (“outside the genes”) are small tags attached to each gene in our genome. Our growth, from birth to death, is subject to the workings of these “on or off switches,” for they control when and if our genes will express themselves. In simplest terms, genes are the nature side of things, epigenes the nurture. How we are nurtured, the environment in which we live, and how we control that environment and ourselves affect the activation of our genes. Again, epigenes are triggers of genetic development stimulated by the environment. As the neuroscientist Gilbert Gottlieb stated, not only do genes and environment cooperate as we develop, but genes require input from the environment to function properly.21 Epigenes hold out the possibility that each of us can control what we become if we are willing to work for it.
Have you ever heard of a lazy genius? No. Geniuses have a habit of working hard because they are obsessed. Moreover, in public proclamations they tend to value their parental units of heredity (“gifts”) far less than their own labors, as the following quotes from a few Western geniuses suggest: “If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius” (Michelangelo); “I should get discouraged if I could not go on working as hard or even harder” (Vincent van Gogh); “Genius is the result of hard work” (Maxim Gorky); “I didn’t believe in weekends. I didn’t believe in vacations” (Bill Gates); “There is no talent or genius without hard work” (Dmitri Mendeleev); “What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work” (Stephen King); “I worked very hard when I was young so I don’t have to work so hard now” (Mozart); “People may not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get” (Frederick Douglass); “No one ever changed the world with a forty-hour work week” (Elon Musk); and “God gives talent. Work transforms talent into genius” (Anna Pavlova). I once believed that, too.
Here’s a joke you may remember: A young musician arrives in New York City and naively asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The response: “Practice!” I tried that, and it didn’t work. Hard work has its limits.
My training in music started at age four on an Acrosonic upright piano with lessons from the amiable Ted Brown and within six years progressed to a six-foot Baldwin grand and the best teachers in Washington, D.C. To become a concert pianist—to be the next Van Cliburn was my aim—I entered and was graduated from the prestigious Eastman School of Music. By the age of twenty-two, I had practiced approximately 18,000 hours, yet I knew that I would never earn a dime as a concert pianist. I had every advantage: huge hands and long, thin fingers, the best training, and a strong work ethic. I lacked only one thing: a great gift for music. I was talented, yes, but I had no exceptional sense of pitch, musical memory, or hand/ear coordination, nothing extraordinary. I did, however, have one negative genetic endowment: I was susceptible to stage fright—not an asset when the difference of a millimeter on a piano or violin can spell the difference between success and failure. Still today, this “failure to launch” as a pianist causes me to ask: Does hard work alone transform talent into genius? Does practice really make perfect?
It does according to Anders Ericsson, the godfather of the discipline of performance expertise. Beginning in a 1993 article in Psychological Review and continuing through his coauthored book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016), Ericsson posited that human greatness is not a genetic gift but simply the result of disciplined hard work, 10,000 hours of focused practice. Ericsson’s evidence for the theory initially came from studies in which he and other psychologists tracked improvement in violinists and pianists at the Music Academy of West Berlin.22 Students of similar age but different performing levels (from secondary school music teachers to future international stars) were correlated with duration and quality of practice. The finding: “We conclude that individuals acquire virtually all of the distinguishing characteristics of expert performers through relevant activities (deliberate practice).”23 The promise of the 10,000-hour rule was attractive, and many people jumped onto the “practice” bandwagon, including first-rate humanists such as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and David Brooks (“Genius: The Modern View”), as well as the popular bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell (“The Trouble with Geniuses” in his book Outliers: The Story of Success). But there’s a problem—actually two.
First, at the outset, the Berlin psychologists failed to test students for natural musical ability. They did not compare apples to apples but rather compared the talented to the truly gifted. Extraordinary natural ability makes practice fun and easy, encouraging the participant to want to do more.24 Parents and peers tend to be impressed by those to whom things come effortlessly, and they offer praise, thereby strengthening the positive feedback loop. Ericsson and company have confused cause and effect. Practice is a result. The initial catalyst is the natural gift.
Second, and more important, elite performance by definition involves “performing”—working through (Latin per) something that someone else has already formed (Latin forma). Exceptional performance can be useful if you are a math whiz searching for the square root of an impossibly long number, a card counter at a Las Vegas casino, an athlete hoping to clock a world-record time in climbing Mount Everest, or a concert pianist trying to play Frédéric Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” in fifty-seven seconds. But someone else invented the game, the athletic event, or the musical composition. The genius gets to the top of the mountain by inventing something new and transformative: the aerial tramway or the helicopter. Practice may make the old perfect, but it does not produce innovation.
By now the attentive reader will have inferred the obvious: natural talent versus hard work is not a binary opposition. Genius is the product of both nature and nurture. To prove the point, I propose a contest. I call it “The $250 Million Race to Qatar.” Our contestants will be two painters, Monsieur Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and Señor Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). The aim is to create the most valuable painting ever sold to a potentate of Qatar. Because he was born first, Cézanne leads off.
As a student in Aix-en-Provence, Paul Cézanne, the son of a banker, showed more of a proclivity toward literature than toward art. Only at age fifteen did he receive formal training in drawing, and not until twenty, after a short stint in law school, did he vow to become a painter. After two years of learning his trade in Paris, he submitted works to the official Salon of the School of Fine Arts for exhibition, but they were rejected. He resubmitted new works almost every year for the next twenty years, with the same negative result. Finally, in 1882, at age forty-three, came official acceptance.25
Pablo Picasso was born in the fall of 1881, the son of a painter, José Ruiz y Blasco. Young Picasso could draw before he could speak. His painting Salmerón (Portrait of an Aged Fisherman), executed in an hour’s time at the age of thirteen, is a masterpiece of psychological insight and painterly technique. An art critic, having seen other paintings exhibited by the boy, reported in La Voz de Galicia that “he has a glorious and brilliant future ahead of him.”26 Still not yet fourteen, Picasso gained admission to Barcelona’s School of Fine Arts. As a fellow student said of the prodigy, “He was way ahead of the other students, who were all five or six years older. Although he paid no apparent attention to what the professors were saying, he instantly grasped what he was taught.”27 In his twenties, Picasso created the most stunning array of original paintings that the world had or has ever seen—the Rose Period works, the Blue Period works, the Harlequins, early Cubist masterpieces, and early Collage. Valued in purely monetary terms, he created his best paintings around age twenty-five.28 Eventually, his The Women of Algiers (1955) would be purchased by Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber bin Mohammed bin Thani Al Thani of Qatar for $180 million. Picasso, the possessor of huge natural gifts, was in a class by himself.
Monsieur Cézanne, however, continued to labor in his studios in Paris and Aix. By the late 1880s, at the age of nearly fifty, progressive artists were beginning to admire his unique emphasis on geometric forms and flat colors. During the decade before his death in 1906, a half century after he had begun art school, Cézanne created his greatest works.29 In 1907, a retrospective of Cézanne’s painting was mounted in Paris, and the young Turks of the art world attended—Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and Amedeo Modigliani among them.30 “Cézanne is the father of us all,” declared Picasso.31 In 2011, Cézanne’s The Card Players sold to the ruling family of Qatar for $250 million, $70 million more than had the Picasso.
But what’s $70 million among friends? Let’s call it a draw. Obviously there are two very different routes to creative genius, one immediately evident (gifts), the other more covert (laborious self-improvement). Both are needed, but in what proportions? The practice proponents say that more than 80 percent of outcome is determined by hard work, whereas other psychologists have recently suggested reducing that figure, depending on the field of activity, to around 25 percent.32 To gain insight into the relative importance of gift and work, I queried Nathan Chen, a fledging genius in my Yale course.
As Simone Biles is today the number one−ranked female American gymnast, so Chen is the number one−ranked male American figure skater and likewise an Olympic medal winner. Chen was the first skater to execute a quadruple jump, carrying the sport into a higher athletic realm and forcing judges to come up with a new metric of difficulty. Like Biles, Chen is comparatively short (five feet, six inches) and has a high muscle-to-weight ratio. What follows is the gist of what he has to say about gift and hard work.
In my opinion, there are genetic factors at work in this domain: height, bodily proportions, general strength, and capacity to quickly improve muscle memory. But there are, in addition, a number of genetic factors you can’t really see and are more difficult to quantify. Among these are the ability to be calm in the face of stress and the ability to internally strategize and course-correct during a competition. So for me, I would say that it is 80% nature. The gold medal athletes get to an accumulated 100%—80% nature (genes and luck) and 20% nurture. For those athletes who are naturally at 60% (nature), they must maximize the 20% (work) in order to even think about competing against the top (as 90%–100% athletes). Therefore, it’s difficult to say which is more important, nature or nurture. They both have their importance, but at the end of the day, no matter how hard you train in your sport, without the genetic capacity it will be nearly impossible to be the best.33
Note that Chen astutely included “luck” among natural gifts, recognizing that it helps to be born with sufficient resources and educational opportunity. Finally, he suggests, whatever the ratio between gifts and hard work may be, in order to get to the pinnacle of what you choose to do, you must max out both.
WE HAVE LONG BEEN OBSESSED WITH ONE NATURAL GIFT IN PARTICULAR: IQ. Quantitative measurement of intelligence began in 1905, when Alfred Binet published a test designed to identify slow learners in the public schools of Paris so that they could thereafter be provided with assistance.34 By 1912, the German term Intelligenzquotient (whence the English IQ) had become commonplace. Around the same time, the U.S. military started to employ a standardized test to screen for mental fitness and identify candidates for officers’ training school. What had begun as an exercise in remedial education quickly became a gateway to elite status. After Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman began to study a group of gifted children with a minimum IQ of 135 (100 is considered average) in the 1920s, an exceptionally high IQ score came to be associated with genius. Still today, MENSA, a self-proclaimed “genius club” founded in Oxford, England, in 1946, requires for membership a verified IQ of 132. Some educators in the “gifted child industry” have gone further, identifying gradations of giftedness: an IQ of 130 to 144 as moderately gifted; 145 to 159 as highly gifted; 160 to 174 as exceptionally gifted; and 175 and above as profoundly gifted. But surely Stephen Hawking was right when he said in 2004, “People who boast about their IQs are losers.”35 Marie Curie never took an IQ test, neither did Shakespeare, so how do we know how smart they were? Indeed, what does it mean to be “smart”?
IQ tests involve logic and employ the rules of math and language. Nowhere on an IQ test, however, are points given for creative answers or for expanding the possibilities of responses. The frustrated Thomas Edison identified the limitations of applying pure logic to a problem in 1903, chastising an uncreative apprentice in these terms: “That’s just where your trouble has been, you have tried only reasonable things. Reasonable things never work. Thank God you can’t think up any more reasonable things, so you’ll have to begin thinking up unreasonable things to try, and then you’ll hit the solution in no time.”36
Reasonable logic differs from creative ingenuity; thinking inside the box, as the metaphor goes, differs from thinking outside. Strictly logical cognitive processing, of the sort involved in an IQ test, and creativity, of the sort practiced by an artist like Picasso, are two different things. Picasso likely would have agreed with Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould on the matter: “The abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness” may be ill advised.37
IN 1971, THE U.S. SUPREME COURT UNANIMOUSLY DECLARED THE use of an IQ test as a precondition of employment to be illegal.38 The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)—the standardized test widely used for college admissions in the United States—is not illegal, but it, too, is an imperfect standard by which to evaluate potentially transformative minds.39 As recent economic data show, SAT scores reflect as much the income and education of a student’s parents as they do the achievement potential of the student.40 More than a thousand colleges and universities, including the prestigious University of Chicago, have dropped the SAT (and the similar ACT) as a requirement for admission.41 In December 2019, students in a largely black and Hispanic California school district filed suit against the University of California system to stop it using such standardized tests, and six months later the board of regents unanimously agreed.42 Like an IQ test, the SAT correlates with better grades in high school and the first year of college, as well as with later success and higher earnings in a few specialized fields.43 Thus far, however, no one has demonstrated a correlation between such tests and the capacity to write a symphony or explained how Darwinian curiosity and patience can be measured in a three-hour exam.
Most recently, many American elite private schools, including Phillips Exeter Academy, the Dalton School, Horace Mann School, and Choate Rosemary Hall, have also dropped both Advanced Placement (AP) courses and tests.44 “Students can often sense the tension that their teachers are feeling between wanting to honor the questions in the room, or the interest in the room, and wanting to prepare students for a test that’s not set by the school,” said Horace Mann head of upper division Dr. Jessica Levenstein in 2018.45 Such “teaching to the test” not only constricts curiosity but also contributes to stress and grade grubbing.
On April 17, 2018, I was honored by Phi Beta Kappa at Yale University with the DeVane Medal for excellence in undergraduate teaching and scholarship. As I wandered around the room the night of the award ceremony and heard the things graciously said about me, I couldn’t help but think of the irony. I had been a B+ student in high school and had not made the honor roll. I could never have gotten into Yale as an undergraduate—although it had a fine music program—so I hadn’t applied. Although I had taken an array of disconnected courses, winter and summer, I had not graduated from college with honors. When it came time for graduate school, I had been accepted by Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford but not Yale. Never in a million years would I have been elected to Phi Beta Kappa anywhere. My wife, Sherry, was the smart one in the family (Yale summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa), but she had long ago alerted me to the fact that sometimes students reached the Phi Beta Kappa grade threshold by playing it safe—taking the courses that easily suited their natural gifts. Perhaps the legitimate members of Phi Beta Kappa were great test takers but not risk takers, more conformists than contrarian thinkers.
An article by Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant, called “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” confirmed my suspicions. Published in the New York Times in December 2018, the essay argued that grades are not a reliable marker of success, let alone genius. Says Grant, “The evidence is clear: Academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence. Across industries, research shows that the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years. For example, at Google, once employees are two or three years out of college, their grades have no bearing on their performance.” Grant’s explanation: “Academic grades rarely assess qualities like creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social, emotional and political intelligence. Yes, straight-A students master cramming information and regurgitating it on exams. But career success is rarely about finding the right solution to a problem—it’s more about finding the right problem to solve.”46 Grant’s conclusion calls to mind a joke long kicked around the halls of academia: “The A students get hired to teach in the universities, and the B’s get relatively good jobs working for the C’s.”
IF IQ TESTS, SAT TESTS, AND GRADES ARE UNRELIABLE PREDICTORS of career success, they are even worse predictors of genius. They generate both false positives (those who seem headed for greatness but aren’t) and false negatives (those who appear to be going nowhere but ultimately change the world). There are, of course, the occasional true-positive geniuses who excel in school, such as Marie Curie (top in her class at age sixteen), Sigmund Freud (summa cum laude at his high school), and Jeff Bezos (summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa at Princeton). A reputable test of gifted youths at Johns Hopkins University identified the potential of Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin (a cofounder of Google), and Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga).47 On the other hand, in a famous “genius test” conducted at Stanford by Lewis Terman and colleagues from the 1920s into the 1990s, a cohort of 1,500 youngsters with IQs over 135 ultimately failed to produce a single genius.48 As a Terman associate later reported: “There wasn’t a Nobel laureate. There wasn’t a Pulitzer Prize. We didn’t have a Picasso.”49
More important, consider these false negatives—those geniuses who might not have done well on a standard IQ test and would not have been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Charles Darwin’s early academic record was so poor that his father predicted he would be a disgrace to his family.50 Winston Churchill was likewise a poor student, admitting that “Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn.”51 Nobel Prize winners William Shockley and Luis Alvarez were rejected by the Stanford genius test because their IQ scores were too low.52 The transformative novelist J. K. Rowling has confessed to having “a distinct lack of motivation at university,” her undistinguished record the result of spending “far too long in the coffee bar writing stories and far too little time at lectures.”53 Similarly, Thomas Edison described himself as being “not at the head of my class, but the foot.” Einstein graduated fourth in his class of five physicists in 1900.54 Steve Jobs had a high school GPA of 2.65; Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba (the Chinese equivalent of Amazon), took the gaokao (the Chinese national educational exam) and scored 19 out of 120 on a math section on his second try;55 and Beethoven had trouble adding figures and never learned to multiply or divide. Walt Disney was a below-average student and often fell asleep in class.56 Finally, Picasso could not remember the sequence of the letters in the alphabet and saw symbolic numbers as literal representations: a 2 as the wing of a bird or a 0 as a body.57 Standardized tests might have failed to recognize all those geniuses.
So why do we keep using them? We continue to rely on standardized tests because they are just that: standardized. A common set of questions can be used to evaluate and compare the cognitive development of millions of students, an advantage in countries such as the United States and China with large populations. To gain efficiency, we sacrifice breadth of understanding. Tests such as the SAT and Chinese gaokao set up a single metric for a single traditional problem, instead of encouraging strategies that question a premise or rethink a concept in an ever-changing world. They validate hitting a predetermined target rather than creating a yet-unseen one. They privilege a limited range of cognitive skills (math and verbal) above emotional and social interaction. The point here is not to suggest that testing to measure human potential should be ceased but rather that the test must be sufficiently broad, flexible, and nuanced to do the job. Although current standardized tests are efficient, they are too narrow in both intent and content to be predictors of success in life, let alone genius.
The choreographers Martha Graham and George Balanchine excelled in kinetic imagination; Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi in extrapersonal observation; Virginia Woolf and Sigmund Freud in personal introspection; James Joyce and Toni Morrison in verbal and linguistic expression; Auguste Rodin and Michelangelo in visual and spatial reasoning; Bach and Beethoven in auditory acumen; and Einstein and Hawking in mathematical-logical reasoning. The seven fields of human activity named above are the seven modalities of human intellect posited by Harvard’s Howard Gardner—“multiple intelligences,” he famously called them.58 They are discipline-specific mind-sets from which creativity springs. Yet determinative within each and every one of these creative disciplines are multiple personality traits: intelligence, curiosity, resilience, persistence, risk tolerance, self-confidence, and the ability to work hard among them. I refer to one’s capacity to deploy many such traits in the service of genius as the Many Traits Quotient (MQ’s).
J. K. Rowling has sold more books (500 million) than almost any other living writer and created a reading frenzy among young people. In her 2008 commencement address at Harvard University, she extolled the virtues of failure and emphasized the importance of the imagination and of passion in life.59 In a 2019 post on her website, she listed five personal qualities necessary to success as a writer: a love of reading (curiosity), discipline, resilience, courage, and independence.60 If these personal enablers seem important to a genius like Rowling, why not construct a broadly based test to measure them? Perhaps our obsession with precollege tests such as the SAT and the gaokao is misguided. Perhaps instead of a test of things scholastic taught in school (the SAT), we need a more expansive Genius Aptitude Test (the GAT) that would involve MQ’s.61 Thus the GAT would come with subsections, among them the WHAT (Work Hard Aptitude Test), PAT (Passion Aptitude Test), CAT (Curiosity Aptitude Test), SCAT (Self-Confidence Aptitude Test), and RAT (Resilience Aptitude Test).
How high would a student need to score on the Genius Aptitude Test to get into Hogwarts or Harvard? Not high. Many experts today believe that the only intelligence tally needed to excel in the sciences is a threshold IQ score of 115 to 125. After that, there is almost no correlation between additional IQ points and creative insights.62 The scientists Richard Feynman, James Watson, and William Shockley had scores no higher than that, and they won Nobel Prizes in their respective fields. The Graduate Record Exam (GRE), a standardized test instituted in 1949 for graduate schools, has a perfect score of 800. Most programs require a minimum of 700, employing it as a fast way to weed out “unqualified” candidates. But my own thirty years of experience reading applications to the Yale Graduate School suggests that a GRE score of only 550 out of 800 is sufficient demonstration of potential. Indeed, a 2014 article in Nature, titled “A Test That Fails,” quoted William Sedlacek, professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland, College Park, as saying he found “only a weak correlation between the test and ultimate success.”63 He recommended de-emphasizing the GRE and augmenting admissions procedures that measure other attributes—such as drive, diligence, and the willingness to take risks. As to what test score Sedlacek might be willing to accept, he says a 400 would be fine.64
Finally, is it possible that all Ivy League schools are themselves overrated?65 A survey of Nobel Prize winners suggests that getting into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton is no more necessary to greatness than is attending any top 15 percent school.66 Why, then, would American and Chinese parents try to falsify SAT scores and bribe admissions officers to get their child into a coveted “Ivy type” school? Precisely that sort of academic fraud has been going on, as was revealed in 2019 through an FBI sting called Operation Varsity Blues.67 Why would parents risk fines and imprisonment to inflate scores on a test of questionable value? Why would they deprive their children of the opportunity to learn from failure and develop resilience? At Yale, Rudy Meredith—whom our daughter and I used to watch coach the women’s soccer team—pleaded guilty to soliciting $865,000 to falsify the qualifications of two student applicants.68 To make matters worse, almost annually at least one college or university gets called out for falsely inflating the test scores of incoming students.69 But as I have said to generations of Yale applicants touring the campus with their parents, “In truth, there are at least three hundred great colleges in the United States, and it doesn’t much matter which one of these you attend. What matters is not the school, but what is inside of you (or your child).”
But old myths—IQ is the gold standard of genius, the SAT is the gateway to success, anything less than Harvard, Yale, or Princeton is inferior—die hard. Perhaps we should take a step back and ask whether our reliance on metrics such as IQ and standardized tests and our fixation on elite education are nurturing the kind of citizens we want to lead our society. Do we privilege a system that rewards the natural gift of cognitive analysis (IQ) or one that values multiple character traits (MQ’s), including IQ? The number of false negative geniuses mentioned above—Beethoven, Darwin, Edison, Picasso, Disney, Jobs, and all the rest—suggests that genius is much more than IQ and that “smart” can mean many things. The challenge is to find a testing metric that discovers the hidden genius. Apposite here is a saying attributed to Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”70
The Hidden Habits of Genius by Craig Wright will be on our shelves soon. You can read more first few pages here on the blog.