Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How to be a genius

New Scientist has an interesting piece on how to be a genius. It is an updated version of the 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration story. You need to have strong intelligence to be a genius but also a ‘fire in the belly’ that gives you a sustained ability to focus. Indeed you need to focus for about 10 years, have a mentor as your thinking matures and be good at ‘chunking’ – the ability to group details into easily remembered patterns. In a changing situation you also need to identify which bits of information to store in working memory to be used later.

The story is supposed to be consistent with neuroscience (what story isn’t?) – working emphatically and for a length of time on something apparently builds neural networks of expertise. Maybe.

But I think this general story is right, at least with respect to the highly intelligent, if not genius, academics in universities I have worked in. Many have ordinary intelligence but have achieved great academic distinction through specialization and concentration over decades or more. It is an argument for specialization. And I also meet very high IQ individuals – particularly graduate students - who don’t make it because they lack a sustained focus.

For a while I read biographies of the lives of mathematical geniuses – partly in the forlorn hope that something about their lives might suggest an insight to me. It was probably much less instructive than the ‘work hard’ advice given in New Scientist.

Perhaps the greatest modern mathematical genius was John von Neumann – a great biography is by MacRae. He seemed to have superhuman intelligence and memory. He liked dirty jokes, Chinese history (some said he could have been appointed a professor in this area had he sought it) and of course mathematics, game theory and the rest. One of the great math stories about von Neumann concerns the two approaching trains and the fly – it was one instance where his undoubted genius led him astray. But I remember his wife’s simple remark about von Neumann - ‘he works very hard’.

While not on the scale of von Neumann, I also think of Paul Erdos – the man who loved numbers - one of the most prolific modern mathematicians – he also worked hard his whole life.

While I didn’t improve my genius success skills with these biographies, I did find them enjoyable.


FXH said...

I've got the dirty jokes bit working - now I only need to work on the hard work and intelligence bits.

Andrew Leigh said...

So you need 99% perspiration, 10% inspiration, and good math skills. No wonder there's so few geniuses around.

hc said...

Arithmetic my stumbling blog Andrew. I'll fix the slip.

conrad said...

I think you are confusing things here.

Your claim later on is that many people do good work but only have ordinary intelligence (all those longitudinal studies on health etc. come to mind ).

This doesn't agree with the initial paragarph, which says that you need to have strong intelligence as well.

hc said...

Patrick, You are being a bit pedantic. Having 'great academic distinction' is a long way from 'genius'. Having strong intelligence means having an IQ about 14% above the average.

conrad said...

I'll just assume the pedantic was for me, not Patrick. It certainly isn't pedantic by my standards (even if it superficially sounds like it) -- just imagine the distributions visually and you can see why.

First of all, lets say we categorize academic distinction as 500+ citations and a H > 20. (the RQF people would love me..I'm not sure how that goes for economists). I'm sure 90% of people in this situation would have an IQ more than 1 standard deviation to the right. At least I'd bet on that, since 1 SD to the right isn't exactly thrillingly smart.

According to an average or greater criterion, 68.2% of people fall between 0-1 SDs to the right, yet only 10% of our academic distinction population does. This means your function incorrectly classifies more than 60% of people who have academic distinction.

The Science Pundit said...

There's a great article in the August Scientific American about The Expert Mind by Philip Ross that argues that experts in all fields have similar ways of organizing their minds. In other words, David Beckham, Wolfgang Mozart, and John Von Neumman differ only in the field in which they are prodigial.

Ross argues that the key is training. The expert is able to assess a situation and immediately know what to do. As an example, he states that a chess grandmaster can look at a chess board for only a few seconds and be able to perfectly reproduce the exact position of all the pieces much better than a novice player--provided that the chess board held a piece arrangement that came from an actual game. But if the pieces are arranged randomly, the grandmaster's advantage over the novice virtually disappears. This shows that it's not because of "photographic memory" but because he can distill the arrangement down to a combination of familiar positions.

My favorite quote from the article was when someone once asked Jose Capablanca how many moves ahead he saw during a chess match, he answered "I see only one move ahead, but it is always the correct one."

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