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.