The Makings of Genius


What generates genius? Are studies coming closer to understanding scientific or spiritual brilliance? Can genius be nurtured or grown?

“Within the creative genius of your mind, lies the real land of opportunity,” wrote Sir John Templeton in Worldwide Laws of Life. He argued that genius should be discovered and nurtured so that it can “help others and bring joy and satisfaction to our lives.” He saw the tremendous potential of the truly exceptional individual to transform humanity through discovery and insight. What genius might be is, therefore, a crucial question.

The subject was recently explored in a series of events and discussions called “7 Days of Genius,” presented by the 92nd Street Y, a cultural and community organization in New York City, and supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation. The debate has continued in a series of online exchanges, which are currently available for viewing, and educators are being encouraged to explore the matter in their classrooms. Additionally, a new curriculum, “Genius, Then and Now,” will be added to two New York public schools in September to allow middle school students to develop connections to historical figures celebrated for their genius.

Contributing a groundbreaking innovation clearly has something to do with intelligence, creativity, and aptitude. But the difficulty with studying genius is that it is rare by definition. A group of four experts in one of the 92Y debates agreed that it is a developmental process rather than something with which someone is just born. But this means that all manner of variables are at play in the nurturing of genius, from the heritable to the environmental to the personal. “Predicting genius is like predicting a natural disaster,” observed Zach Hambrick, professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

So perhaps genius can be reverse engineered? Take the case of an undisputed genius, Einstein. In his biography of the great physicist, Walter Isaacson, who also spoke at a 92Y event, discusses the findings of postmortem examinations of Einstein’s brain. Certain apparently distinctive features have been identified, but as Isaacson concludes, “The relevant question was how his mind worked, not his brain.”

[sz-youtube url=”” caption=”Walter Isaacson on the Innovative Genius” /]

Einstein himself put his accomplishments down to his curiosity. “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious,” he said. Isaacson notes that this curiosity had a childlike quality: Einstein was drawn to concepts that people don’t usually marvel at or think about. He also carried the conviction that curiosity has a purpose, which led him to turn to intuition and imagination alongside the more rational pursuits of developing theories and experimentation. A further element was his nonconformity. “The development of science and of the creative activities of the spirit requires a freedom that consists in the independence of thought from the restrictions of authoritarian and social prejudice,” Einstein said.

This raises the moral dimension to genius, a theme picked up in a talk by New York Times columnist David Brooks. He described the difference between “résumé virtues,” the skills that we show to the world, and “eulogy virtues,” the personal qualities that tend to be celebrated most when we’re gone. And yet, he observed, eulogy virtues are more important because they are “part of our depth.” Something is out of kilter in a society that finds it hard to celebrate individuals with a genius for courage, generosity, kindness.

So might genius be teachable? Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, stressed the importance of allowing kids to dream, and of adults taking those dreams seriously. Children need the chance to make mistakes, learn flexibility, play with novelty, to daydream. It is a concern when contemporary education force out such freedoms, Kaufman observed. The two dimensions must work hand in hand because it is also the case that “genius without education is like silver in the mine.”

A further dynamic was picked up by David Shenk, the award winning journalist and author of The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Intelligence, and IQ. He described the privilege of working with many people of expertise and passion, and the opportunity of capturing their insights and putting them to work. In other words, the richness of the environment in which you work and live nurtures “the creative genius of your mind” as much as your biology.

“We at 92Y are always trying to reach broad audiences with deep ideas, and the topic of genius was a perfect platform for us to do exactly that,” says Henry Timms, Interim Executive Director of 92Y. “We were definitely surprised at how much interest there was in engaging around genius–both in terms of serious scientific considerations and conversations and the more entertaining activities that drew people in to the topic.”

“Genius is one of the most challenging, yet exciting topics within the Foundation’s programs, reflecting Sir John’s profound interest in accelerating human progress,” adds Ayako Fukui, program officer at the Foundation. “We believe that there are many transformative impacts to be made by supporting the sparks of genius worldwide.”