Your mind wouldn’t turn to a computer scientist when you’re thinking of World War II, but Alan Turing played one of the most important roles in the war. Working as a codebreaker, he devised a number of techniques for solving German ciphers in a quicker fashion. His primary role was cracking intercepted coded messages that allowed the Allies to defeat the Nazis in several pivotal engagements.
His most impressive contribution was his electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine, the most complex cipher used at the time. While it’s hard to say for certain, Turing’s work was said to have saved millions of lives and ended the war years earlier than it may have lasted.
Turing also recognized the power of computers early on, realizing how they could simulate human thinking. This was rudimentarily implemented in his codebreaking machine and later in his designs for the ACE computer.
It’s easy to identify Turing as a genius. We know it when we see it. The Da Vincis, the Einsteins, and the Curies of the world all have this brilliance that proves their genius, yet defining it is easier said than done.
We all think we know what genius us, but do we really? Is it as simple as intelligence or creativity? Is it only related to achievement and discovery? Is it the act of creation?
In reality, it seems to be an amalgamation of factors, all intermingled with one another, making it nearly impossible to comprehend. To better understand the idea of genius, let’s begin with history, and understand its origins.
In ancient Rome, the premise was known as genii or daemons. These were essentially spirits that were with you from birth, allowing individuals to express themselves and create. The basis of genii is the Latin verb genui literally meaning “to bring into being, create, produce.” Every individual was blessed with a genii that served as their inspiration throughout life.
The term we know today is a mix of this spiritual idea combined with the premise of Ingenium or innate talent. From these roots, we see that genius is at the very least a creator with talent, but that’s just the beginning.
Many have tried to define genius, especially philosophers, which has led to an interesting conversation on what the term really means. For German philosopher Immanuel Kant, genius is dependent on originality:
Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinate rule can be given, not a predisposition consisting of a skill for something that can be learned by following some rule or other.
On the other hand, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer sees it as accomplishing the impossible:
Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart attributes it to passion:
Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.
Aldous Huxley to a never-ending curiosity:
The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.
In truth, it is all of these things and more. It appears to be a combination of intellect, curiosity, passion, persistence, insight, creativity, and even a touch of madness. But what seems to be agreed on is that it is a mix of attributes, not any single trait.
Intelligence Isn’t Enough
For some time, it was thought that genius translated directly to intelligence. The idea was that you could measure genius based on IQ and that would signal the genius of an individual. In a famous study by Lewis Terman, he tested this hypothesis that high IQ would correlate to a brilliant career. He studied 1,500 children with IQs greater than 140 and while many of them did great things in their fields of study, none of them approached the level of genius.
The funny thing is, he completely missed two Nobel Laureates because of his IQ cut. William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, and Luis Alvarez, for his work in particle physics, were geniuses that were overlooked.
Intelligence isn’t as important as we make it out to be. At least not in the traditional sense. It takes being the best in several categories to achieve genius. Of these traits, you’d need to be in the top 1% of each, to achieve this level. If we hypothetically said that genius was made of only three traits, that means you’d have a 1 in a million chance of being a genius, though the odds are probably much worse. The point is that genius is one of the rarest phenomena found in human beings. So how can we achieve it?
Strive For Genius
I don’t think you can necessarily learn to be a genius, but I do think you can get pretty damn close, especially in our world today. We’ve already seen that IQ doesn’t have to be otherworldly. Being smart is good enough. The other traits can no doubt be learned and developed over time.
For example, some believe passion is discovered, but instead it may simply be created. Being great at what you do, often leads to a love and respect for that craft. The simple pursuit of mastery can be a path towards uncovering passion.
Engaging in diverse thinking and exploring new fields, can help build your curiosity. You can take on hobbies and side projects and expand your mind, thereby improving your creative potential.
Building discipline in what you do through habits and confidence can improve your persistence and will to do what you say. You can develop grit.
The traits of the genius, while many, are also inter-related in how they work together, which makes them more within reach than you’d think. We may not become a genius, but we can strive for it.
We already have the world of knowledge at our fingertips thanks to technology. We have the ability to collaborate with anyone, anytime, on pretty much anything. Our ability to create is more powerful than any other point in history. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.
If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success.James Cameron
The impact of geniuses lasts for centuries. They change the world and the world will always need them.
Maybe striving to become one yourself is a fool’s errand. The odds are certainly not in your favor, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy endeavor. If anything, the benefits that come with this way of thinking and working far outweigh any downside.
As James Cameron says, in some cases, even failure can be success.