I ran into some semantic trouble over dim-sum lunch the other day with two friends, Andy and Jim. They had a lot to say about the issues raised on this blog, but we kept getting stuck on terminology, starting with the word "genius."
Andy wanted to distinguish between "genius" and "greatness" in the following way: genius is a person's extraordinary ability, which is not always harnessed; greatness is the extraordinary achievement itself. Jim, who was paying for lunch and therefore had special status at the table, was inclined to agree.
I resisted. I've been pretty sloppy with my use of "genius" so far, but I've mostly been taking my cue from Michael J.A. Howe, who argues in his book Genius Explained that genius is a cultural construct, and therefore is inevitably connected to accomplishment.
"Describing a person as a genius is not like stating that he or she is tall, or even intelligent or clever. The word is never introduced soley as a description of an individual: it always denotes a recognition of outstanding accomplishments. If you are unconvinced about that, try to think of someone who is widely regarded as having been a genius but who never produced highly valued creative work...If a baker is someone who makes a bread, a genius is a man or woman who produces masterpieces or discoveries that greatly impress other people."
Dean Keith Simonton, author of Origins of Genius and a giant in the field, agrees with Howe, preferring what he calls the "eminence" definition over the high-I.Q. definition, for a few reasons. "The word is commonly used to refer to those individuals whose impact on history is most widely recognized," Simonton writes. He also argues that "genius" connotes a uniqueness which is impossible to appreciate without taking particular accomplishments into account.
Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, seems to support Andy and Jim's purer notion of genius-as-aptitude. After running through the more archaic uses, it lists this definition:
"a. A single strongly marked capacity or aptitude; b. extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity; c. a person endowed with transcendent mental superiority; especially : a person with a very high IQ."
So which it: Is genius a raw ability that may or may not be activated, or is it a mature skill set visible only upon its deployment? The distinction might seem trivial, but the popular ambiguity of the word's meaning goes to the heart of discussion and debate about intelligence and talent. Is there such a thing as an unaccomplished genius? Can a person be a genius without actually doing great things?
I still think not, for several reasons.
1. High I.Q. does not = Genius.
As already outlined elsewhere on this blog, I.Q. tests do a reasonably good job of measuring an individual's analytical intelligence, and ranking it among the general population. But raw analytical intelligence is a far leap from the ground-breaking creativity and dynamism that we commonly associate with genius. Not surprisingly, I.Q. tests cannot predict who will show even inklings of genius. Most geniuses probably do have an above-average I.Q., but there is no proven lower limit. The reknowned Genius physicist Richard Feynman was proud to remind people that his I.Q. was only slightly above average. Jane Piirto, author of Understanding Those Who Create, has suggested that talented performers can do quite well with an I.Q. of 100 -- dead average.
Accepting that high I.Q. does not correlate to real genius means has two immediate implications:
1) One does not necessarily need extraordinary school-smarts to make extraordinary contributions in their chosen field (ala Bruce Springsteen's remark here).
2) While we should demand excellence everywhere in society, we should not burden young academic stars with unfair expectations of future genius. A high I.Q. is a nice start, a useful ingredient, but nothing more.
2. Genius is not a kernal, but a kaleidescope, .
Study after study shows that what we think of as genius (and more ordinary talent) is never the result of a single ability, but rather a massive aggregation of distinct qualities, each critical. They include: curiosity (Tannenbaum, 1983), persistence (Renzulli, 1978) flexibility (Davidson, 1992), resilience (Jenkins-Friedman 1992a, b), risk-taking (MacKinnon, 1978; Torrance, 1987), and passion (Benbow, 1992). Articulating all these qualities and where they come from is the primary focus of this blog/book.
3. Genius is relative.
The essence of genius lies in a person breaking out of a conventional paradigm: Einstein conceiving of E=MC2, Mozart composing his Requiem, Proust writing Remembrance of Things Past. No one would today accuse me of genius for being able to discuss the theory of relativity or being able to write at great length about the relationship of sense and memory. Yesterday's genius is tomorrow's ordinary knowledge or experience. (Thanks, Pete).
If genius is all about challenging the intellectual/artistic status quo, then it doesn't exist until that challenge is actually mounted. We might say that we suspect someone of having the potential for genius, that we have high hopes for someone. But without the revelation of the actual ground-breaking idea or work, the genius clearly has not fully formed.
4. Genius is subjective, and rhetorical.
Except for a small handful of transcendent figures, the planet will never agree on who is and who isn't a genius. People wield the term loosely (recklessly?) and for a variety of reasons. In a TV studio recently, former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson called me a genius (before they started rolling tape) for writing a book he likes. I happen to believe that my friend Dan Seiden is a musical genius, but you've never even heard of him and so far no record executive is inclined to agree. (Dan himself won't even put a lot of his rawest and most powerful and most plaintively beautiful stuff online, forcing his friends to take matters into their own hands).
Not only can we not agree on who is and isn't a genius -- we can't agree on why someone is a genius. Is David Byrne a genius because of his unique mind -- or is it his unique songs, or his life-long, inspiring eclecticism? Is the savant Daniel Tammet -- who can verbalize pi to 22,500 decimal places and who learned the Icelandic language in a week -- a genius because an accident of biology makes him one of fifty true savants, OR is he a genius because he may be the only savant in the world who can elegantly articulate what he's going through? Reasonable people will argue one or the other.
I've noticed that people generally use the word in three different ways.
1. As a shorthand for someone with a high I.Q.
2. As a way of expressing the otherness of a remarkable achiever -- Mozart, Einstein, Tiger Woods. We think of these people as being somehow beyond conventional human abilities and understanding. It helps us to think of them as somehow super-human.
3. As an attempt to catapult a generally-unknown person into wider esteem. "You should read her essay -- she's a genius."
For all the above reasons, even with the slippery nature of the word, I don't think there is such thing as an "unaccomplished genius." But can a genius be unheralded? Absolutely. I disagree with Howe and Simonton on their pre-requisite of worldwide recognition. If the essence of genius is a person doing something new and special, we would expect public recognition of its importance to take a while. The MacArthur Foundation seems to make this point nicely with its "genius grants" -- even though the foundation officially does not use that loaded word. In its fellowship program, MacArthur recognizes "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." MacArthur fellows are usually not yet renowned, and seem to be in the midst of a fertile period where their accomplishments are A) already substantial, but which B) also strongly hint of one's best work yet to come. It's as if MacArthur is saying, "We think you're on the cusp of genius."