Genius and Master

Just posted a thought on a friend’s Facebook post that I think I’d like to expand on here. The friend was talking (basically) about how he was annoyed that the fans of a certain person insisted that person was a genius when my friend saw that person’s output as largely just okay. I wrote:

Calling someone you’re a fan of a “genius” is mostly just second-order complimenting of one’s self (because you have the good taste to be a fan of a genius, you see). Most of the people I’m fans of are not geniuses, they’re just really really good at what they do, and because they are, they sometimes make great and/or enduring art.

And I think that’s true. “Genius,” in the context of creativity, is bandied around a lot and is typically used as shorthand for “that person/group I like who does stuff I really like and which for some reason I have incorporated into my self-identity.” There’s also often but not always a whiff of “and they do something I don’t know how to do myself” in there. In short, “genius” means “people who are highly skilled and super-talented in their creative field, who produce high quality material that speaks to me ineffably.”

I think being one of those people is nice work if you can get it, but I don’t think it equates to being a “genius.” I think to be a creative genius (very incompletely, here) is to bring something new(ish)* to a culture, and to have it affect enough people that it is incorporated into the culture, and (this is the really unfair part) to have enough people notice that you have done it to be remembered for it. If you’re doing genius-level stuff and it’s all stuffed in a drawer and it never gets out, you’re going to miss out on being a creative genius, sorry.

So genius is both rare — it’s difficult to bring something new to the creative table — and a lot of it is down to luck and the fortunes of history, i.e., whether someone finds your work and celebrates it. Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh count as two geniuses whose stock rose well after their death; in my own field Philip K. Dick was celebrated in the small circle of science fiction while he was alive but only ascended in the culture after death. Not everyone gets to be the Beatles, and see in their lifetimes how their creative genius changed the world.

Most creative people aren’t in my opinion geniuses, since it seems to me that genius has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time, and failing that, at least having the right people find out about you when you’re dead. Which is to say, things that are completely out of one’s control and with a large element of luck involved. So much of genius has nothing to do with native ability and/or acquired skill. And in being recognized as a genius, it helps to get in early, before all the ground has been broken (or alternately, there when a field is in crisis, and everything is up for grabs).

But — and this is an important conjunction — this doesn’t mean that creative folks who aren’t geniuses aren’t making good art, or great art. They very often are, because the one element of genius they have some control over — craft — is something they work on, and they keep working on, hopefully through their careers. In point of fact I think there’s an argument to make that much of the work of non-geniuses is as good as or even exceeds the quality of the work of “geniuses,” who, while their reputation benefited from being the first to explore a field or technique, also (and necessarily) didn’t have the same fluidity or experience with the subject as others who came later and worked with it longer and incorporated it at a much earlier stage into their creativity.

So again: Not very many creative people should be called a genius, which is to my mind a highly contingent title, and one’s ascendance to the title might not even be settled in one’s lifetime. But certainly quite a lot of creative people should be acknowledged as masters of their field, and of their craft. “Master” is about the things you can control — your skill and the work you put into it — and it’s something that others can concretely argue for by pointing to the quality of one’s work in itself.

Examples! you say. Okay, let’s take, oh, I don’t know, film director Ron Howard. Is Ron Howard a genius? I think history is going to come down on the “probably not” side of that one — there’s very little in his canon of work that’s groundbreaking or startlingly innovative or so influential that you can see its mark in other filmed works. Is Ron Howard a master? Yup — leaving aside the Oscars he picked up for A Beautiful Mind, one can easily pick out the very good and near great work he’s done (my trio: Parenthood, Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon) and point to his reputation for no-nonsense competence — there’s a reason LucasFilm had him parachute into the Han Solo film. Howard may not be a genius, but when Apollo 13 or Parenthood shows up on cable, I stop skipping and start watching. He’s really good at what he does, and some of his work is legitimately classic. He deserves the honors and accolades that have come his way. He’s a master.

As I note above, I think people who are fans of a creative person want to label that person a genius, not just because it’s complimentary to the artist (no one dislikes being called a genius) but because it speaks well to their own taste. I’m not going to stop anyone from using the word, or tsk-tsk that hard when they do. But for myself I think its worth it to say that not everyone’s a genius, and it’s not an insult in itself to say someone’s not one. And also for myself, I’m more likely to call someone whose creative work I admire a “master.” In many ways, I consider that to be the higher compliment. You can become a genius by circumstance. Becoming a master takes work.


*Let me suggest “new” here can mean either something wholly new, and often springing from an advance in creative technology of some sort, or something that is an unexpected synthesis of existing forms.

59 thoughts on “Genius and Master

  1. Since I suspect someone will ask, no, I don’t figure I’m a genius. I am very good at what I do and I’m comfortable, after more than a quarter century of professional writing, lots of sales and lots of awards, in saying that I’ve mastered my particular field. You are of course free to disagree in either case. I can think of people among my contemporaries who I would consider geniuses, but I’ll not embarrass them here by saying it. I’ll save that for some other time.

  2. Funny you mention The Beatles as your example of creative geniuses. I heard a guy state recently that they weren’t all that great or original, that they just got lucky in their timing. I had to suppress the urge to argue with him (and by argue I mean scream in incoherent frothy rage).

  3. Beej:

    They did indeed get lucky in their timing and they did some great stuff. I think there might be an argument to be made that getting lucky in their timing allowed them to do great stuff.

    Personally I still think the timeframe of the Beatles is still astounding. All their recorded work done and out in a decade.

  4. Mastery is the only way to fly. Just play to your strengths and go for it . . . Day in. And day out.

  5. I like that. I recall reading in history that Einstein’s big idea was one of being in the right place at the right time with the daring to take the final step and say ‘hey, maybe space and time aren’t fixed and universal, so what happens if we do that’ and then start putting the pieces together to get relativity. Like, it was still pretty daring, but at that point, physicists knew they had a problem with making light and electromagnetism play nice with the laws of motion, and a lot of people were throwing theories at the wall and seeing what stuck. Einstein might not have transcended into popular culture if he had been born at a different time when there wasn’t this big overarching problem that seemed to be in the way of a Theory of Everything, even if he was still considered a pretty sharp mind in the field.

  6. “people who are highly skilled and super-talented in their creative field, who produce high quality material that speaks to me ineffably.”

    Isnt that all art? Genius or master, doesnt the appeal of any art come down to something ineffable in the fans’ collective, subjective minds?

    I imagine if we ever discover intelligent alien life, we will have an entire history of culture and art to look at that does absolutely nothing for us as humans. And the question of genius or master will simply be one of number of fans and how many years the work continues to have fans.

    That being said, ABBA is the greatest band of all time.


  7. Your comment regarding those who come after a ‘genius’ being better in their field is how I’ve always considered Tolkien (and been lambasted for it often enough)!

    He was an innovator but those that have after come him have built on the foundations he laid. I don’t think that’s insulting to his work but a reflection of the nature of humanity. We see something shiney and we play with it, improve it if we can, find new uses for it.

  8. This post brought to mind a passage from a Robert A. Heinlein letter to John W. Campbell:

    I don’t think much of myself as a synthesist…I would like to have been a synthesist, but I am acutely aware that many of my characteristics are second-rate. I haven’t quite got the memory, nor the integrating ability, nor the physical strength, nor the strength of character to do the job. I am not depressed about it, but I know my own shortcomings. I am sufficiently brilliant and sufficiently imaginative to realize acutely just how superficial my acquaintance with the world is and to know that I have not the health, ambition, or years remaining to me to accomplish what I would like to accomplish…I have just sufficient touch of genius to know that I am not a proper genius—and I am not much interested in second prize. In the meantime I expect to have quite a lot of fun and do somewhat less constructive work than I might, if I tried as hard as I could. That last is not quite correct. I simply don’t have the ambition to try as hard as I might, nor quite the health. But I do have fun!

  9. Interesting take – seems appropriate for the arts, but I’m not as certain in the sciences and engineering. One caveat could be a genius can develop the new science or design, but it takes a master to make it operational? Robert Goddard and Karel J. “Charlie” Bossart, for example, when it comes to liquid fueled rockets as launch vehicles?

  10. John noted: “Calling someone you’re a fan of a “genius” is mostly just second-order complimenting of one’s self (because you have the good taste to be a fan of a genius, you see).”

    I think that’s overstating the case, and in any event, it’s contingent on how you’re defining “genius”. I’ve certainly met people (usually but by no means exclusively litcrit or art or cultural studies snobs) who follow your description and claim “genius” so that they will look smarter by claiming to understand said genius. More often, I see this as another example of the rampant adjectivitis that afflicts most writers on art and culture: “genius” most often means “I really, really, really like what they accomplished”, not “I believe they’re achieving something nobody else has achieved”. The same people usually apply “very” or “unique” to most things, or even “very unique” — because “unique” isn’t strong enough, right? I think I’ve seen this called “adjective dilution”: when an absolute like “unique” is overused long enough, it loses its impact and people need to up the ante by adding more superlatives.

    I’d also dispute the suggestion that genius is about being in the right place and at the right time. That can certainy be true; for example, Einstein and Newton probably could not have achieved what they achieved without “resting on the shoulders of giaints”; they simply would have lacked the necessary mathematical tools, and although they might have invented those tools, that might have taken long enough to prevent them from achieving what they did achieve in our alt-universe. Similarly, most modern genetics would be impossible or at least much more difficult without the now bog-standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR). But the vast majority of workers in many fields, including writing, lack the ability to recognize an opportunity to change a paradigm. The genius is often someone who recognizes an opportunity everyone else missed — or who sees the obvious, as the proverb goes.

  11. I like the Warren Zevon song, “Genius,” if, for nothing else, his line about Albert Einstein “making out like Charlie Sheen.”
    Just thought I’d mention that.

  12. I refer you to Louis CK’s “Hilarious,” specifically the track titled “The Way We Talk.” As he says, “We go right to the top shelf with our words now.”

  13. I’m partial to Schopenhauer’s idea that “talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

  14. As a math teacher, my specialty is teaching exceptionally gifted students, for example, the kind who are 5-10 years ahead in math. Every now and then, I encounter a student that qualifies as a genius. I’m not just talking about being advanced by many years, such as elementary school students who are doing university level classes. I’m referring to how fast they learn, how fast they make what looks like disparate connections to most people, how fast they come up with new ideas, new ways of looking at things, new approaches. It can be surreal how fast some of these young people learn.

    Nowadays the word genius isn’t used much in pedagogy; more often you see the word profoundly gifted. I work with students in math, sometimes physics and chemistry too, but many of these young people aren’t just smart in STEM, they are often smart across the board, including in the arts, reading and writing, leadership, and their emotional awareness. They are often unusually creative as well.

    For example, a friend of my daughter’s communicated with his mother in the womb by using a recognizable pattern of kicks in response to things she did. No one believed her at the time, but within months after he was born, it was obvious he was unusual. He spoke at the White House and took his first university class at 8 years old. He gave his first TED talk at age 9. He had two degrees (not a double major, but two different degrees, math and CS) from an honors university by the time he was 13. He took a year off when he was 14, and the state required he register as a homeschooled high school student — even though he had two BS degrees — because legally you aren’t allowed to take off time from school at that age. He went to MIT at 14 and earned a Masters by 15. He has since started several companies and is in general enjoying life.

    I know a number of students like that, some who went the route described above, that is, attending college at a young age, and others whose parents homeschooled them so they could tailor the child’s education according to her or his needs, not just academic but also emotional. Sometimes parents bring their child to me to work with me because the young person is so painfully bored in school they have completely tuned out. Imagine putting a twelfth grade student in a third grade class, and you will see the problem.

    Such a young person still needs to enjoy and thrive in their life as a child, but at the same time, they need an education that acknowledges and serves their stratospheric intellect. That is where teachers like myself or other GT specialists come in. We don’t just do the one subject, we also work with the parents to provide an environment and peer circle suitable for a child, one that can help satisfy their emotional as well as educational needs.

    It is an exhilarating experience to work with such students.

    And yes, I gave birth to one. :-) It’s why I ended up in this area as a teacher.

  15. Having identified Ron Howard as an excellent craftsman who is not a genius, I’m curious which filmmakers working today you would call geniuses? (If any.)

  16. I think Thomas Edison summarized John’s thoughts quite well with his aphorism: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

    [And please spare the observations about a lightbulb moment. We’ve already been LED down that incandescent path.]

  17. I think, as others have said here, we’re in the age of hyperbole. Eddie Izzard did a great bit on the word “awesome”: “This hot dog is awesome!” Then an astronaut is asked what his spacewalk is like: “It’s awesome, sir.” “What, like a hot dog?”

    There are times when people I don’t fully understand are labeled as genius. For example, I love most of the music by Frank Zappa. I don’t understand or like the rest of it but I know enough of music to understand he’s far beyond most musicians. Him I might call a genius. Even if I don’t get it.

    And kudos to James M. for the Warren Zevon quote. One of my favorite lines in all his songs.

  18. Just re-watched a documentary about the making of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and at one point in the film, everyone is sort of struggling with the G-word as it applied or not to Brian Wilson. The man himself is almost dismissive, suggesting that calling someone a genius is tantamount to saying that they’re very good at something they do. But all the while there are various takes and excerpts of “Pet Sounds” “lighting up” the background soundtrack of the film, and your pulse quickens each time you hear it. The descriptions of Wilson’s methods and manner of working suggest that it’s possible that we confuse idiosyncrasy with genius when something of quality results. The players (mostly the Wrecking Crew who were consummate studio session masters) are interviewed and describe some clever techniques in the way the music was played and recorded. But more than one speak of the way Wilson had these wondrous sounds in his head and was somehow able to communicate what he wanted from them, often without words. No one really gets close to figuring where those unique and transcendent sounds, first in Wilson’s head, came from.

    Mastery is 10,000 hours stuff (provided you have a sufficient capability in your field). Honing your craft far beyond workmanlike to the point of absolute understanding and control and precision. But what are you making? Ron Howard makes mostly fine movies, moving and clever and part of the pleasure is watching someone apply his trade so well and thoughtfully. Kubrick he ain’t, however. Mastery achieved and almost discarded in pursuit of something more, to capture that jagged streak of lightning in the brain and to be able to express and share it. Kubrick mastered elements of filmmaking and narrative so that he could move past them to create something new, rather than produce demonstrations of his proficiency (in the way that Howard or Spielberg do). I think of someone like John Frankenheimer as a brilliant, wildly inventive director rather than a genius, A different form of mastery perhaps than say, Fred Zinnemann’s peerless direction of, “The Day of the Jakal”. The Coen Brothers are strange masters rather than geniuses. Their best work relies on the genius of another as source material “No Country for Old Men”. To my eyes, John Ford was the absolute master of his craft but Sam Peckinpah was closer to genius. Bob Dylan. Genius.

    Some artists achieve both mastery and genius (Dickens, Hemingway, Wodehouse) but one is not a subset of the other. Of course, there’s no accounting for taste. But not liking something or someone is not an argument against genius.

  19. Interesting. We define “genius” *very* differently, perhaps because I think more about STEM than art. I think of “genius” as entirely a matter of raw ability, regardless of whether that ability is recognized *or even used* (though use would be required to *recognize* genius). And I think of it as something that may even be more common than 1 out of every 50 people.

    (So: I trust you won’t get too inflated an opinion of yourself if I say I sincerely think you’re a genius by *my* standards.)

  20. Followup: I did some research and think I know where my concept actually came from. It definitely formed when I was a child, I think based on the terminology from the original Stanford–Binet work on IQ. That, as I recall, defined “genius” as “140 or above”.

    Well, I also happened to go to a STEM high school where I think an IQ of 160 would have been on the lower end for the student body. (When people were trying to get me to participate in Mensa, I was told merely attending that school would no doubt be sufficient for entry, as its entry standards were higher.) In order to reconcile the two things, I just ceased thinking of genius as something truly remarkable… which was completely reinforced by the interactions with Mensa that I eventually *did* have. (They called themselves geniuses, and presented definitions and data to back it up. They… well. So: “Okay, maybe genius just isn’t all that significant all by itself, fine, I can work with that.”)

    And reading up on all this, it’s pretty darned clear that the way I use the word is out of sync with the way almost everyone else does these days. I shall try to adjust my vocabulary.

  21. I’d say there is some overlap between genius and master, at least in the creative arts, in this sense: Only a master can create a masterpiece, but masterpieces nonetheless tend to be the creations of people who are (by consensus) geniuses. Some creative artists are such incredible, off-the-scale craftspersons that to make a distinction between this level of craft and genius would be futile. I’m thinking particularly of composers such as Bach and Ravel. Astonishing intricacy.

  22. I have noticed a genius pyramid amongst techies. When we start out its, what the hell is going on? Persist and work at it and you slowly get better at it. Eventually people come to you for help. At first many of us become way too impressed with outselves at solving problems. Then after years of working at this stuff other people become way too impressed with you. Eventually you get alot of “you are really smart” and those of us who are wise realize its same shit dfferent day. Even though there are dfferences and you have to be creative, you can see patterns with multiple solutuions. The real pros are smart enough to not get easily impressed with themselves.

    A good gage on finding somene really good is if people fawn over them they dont puff up their chest, they solved similiar stuff repeatedly already. Some people never make it too this last stage and cant get passed how impressed they are with themselves. I have never met one who was as good as someone who just shrugs off the praise.

  23. Master: has full command of a particular field.

    Genius: alters the field.

    Ron Howard is a master director. I cant say he altered the field.

    The Beatles definitely changed music. Genius.

    Lucas changed special effects.

    I think maybe people like Tarantino and Tim Burton changed what a movie can be?The wachowskis?

    Birdman, the unexpected virtue of ignorance had a luke warm script, but the entire movie was made to look like it was one long shot, which made it visually compelling. Genius maybe? Never saw it done before.

    Doug, i have only run into one person who made a point to tell me they were in mensa. They did not impress.

  24. Maybe my bar for what constitutes “genius” is lower? Or, can I be OK, still thinking a lot of people show genius at something? I’m OK with that. I really love the points made about what is talent versus what is genius, and I don’t disagree with John’s essay, which tries to discern what’s genius versus what’s being really good at something. It’s just that I still feel that a lot of people show sparks of genius and ought to get credit for it. That includes fields where I have any study or experience, as well as others where I have not much or not any. If that’s being kinda fanboy about them (friends or public figures or historical figures) well, OK, cool. I don’t think, despite his essay, that John would have a problem saying, “Dude, that’s genius!” about some great/cool thing someone thought up or did. And so that’s my (admittedly) goofy everyday-world take on it. I’m OK with feeling like I just came to a literature class in a tropical shirt and shorts and flip-flops. (Funny, in real life, I never would’ve attempted such a thing, back in the day, despite having liked Real Genius quite a lot.) Ooh, I was very into the whole liberal arts thing as a young college kid. … Oops, dang, I still am. Hmm…. :: shrugs :: (I don’t think I’m Laszlo though. Geez, I hope not.) (Did I mention I over-analyze too much, especially myself? Yup.) Er, carry on, I’ll just be over here somewhere, attempting to fit in, LOL.

  25. One question I might have put to your friend is “How young are the people you are complaining about?”

    One pit fall I am always wary of falling into is thinking less of people who don’t have my breath of experience. Of course they think music or writing X is amazing or unparalleled; this is often their first taste of something I will have seen countless times. Sure I could rattle off superior examples without thinking, but I usually let them have their enthusiasm and join in with celebrating their discovery.

  26. By the standard of the Stanford-Binet work, I’m a genius with plenty of room to spare. Nicely certified by Johns Hopkins at the ripe age of six. My main reaction to this is to think that genius in that definition is decidedly overrated. I’ve run into many people who do far more with their brains and creativity than I’ve ever managed to do. I’m broadly competent in a whole bunch of things, but I don’t approach mastery in any of them – not even close – and it’s taken me a lot of my adult life to realize that I’ve been about as effective as the guy leaping on his horse and galloping off in all directions.

    Applied genius, creative genius, takes more than just the mental capacity it takes the focus and discipline to chase a particular sort of endeavor long enough to do something truly innovative and excellent in it. However much we in the US tend to idolize raw talent, it takes focus, practice and time to become genius AT something.

  27. All due respect to the Beatles, who showed immense talent, but my nomination for musical genius is Brian Wilson. He heard things in his head that took WEEKS of studio work to create, and he knew how to get there and how to lead other people to trust him. And Paul McCartney agrees with me, so there.

  28. I’d add to Brendan’s take on it, some people are simply very enthusiastic, or bubbly, or (like myself) still sometimes come off a bit naive, despite experience to the contrary. That’s more common when we’re younger, first gathering experience about the world, when so much is shiny and cool and ooh, genius, epic, awesome. ;) But it can still be that way for folks with far more years and experience under heir belts. (SF&F fandom being a case in point. Music and film/TV another.)

    I would, however, like to point out that kids/teens can be pretty dang smart, intellectually and emotionally, and often enough more so than the so-called mature adults. Why that is, I don’t know, but I wish kids could get more credit for that from adults.

    There’s also something about becoming an adult where we seem to be uncomfortable with being so headily enthusiastic…except for the stuff we ourselves are most enthusiastic about. Heheh. ;)

    So I suppose what I’m saying is, people have different styles of showing just how much they like something, and that’s worth enjoying.

    (I expect to want to do some major fanboy squee-age when an upcoming book by a favorite author finally gets published. She’d stated in her blog that she and her partner are going over the manuscript one last time before turning it in for the first round to the publishing editor. So it’s likely a year or so before release, I’d guess. — Note: I’m still not used to saying, “squee-age,” even though I’ve seen it for years now. I really do not want to turn into that cranky old curmudgeon, like Statler and Waldorf, haha.)

  29. My inner fangirl is squeeing that your definition of genius sounds to me like a description of David Bowie, who very much brought a lot of influential new into the culture, in addition to the effect he directly has had on who I am as a person.

  30. Greg: Apologies if it wasn’t clear, or if I’m misinterpreting your response, but you’re restating the point I intended to make. I was told as a child that Mensa was full of geniuses. I did not find the members I interacted with to be … impressive. So, I concluded that genius on its own was simply not all that rare or impressive.

  31. I think one of the tags of a genius is precise language. Sir Winston Churchill was precise.

    Like some of the other commenters, I don’t like word inflation. I will not thank you “a lot” unless you have done a lot. I will not call a hockey star a super-star unless the behaviour of both teams alters when he steps onto the ice.

    And as for astronauts and awesome hotdogs… I still have mixed feelings over the poor sf writer who, in his novel, had to put in a line about an awesome church, something like, “It (the church) was was would have been called, if that word had not been debased, awesome.”

  32. I think many people call a creative person a genius when they really do mean ‘master’. It’s a poverty of vocabulary, really. Of course this doesn’t cover all of the cases but to me, mastery is underrated and seen as something almost anyone can do; see the meme about the 10,000 hours of practice it takes to master something. Could I spend 10,000 hours learning to write, play piano, paint? Yes. Would I be good at those? Likely I’d be good. Would I be a master of any? Highly doubtful.

    To me, good, competent and adjectives of that sort connote the middle of the bell curve – the vast majority who turn out work that’s just fine but not remarkable in any way. This is OK. Mastery takes that up a level AND implies one can do it repeatedly. Not that everything one produces will be of high quality but that it most will all be good and great things will be sprinkled in there more than once or twice.

    Genius… I think John captured that. It changes how we think of a field. It goes beyond fad, beyond hype and the field is different in some fundamental way from what it was before.

  33. Georges Méliès was certainly a genius in film. As a professional magician at the time moving pictures first came out, he saw what could be done and invented pretty much all the first-generation of special effects. He made people want to see movies. The other film-makers at the time were merely impressing people with the novelty of the medium.

    In literature, there are two twentieth-century writers I consider genius above all: Samuel Beckett and Joseph McElroy.

    The statements about Newton and Einstein being the “right person in the right time” are just plain silly, It’s beyond belief just how deep and original and multi-faceted their contributions were. Newton had to invent the calculus, invent classical mechanics, and then realize that contrary to what all common sense said, the moon was falling! At that point numerous advanced and fairly difficult calculus problems had to be identified and solved.

    As for Einstein, boiling down his achievement to going one step beyond his contemporaries is beyond silly. Ignoring his many breathtaking contributions to Brownian motion and quantum mechanics, numerous people could do the math of special relativity in 1905, and in fact had been doing so for many of the years previously. None of them saw relativity. Even after Einstein came out with it, most of them still did not get it. And all this is nothing compared to the invention of general relativity, which required taking physics to new levels of mathematical complexity and making unbelievably profound leap of intuition and calculation.

  34. Interesting that OGH and most your commenters define genius in terms of products or outcomes. My introduction to that word was as a level of intellectual ability. Lewis Terman defined genius as having an IQ of 140 and above. So perhaps it is potential, not results, today meaning something is the equivalent to a product of a genius.

  35. Dear John,


    I don’t know what social media culture is like, as I don’t play there, but when I hear people referring to someone as a genius (and yes the word is horribly overused), they are pretty much never saying it for self-aggrandizement. Oh yeah, they could, as in “X is a genius, and you are a dullard for not recognizing that,” but I almost never hear that. Perhaps the social network is different that way?

    On the matter of what is genius, I think Catherine stated it… well… brilliantly. I think you far overstate the societal matrix. I accept that no one will know that you’re a genius if you don’t have an impact on somebody, but that’s a far milder statement than requiring that you have a major and durable impact on society to be considered a genius.

    To the extent that one must be noticed and flourish, it is a fluke of space and time. There are plenty of people who fit Catherine’s definition who simply aren’t in the right place and time. I’m talking far more extensively than just privilege. If John, Paul, George, and Ringo hadn’t put together a band in a period in musical history when the composer-performer was dominating popular culture (definitely not the norm), our take on them would be different. I don’t think they’d be any less genius but they’d have considerably less of an outlet to express it.

    I’m quite sure there are plenty of geniuses who simply aren’t in the right space-time locus. At the least, I could provide proofs of principal. “Genius will out” is a false homily. Genius can overcome greater obstacles the non-genius, but it is not omnipotence nor omniscience.

    Curiously, my hot button is the opposite of yours. I have at various times been called both a “genius” and a “master” in various endeavors. Whether either of those compliments is true is not of import. I don’t mind being called a genius, although sometimes I think the person saying it is having too high an opinion of me. But I am very much bothered by being called the master of anything, even in those few areas where I am considered preeminent or near-preeminent, and I will usually (politely!) protest the praise. I have not come close to mastering those disciplines (in the arts or sciences).

    That is not to say I’m not incredibly good at them, or I wouldn’t get that label pasted on me. But that’s a far cry from having full or even near-full command or control of the discipline. No genius I’ve ever known (or read about who has commented on this) feels like they have come close to mastering what they’re being lionized for, and they’re not afraid to say it.

    I’m very much taken with Sean’s point — words-du-jour really bug the English major in me, because they denature and devalue the words. Genius seems to be currently one of those. But, I’m far more bugged by having everyone who does a dangerous job branded a “hero.” No, they’re not! Heroism, like genius, is exceptional. Being a firefighter, a police officer, a soldier, that’s not heroic. Doing something extraordinary, far above and beyond what would reasonably be expected of you In that job — that’s heroic.

    Sorry, I’m off on a tangent — my hot button. It degrades the rare occasional real hero, because they’re handing out the merit badges like they’re Crackerjack prizes.

    (And don’t get me started on people who adopt the psychotherapeutic word-du-jour to describe everybody they have a disagreement with. Just don’t. I will go on for hours.)

    – Pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  36. “If you’re doing genius-level stuff and it’s all stuffed in a drawer and it never gets out, you’re going to miss out on being a creative genius, sorry.”

    I think it quite possible for someone to possess “exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability” and for that fact to remain hidden to everyone but the closest of intimates, not just in that person’s own lifetime, but forever.

    Similarly, a person might possess “comprehensive knowledge or skill” in a field, i.e. mastery of it, yet also toil (or perhaps joyfully play) in obscurity. Instructional materials, if needed, are as close as the nearest computer or library. Personal contact with a teacher, while helpful in terms of feedback, is optional. And the decision to share photos and/or sell units is a voluntary one.

    For the rest, differences clearly exist as to which concepts the words “genius” and “master” map onto. The urge to bestow superlatives might vary inversely as how old & jaded one is. ^_^

  37. It’s a conversation I’ve had, on and off, with a painter friend of mine – although more about talent/talented than genius.
    What it always comes down to is that the only thing you can control is the hours you put in and the willingness to truly look at your own work (and that of others) to become better at what you do.
    To me the whole business of talent (or genius) is a distraction. There are few people with no talent (and probably even fewer with genius level talent.) A little talent will take you quite far, if you are serious/obsessive enough to do the work that’s required to master a craft. If you don’t do the time you won’t become a master, however much potential talent you have.

  38. Doug, I was agreeing with you anecdotally.

    William, also agree with you. Newton and Einstein didnt just alter the field, they built enormous new arenas of knowledge. Take either one away, and you delay scientific advancement by a century.

    Shrinking: “I think it quite possible for someone to possess “exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability” and for that fact to remain hidden to everyone …forever”

    But without an external measure, there is no way for that person to know if their “exceptional intellectual power” is real or delusional. The stereotype about Mensa members who keep flaunting their IQ numbers while acting like idiots, would suggest that self evaluation of genius is very, very unreliable. And a true genius should realize that.

    Statistically, we can probably guess that there have been people with the mental capacity of newton or einstein born throughout time, lost through history because what would einstein be able to do in 3000 BC that we would know today that he lived then? Had a breakthrough with the use of bronze?

    I think statistically, we can assume that within a large polulation there is great intellectual talent going unnoticed, possibly unused. We have no idea which individuals have that secret talent, but we could estimate that some people loke that are there. But at the individual level, for a particular person to say to themselves “I am a genius and no one realizes it” should probably set off some red flags to any true genius.

  39. Physicists like to speculate about how quickly relativity as we know it would have materialized without Einstein. I think most of them would say that special relativity was in the air and waiting to be born–many other physicists had most of the relevant ideas, and some were very close to putting them together (to the extent that there are priority disputes, with some people claiming Henri Poincaré was the real discoverer).

    General relativity was trickier–so far ahead of its time in some ways, it’s just astounding to think that that idea appeared in 1915. It was about the right time for it mathematically, but not physically. David Hilbert was on the right track, but I think he was also corresponding with Einstein. I suspect that without Einstein getting the basic idea, it maybe eventually appears as an outgrowth of gauge theory in the 1960s, but by that time the difficulty of making it into a quantum theory would have been an impediment to it getting taken seriously.

  40. Re: Catherine Asaro
    An interesting statement in describing young geniuses: “how fast they learn, how fast they make what looks like disparate connections to most people, how fast they come up with new ideas, new ways of looking at things, new approaches.”

    I was like this by the start of Kindergarten, making for a VERY boring school day as I picked up and mastered concepts so quickly. In those days (late 1950s), identifying and supporting gifted students was mostly non-existent, and I was forced to participate in schooling that I was far ahead of. At the library, I was considered “too young” to check out college-level math and science books I needed (Thanks, Mom). Even after getting perfect SAT scores at age 11, I was forced to stay in school until I was 15. Thank God for that library. I was fortunate to have had a physics teacher in “ninth” grade who recognized my abilities and helped get me into college early. I went on to become a professional engineer and scientist.

    Am I a genius? Maybe. Or maybe a polymath or just profoundly gifted as you would say today; there are so many definitions now and so many discrete areas where one’s genius can flourish, and not just in STEM.

    Today, as a retired old fart, I enjoy working with similarly talented young boys and girls. Their interests generally are all over the place, and many of them are uncomfortable with being slotted into a specific learning process. Mostly, they seem to need someone who can relate to how their brains work and help them learn about whatever their mind wants to learn on any specific day or topic. Schools now are more lenient when it comes to letting these students learn at their own pace and skip grades or test-out, and colleges are much more willing to enroll these young men and women. I can tell you that, despite what surveys or test results or talking heads say about “kids today” (as all generations seem to do), we have an amazing generation of smart young people who are coming up behind us fast.

    And is there genius in art? Damn right there is. Anything by Dali, for example. Or Picasso. Or the wordplay in Shakespeare. And don’t get me started on Mozart.

  41. I agree that Brian Wilson was a genius but remember that he was happy creating those great little three minute pop songs until he heard what the Beatles were doing. Then he realized he could do so much more and created Pet Sounds. As for the Beatles, I think you have to view them as sort of a collective genius (along with George Martin). They were all individually great musicians but they only really achieved genius as a band.

  42. @ Greg WP

    Those who study romances of chivalry might argue that Tolkien is a hack.

    I imagine that most people who come up with something new are lost in time while the masters who grab on to the new idea and refine and exploit it are lauded as geniuses. Of course, grabbing, refining, and exploiting is its own kind of genius.

  43. To embiggen, so to speak, what the difference is between genius and very good at one does, think of Bulwer Lytton, the one for whom the writing contest was named for. He was an extreme best-selling novelist in his time (still best known for The Last Days of Pompeii), writing in a well-mined even by then genre of suspenseful adventure melodrama. His works in his lifetime were staged for theaters.

    Then he died, other writers came along and he’s been forgotten, except for “It was a dark and stormy night,” which led not only to a recurrent theme in Schultz’s Peanuts comix, but the above mentioned writing context. No one, even most Victorian fiction scholars, of which I r one, recalls the title of the novel that Lytton opened with “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” (Paul Clifford).

    Last Days of Pompeii has been made into movies starting in the silent era, because it provided, as it did for the stage, thrilling action scenes.

    In other words, yah, he was really good at what he did, but he was no genius. His life-long, beloved friend, Dickens, may well have been a genius, but Bulwer was not.

  44. nicoleandmaggie: “Those who study romances of chivalry might argue that Tolkien is a hack.”

    I watched a program on tv years ago saying tolkien cribbed a lot from…. Beowolf?, i think was their theory. I havent read beowolf, but they spent maybe an hour comparing beowolf? story ideas to the lord of the rings, and honestly, I didnt see much connection. Some, but, the allegedly original story felt like bits and pieces, not anything like a full story, three act play, characters developing, etc.

    At least, not a connection like something like Star Wars. After I watched Star Wars ep 4-6 countless times, over many years, I eventually popped in The Searchers, and my jaw dropped. How that wasnt a copyright lawsuit is beyond me.

  45. Re: Ctein:
    Well said. I also believe that words like “genius” and “hero” are vastly overused. For most of the people out there who do a great job every day, whether as a bag boy or a fire fighter, I simply say what I tell people about myself when asked: “it’s just my job five days a week.” (Thanks, Elton)

  46. @Greg… not Beowulf (which is very early and one could argue starts that literature as the oldest Old English poem, I’m assuming that’s what that program was arguing, that LOTR is part of a literature that starts with Beowulf). An entire literature of chivalric romances from several countries across several centuries. The same stuff that influenced Don Quixote. Tolkien read the stuff. I know people with PhDs in the field (not me). Heck, just watching Wagner’s Ring Cycle made me feel like LOTR was derivative, and that came much later. So sure, one could argue Tolkien is a master, but genius coming up with something new– no.

  47. Paraphrasing: “It’s not genius if it’s hidden in a drawer so no one sees it.” (I realize Scalzi didn’t mean it that harshly.) — But then he mentioned Emily Dickinson’s genius. And didn’t she basically write her poems and keep them locked away to herself until after her passing, when they were discovered and became famous when published? (My memory’s incomplete, I need to reread about her.)

    That gets into a Schrödinger’s Cat conundrum, doesn’t it? Someone got those poems out of that (alleged) drawer and published them. Up until then, IIRC, she was unknown or little known. So in her lifetime, she was an unrecognized genius, and yet her work was still genius, just not appreciated or known. Van Gogh would be a different case: His work was known somewhat but never recognized properly in his lifetime, and the poor guy suffered mental illness brought on in part by the toxic chemicals in the pigments and media he used in his work, common at the time to most painters. Hmm, both of them suffered from depression.

    But I take from Scalzi’s critical remark the point he didn’t say about that: If you create things, whether in liberal arts or in the sciences / technical fields, don’t, er, hide your lamp under a bushel. (We’ll just skip over why putting a heat source under a bushel is a bad idea, haha.) In other words, get your work out there so it can be appreciated and make money at it. (Ouch, that stings a little. I’ve been wandering around in the wilderness about my personal projects, both writing and font-production. Really gotta find my way to solving the problems so I can get something out there finished and producing income.)

    So I agree, work needs to be put out there so it can contribute to the “commerce of ideas” (or arts and sciences) and to the “commerce of personal well-being, i.e., putting food on the table.” But yet it still might be, let’s say, unrecognized genius if it stays in that dang drawer.


    Regarding IQ: I was under the impression that most college-bound students and college graduates have IQ’s around 120 to 160 or so. Yet most college-level folks are, yes, above average, but I’m not sure “genius” or “gifted” are always the right words for most such folks. (On the other hand, many do show some gift/high talent for a few things.) There’s the issue that some people who are clearly capable of college-level thinking never get the chance, particularly in previous generations, but these days due to the increasingly unattainable costs. And some of us, like me, well, despite a love for learning and college-level ability, just don’t fit too well, for whatever reasons.

    (I think if I could’ve resolved my infinite-loop issue regarding me being gay, and come out in college, I might’ve rebounded and stayed in university the first time, instead of only later getting an associate’s degree with honors. But I do not know what would have gotten me out of the loop I was in, inside my head, as a teen and young adult, particularly at college-age.)

    This points to, there are problems with the definition of genius / gifted, and there are problems with how that manifests itself in school and college and then out in the workplace and the larger real-world, in our personal lives and interests, like hobbies or second careers.

    In thinking about this, the bell curve shows, up, but maybe what also helps is to view the ranges like a color gradient, like a watercolor wash. So over on one end of an individual’s ability, we get a 0% gradient, transparent, clear water. That might shade very gradually to 100% pigment in some area, and then maybe it tapers off more quickly on the higher end into 0% again. If you then looked at various nodes on a web (or a branching fan/tree) of talents, you’d get different gradients for each particular talent, and those, I’d guess would interrelate on a web of abilities. So if each gradient is a single hue, then the composite is a sort of spectrograph, something like the spectra of stars (suns, not celebrities). My idea being that the watercolor wash or gradient helps us see the a person’s gifts are not all right there concentrated at one spot, one level of competency in a subject, but rather, it’s a range, and some days you’re better and other days, or specific problems, not so much. Spread across multiple abilities (talents in various subject areas) you’d get a fuller picture of the person’s skill set as a whole.


    I’ve always felt there’s a problem with both the multiple-choice and the essay portions of tests. Filling in lots of little bubbles to show comprehension on a set of 100 or so questions gives a partial idea of how well someone can guess under pressure, or maybe of real comprehensive mastery of the questions or the subject. Having to come up with a written or spoken essay in an hour or two, hmm, shows something about comprehension of the material, but also shows how organized or scattered a person’s thinking can be, and how broad-ranging or scattered or concise they can be.

    I’m supposed to know something about writing, yet I never do seem to be too organized or brief or concise. I always seem to wander afield exploring the ideas, instead of reining it in. And from at least college onward, all that intense exposure to a mass of new ideas you get in college, all at the same time, meant I had all sorts of ideas going all over the place, a real mess for concentration. (“Ooh, shiny, theres this concept over here, and what about that over there, and do they connect with that one way over yonder, and…?” Heheh, I found myself at college age, very inspired, learning a lot all at once, but there was so much else I wanted to explore from all the ideas I was getting…plus it wasn’t letting me get to the other interests I had, like writing. And…it wasn’t helping me deal with that inner conundrum over my sexual orientation versus how I was brought up to believe (family, church, society in general). — So I have never felt like I’m really all that super at what’s supposed to be one of my main areas of interest and talent. But I do feel like I express myself better in writing than in speaking one on one.

    So one question from that is, how is it that someone can repeatedly test out as very highly skilled (or gifted) into the high end and somewhere off the charts, maybe, on a set of abilities (like the “verbal” or language skills on standardized tests, and yet in real life (or on tests using the ability toward answering whatever’s being tested, other subjects) the performance level is more average or above-average? It seems like there’s a problem there between either measuring the ability in the first place, or in how that carries from raw talent to application and performance in the real world using that raw talent.

    On the other hand, is it also perhaps flawed if someone doesn’t test out well on a subject, or doesn’t do well with test-taking generally? I got into a period of real test-taking anxiety in my first go-round in college. This was symptomatic of the other problems going around in my head at the time (that infinite-loop had taken on a whole lot of clock cycles and processing space in my head by then) so that what should not have been a problem for me in test-taking, had become real anxiety and poor performance, whether I knew the unit or not. (I had two subject areas where I did very well in spite of everything, though.) — So I feel there can be problems with how we measure on test-taking, whether in the high or the low end of whatever subject is being tested.

    One thing about that: You know, in the apprentice, journeyman, master (guild?) system of doing things, what was often done was practicums, practical lab work or projects to show mastery of a given task or skill, knowledge of an area. So a student would do a sculpture, say, or play a piece of music, or do a class project, to demonstrate how well he or she had learned the skill set being tested. This is still used in many subjects. — But perhaps we need to do more of that to test fuller mastery than either the multiple-choice or essay answers? And no, I don’t know how you’d overcome the need for essay writing, particularly if you’re testing the ability to write itself, or certain kinds of idea-questions that require written or oral discussion; nor do I know how you’d get past multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank as a reasonable, measurable standard for getting the answers from a student to show competency in he tested subject. But possibly there’s more we should do toward project assignment based demonstration of mastery, like what is done for apprenticeships or for certain kinds of performance-based skills, such as in the arts or athletics (like martial arts or horse-riding).

    I think I’ve risked wandering off on some tangent, but that’s where the thoughts led. I hope it helps the discussion.

  48. It’s one of the great games of alternative history to speculate how general relativity might have been discovered without Einstein. (Hilbert worked off preliminary versions due to Einstein, so that is not a fair possibility.) The gauge theory route mentioned above is doubly speculative, since the idea of gauge theory in our timeline was discovered when trying to unify general relativity with electromagnetism.

    Most likely someone in the 50s would have realized that a spin-2 analogue of QED would involve an entirely attractive inverse-square force. If not right away, certainly after string theory was invented the spin-2 question would have to be faced.

    Bonus science alert: rumors about that LIGO is going to announce on Friday the detection of a gravitational wave with an optical counterpart! That is, colliding neutron stars.

  49. But for myself I think its worth it to say that not everyone’s a genius, and it’s not an insult in itself to say someone’s not one.

    Another thing about grade-inflation on this front is that it downgrades talent, or even sheer competence. I should spare our host’s blushed, but I’ve just finished The Collapsing Empire, and Mr. Scalzi has maintained his perfect record as a very talented writer who has never wasted my time. That’s nothing to sniff at, and it sure as hell wasn’t making a back-handed compliment. Competence is good. Competence gets shit done.

  50. On the Beatles as an example of “genius,” can the product of a team – jointly – be genius? The team itself?

    The whole is (often!) greater than the sum of its parts, of course, but that seems a very different type of achievement than the individual, even the individual directing a team to respond to the individual’s vision or concept.

    A “genius team” or a team of geniuses?

  51. I enjoy your blog a great deal and am eager to read your thoughts in general, but frankly I think you’re overcomplicating this. We’re never going to agree on what artists are and aren’t geniuses. Much ado about nothing, if you will… (Was Shakespeare a genius? To each their own.)

  52. Greg @ 7:57 AM said:
    ‘… without an external measure, there is no way for that person to know if their “exceptional intellectual power” is real or delusional. The stereotype about Mensa members who keep flaunting their IQ numbers while acting like idiots, would suggest that self evaluation of genius is very, very unreliable. And a true genius should realize that.’

    I was sort of looking at it in the reverse direction, Greg. I was imagining, not some tryhard who brags about their test scores, but a person who performs virtuoso-level feats of intellection or creativity, but hasn’t the foggiest clue where they are on the bell curve. “So, you’re saying to me that most folks *don’t* do [whatever it is they are so spectacularly good at] as an amusing way to pass the time?”

    I agree that an external measure is a good thing to have, but I wonder if standardized testing is as good as its proponents claim. Where is that Hogwarts Sorting Hat when you need it?

  53. I’ve always found the idea of ‘genius’ problematic. It seems to me that some people are painted as geniuses to differentiate them from ‘ordinary’ people; to create a semi mythical air around them – to elevate them on a pedestal to be admired. And at the same time, there’s the stereotype of ‘the suffering genius’, indicating that people who are exceptionally creative will have to pay for it by being exceptionally prone to depression, and only their burning desire to create can keep them going. A whole lot of baggage goes with the word. I usually try to find other words to describe people whose work I admire.

  54. Marc McPherson noted: “Mastery is 10,000 hours stuff ”

    To be clear, the notion that it takes 10 khours to master something is an important and well-supported finding, but interpretations of that research are often overblown, overextended, and incorrec. (A modern equivalent of Miller’s “magic number 7”.) The real truth that emerged from this research is that it takes a large amount of rigorous and focused practice, with scrupulous attention to eliminating incorrect practices and refine correct practices, to master a skill. The 10 khours number was a broad overall average that isn’t applicable to every activity, and it doesn’t account for differences among individuals in the ability to focus, not to mention differences in circumstances (such as rich parents who can afford to hire a gifted tutor).

    Sean Crawford noted: “I think one of the tags of a genius is precise language.”

    Not necessarily. Some geniuses come off as incoherent; their gift simply does not lie in verbal expression. The genius who is also erudite is perhaps not rare, but the two traits are not always associated.

    bluecatship wondered: “how is it that someone can repeatedly test out as very highly skilled (or gifted) into the high end and somewhere off the charts, maybe, on a set of abilities (like the “verbal” or language skills on standardized tests, and yet in real life (or on tests using the ability toward answering whatever’s being tested, other subjects) the performance level is more average or above-average?”

    Tests that aren’t based on the real-life situations in which knowledge must be applied, and that don’t require performance of the test in those real-world situations, rarely provide a good estimation of ability in real-world situations*. Mostly, they’re a test of one’s ability to take a specific type of test. Proof of this was provided some (20?) years back, when a batch of companies sprang up to teach you how to improve your SAT score by 100 points without actually understanding or being able to apply the test material. In addition, they’re heavily culturally bound (e.g., they often rely on learning a specific curriculum that may or may not apply to the person’s real-life situation) and are often implemented for political reasons, not in an effort to truly gauge intelligence**.

    * Personal example: Long ago, I trained in first aid and first response and got a perfect score on the test — a purely theoretical consideration. A neighbor’s propane tank exploded, so I grabbed a jacket in case someone was on fire and needed to be extinguished and ran over to their house. Arguably a great idea — except that the plastic jacket I grabbed would be a really bad choice for that task. So not nearly so bright in practice. *G*

    ** As in the case of animal behavior researchers who redefine “intelligence” upwards to exclude animals each time an animal is shown to possess some attribute of human intelligence.

    True intelligence requires both knowledge and ability to apply it: by analogy, you need fuel and an engine to burn it. Most tests don’t actually measure intelligence because evaluating the results according to my criterion is too time-consuming for mass screening. Microsoft is (in)famous for testing intelligence in really demanding ways. See Poundstone’s “How would you move Mount Fuji?” for the fascinating details.

Comments are closed.