When musicologist Craig Wright first began to study genius, he had the usual suspects in mind. A nongenius pianist, Wright became interested in the subject while wondering at Mozart’s childhood compositions. Later, when he decided to teach an undergrad class on the subject at Yale, where he is now a professor, Wright assigned the usual dead white guys — from Leonardo da Vinci to Albert Einstein — we picture when think of genius.
But as Wright explains in a recent Aeon article, his idea of what makes a genius has shifted dramatically over time. Through research and conversations with students from different backgrounds, Wright has come to believe that most of us, his younger self very much included, believe a handful of incorrect ideas about exceptional achievement.
Myth one: Everyone agrees on what genius is.
Who qualifies as a genius? There are some names few would argue with, but as Wright discovered when he asked his students this question, there are more gray areas than you might think. Does Kim Kardashian merit the distinction for her ability to spin a business empire out of, basically, nothing? Who has more claim to the term, Olympian Michael Phelps, who clearly has jaw-dropping athletic gifts, or the creator of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin?
These debates make a fun parlor game, but they also illustrate a larger lesson. Wright realized that students from different cultural backgrounds gave different answers to the question of who is a genius.
A pair of Native American students, for instance, stressed “community genius.” “To them, the woman who designed a rug pattern, now replicated for generations, was a genius, but no one knew her name,” Wright explains. Some students from Asia, meanwhile, “expressed an intense curiosity about Western genius owing to the (for them) novel notion of a single transformative individual.”
The point here isn’t that any one conception of genius is right. The lesson instead is that our idea of who gets called a genius is wrapped up in our ideas of what is valuable and how valuable things get created. “Genius is not an absolute but a human construct that’s dependent on time, place, and culture,” concludes Wright.
Myth 2: It’s all about IQ.
If you think you can spot a genius just by administering a test or looking at a résumé, you’re dead wrong, according to Wright.
“IQ, it turns out, is overrated, and so, too, are other standardized tests, grades, Ivy League schools, and mentors,” he insists. “Stephen Hawking didn’t read until he was 8; Picasso and Beethoven couldn’t do basic mathematics. Jack Ma, John Lennon, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, Charles Darwin, William Faulkner, and Steve Jobs likewise were all academic underachievers.”
So if raw brainpower doesn’t matter so much, what does? While all geniuses don’t get A’s, just about every one is both extremely curious and extremely persistent. “The capacity to relax so as to allow disparate ideas to coalesce into new, original ones, and the ability to construct a habit for work so as to get the product out the door” are central to the development of genius, Wright has found.
Myth 3: You’d want to be a genius if you had the chance.
Unfortunately, the idea of the genius as monster who achieves great things while being an awful human being is rooted in reality. Ernest Hemingway was an abysmal husband. Marie Curie was an absentee mother. The tales of Steve Jobs’s obnoxiousness are legendary.
But while we’ve all heard that genius often comes at a cost to others, we often fail to fully comprehend that it also comes at a steep cost to the genius herself. When Wright asks students at the start of the class if they would want to be a genius, three in four raise their hands. After studying the lives of geniuses for the semester, just one one in four still want to chase after genius.
Of course, most of us couldn’t become geniuses no matter how hard we try. But that doesn’t stop plenty of folks from pining after changing the world. All our lives would be much poorer if they didn’t. But Wright’s article is a healthy reminder to those who lionize brilliance just how complicated the concept of genius really is.