The Hidden Habits of Genius:
Beyond Talent, IQ, and Grit—Unlocking the Secrets of Greatness
by Craig Wright
After finishing this book in October of 2021, I wrote,
"Some of this is pretty heady stuff, killing off several myths about what it takes to be a genius."
My clippings below collapse a 333-page book into 6 pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word."
Here are the selections I made:
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer cleverly made this point in 1819: “A person of talent hits a target that no one else can hit; a person of genius hits a target that no one else can see.”
Steve Jobs was quoted in Business Week as saying “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Work ethic (chapter 1) Resilience (chapter 2) Originality (chapter 3) Childlike imagination (chapter 4) Insatiable curiosity (chapter 5) Passion (chapter 6) Creative maladjustment (chapter 7) Rebelliousness (chapter 8) Cross-border thinking (chapter 9) Contrarian action (chapter 10) Preparation (chapter 11) Obsession (chapter 12) Relaxation (chapter 13) Concentration (chapter 14)
IN ADDITION, THROUGHOUT THESE CHAPTERS, I OFFER PRACTICAL insights about genius such as these: IQ, mentors, and Ivy League educations are greatly overrated. No matter how “gifted” your child is, you do him or her no favor by treating him or her like a prodigy. The best way to have a brilliant insight is to engage in creative relaxation: go for a walk, take a shower, or get a good night’s sleep with pen and paper by the bed. To be more productive, adopt a daily ritual for work. To improve your chances of being a genius, move to a metropolis or a university town. To live longer, find your passion. Finally, take heart, because it is never too late to be creative: for every youthful Mozart there is an aged Verdi; for every precocious Picasso, a Grandma Moses.
On the other hand, in a famous “genius test” conducted at Stanford by Lewis Terman and colleagues from the 1920s into the 1990s, a cohort of 1,500 youngsters with IQs over 135 ultimately failed to produce a single genius.
Charles Darwin’s early academic record was so poor that his father predicted he would be a disgrace to his family.
Winston Churchill was likewise a poor student, admitting that “Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn.”
The transformative novelist J. K. Rowling has confessed to having “a distinct lack of motivation at university,” her undistinguished record the result of spending “far too long in the coffee bar writing stories and far too little time at lectures.”
Thomas Edison described himself as being “not at the head of my class, but the foot.” Einstein graduated fourth in his class of five physicists in 1900.54 Steve Jobs had a high school GPA of 2.65; Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba (the Chinese equivalent of Amazon), took the gaokao (the Chinese national educational exam) and scored 19 out of 120 on a math section on his second try;55 and Beethoven had trouble adding figures and never learned to multiply or divide. Walt Disney was a below-average student and often fell asleep in class.56 Finally, Picasso could not remember the sequence of the letters in the alphabet and saw symbolic numbers as literal representations: a 2 as the wing of a bird or a 0 as a body.
Apposite here is a saying attributed to Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Napoleon had indeed said, “Women are nothing but machines for producing children.”
The poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, said of women, “They ought to mind home, and be well fed and clothed, but not mixed in society. Well educated, too, in religion, but to read neither poetry nor politics—nothing but books of piety and cookery. Music, drawing, dancing, also a little gardening and ploughing now and then.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson discounted that notion: “Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
In Genesis, as later interpreted by Jewish and Christian writers, Eve is said to be “formed out of man,” the mother of all things yet sinner and seductress. In Hinduism, according to the second-century B.C. Laws of Manu, no woman is independent, but each lives under the control of her father or her husband. Ancient Confucianism similarly advocated a hierarchical societal order based on gender differences. The three major Western religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—traditionally segregated women during worship, giving them a place removed from the high altar or the central point of prayer.
Dylan Thomas may be relevant here: “There is only one thing worse than having an unhappy childhood, and that is having a too-happy childhood.”
Pablo Picasso initially lost custody of his inner child and had to work to get it back. “Every child is an artist,” he said. “The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”
“I had never had a childhood that was anything but a miserable effort at trying to be an adult,” Picasso said.
As Picasso said with his typical oxymoronic wit, “It takes a very long time to become young.”
“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age,” said the novelist Aldous Huxley.
Disney liked to ask, “Why do we have to grow up?”
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos explained youthful creativity in these words: “You have to have a certain childlike ability to not be trapped by your expertise. And that fresh look, that beginner’s mind, once you’re an expert, is unbelievably hard to maintain. But great inventors are always looking. They have a certain divine discontent. They may have seen something a thousand times and still, it occurs to them that that thing, even though they’re accustomed to it, could be improved.”
“Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination,” Walt Disney said. “But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it.”
Neoteny is a term coined by evolutionary biologists to explain the human capacity to perpetuate juvenile characteristics, such as curiosity, play, and imagination, into adult life.
As the eternal child Albert Einstein said in 1929, “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
The poet Charles Baudelaire got it right when he observed in 1863, “Genius is only childhood recovered at will.”
“They experience a ‘divine discontent,’ as Jeff Bezos called it,” between what is and what might be—and they act.
Leonardo da Vinci has been called “the most relentlessly curious man in history.”7 That’s hyperbole, perhaps, but Leonardo asked a lot of questions, both of others and of himself. Consider, for example, a single day’s “to-do” list that he wrote while in Milan around 1495.8 Calculate the measurement of Milan and its suburbs. Find a book describing Milan and its churches, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cordusio. Discover the measurement of the Corte Vecchia [old courtyard of the duke’s palace]. Ask the Master of Arithmetic [Luca Pacioli] to show you how to square a triangle. Ask Benedetto Portinari [a Florentine merchant passing through Milan] by what means they go on ice at Flanders? Draw Milan. Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night. Examine the crossbow of Maestro Gianetto. Find a Master of Hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill, in the Lombard manner. Ask about the measurement of the sun, promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese.
Leonardo’s questions extend to many fields: urban planning, hydraulics, drawing, archery and warfare, astronomy, mathematics, and even ice skating. How many of those subjects had he studied in school? None, for Leonardo was of illegitimate birth and thus barred from the only system of formal education then available, that of the Roman Catholic Church. He had received no instruction in Latin or Greek, the learned languages of the day, and accordingly later said of himself, “I am a uomo senza lettere”9—an unlettered man. Thus Leonardo belongs to the first of two types of curious individuals: those who learn experientially and those who learn vicariously by reading—in other words, those who do or discover and those who read about what others have done or discovered.
Leonardo was a doer. He painted, of course, but he also went into the mountains to examine rocks and fossils and to the tidal marshes to look at the wings and flying habits of dragonflies. He took apart machines to see how they worked and took apart humans to the same end. He recorded all of his disc...
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At age forty-two, Ben Franklin retired from his profession as newspaper and magazine publisher to the American colonies to pursue other interests. His aim now was to satisfy his insatiable scientific curiosity. What caused a high-pitched violin to break a glass? Why does electricity go through water but not wood? Such questions then fell under the heading of natural philosophy, what we today call physics. (The term “scientist” was not coined until 1833.)
Eleanor Roosevelt would have said curiosity. As she declared in 1934, “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”45 Indeed, recent research has linked curiosity to happiness, satisfying relationships, increased personal growth, increased meaning in life, and increased creativity.
As Albert Einstein said of himself in his later years, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
Einstein’s disappointing experience in college later caused him to say, “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.”
Isaac Asimov got close to the truth when he said in 1974, “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”
To be sure, most dropouts do not become geniuses or success stories. But prominent among the dropout titans of recent history are Bill Gates (Harvard), Steve Jobs (Reed College), Mark Zuckerberg (Harvard), Elon Musk (Stanford), Bob Dylan (University of Minnesota), Lady Gaga (New York University), and Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State). Jack Ma never went to college, and neither did Richard Branson, who dropped out of high school at age fifteen. Creative force Kanye West dropped out of Chicago State University at age twenty to pursue a musical career; six years later he released his first album to great critical acclaim and commercial success: The College Dropout (2004). The point is not to encourage dropping out but rather to observe that these transformative figures were somehow able to learn what they needed to know. Here successful people and geniuses share a common trait: most are lifelong learning addicts. It’s a good habit to have.
Online Tech Ed platforms—such as Coursera (Yale and other universities), edX (Harvard and MIT), and Stanford Online—offer nearly one thousand high-quality courses to the general public, and most are entirely free.
As Confucius is reputed to have said some 2,500 years ago, “Find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
Oprah Winfrey said in a Harvard commencement speech in 2013, “There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
Fortunately, a few educators and parents are pushing back with “dangerous” playgrounds that encourage creativity and risk and the “free-range parenting” movement.50 Want to raise a bold, brilliant, original thinker? Permit your children to explore alone, take risks, and experience failure. Let them have fun and break the rules once in a while. It’s more work, worry, and pain for parents, yes, but the ultimate outcome will be better. As Steve Jobs once wondered, “Why join the navy when you can be a pirate?”
“My curiosity is interfering with my work!” Einstein lamented in 1915 while trying to finalize his Theory of General Relativity.
Jack Ma recalls saying to his son in 2015, “You don’t need to be in the top three in your class, being in the middle is fine, so long as your grades aren’t too bad. Only this kind of person [a middle-of-the-road student] has enough free time to learn other skills.”
In the 1920s, a tech engineer’s “half-life of knowledge” was thirty-five years; in the 1960s, it was a decade; and today it is five years at most.
Benjamin Franklin: “If we don’t all hang together we surely will all hang separately.” “I probably should be proud of my humility.”
Albert Einstein: “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority.”
Oscar Levant: “What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left.”
In Shakespeare’s time only about .8 percent of the world’s population could speak English; today about 20 percent can. Shakespeare was lucky: a rising tide lifted his posthumous boat.
Edison said, “Restlessness is discontent, and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure.”
Should Shakespeare have stayed home in Stratford-on-Avon to help rear his family and not have abandoned them for London, the city that made him?
But his sister, Nannerl, in a short biography in 1800, defended Mozart’s memory, saying “It is certainly easy to understand that a great genius, who is preoccupied with the abundance of his own ideas, and who soars from earth to heaven with amazing speed, is extremely reluctant to lower himself to noticing and dealing with mundane affairs.”
Lillian Ross, who often wrote about Robin Williams in The New Yorker, said this about the comedian in 2018: “Robin was a genius, and genius doesn’t produce normal men next door who are good family men and look after their wives and children. Genius requires its own way of looking at and living in the world, and it isn’t always compatible with conventional ways of living.”
AFTER OBSESSING OVER THE RELATIONSHIP OF ALL KNOWN CHEMICAL elements in 1869, the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev fell asleep, and the solution came to him: the structure of the periodic table.
The son of Mark Twain recounted that his father paced while he worked: “Some of the time when dictating, Father walked the floor . . . then it always seemed as if a new spirit had flown into the room.”24 Bill Gates is a pacer, too. “It helps him organize his mind and see what others can’t see,” says his wife, Melinda.
The avid walker Henry David Thoreau said in 1851, “The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
But a caveat for all creative movers: although the place of activity does not matter, the pace does. Increasing the speed of the walk from seventeen-minute miles to twelve-minute miles, or the run from ten-to eight-minute miles, for example, will cause the average brain to shift out of a relaxed mode and into one focused on the mechanics of walking or running.28 Thus, if you are on an exercise treadmill, ignore all the electronic monitors; if you are outside, ditch the Fitbits; on the road, focused concentration is the enemy of creativity.
Washing machines, vacuums, drills, pumps, and electric fans, among other things, are still powered by Tesla’s perambulatory insight.