Tuesday, November 14, 2006

How to be a genius

How to be a genius

About the time I had my epiphany, a growing field of scholarship was more rigorously reaching the same conclusion. It seems the ability we're so fond of calling talent or even genius arises not from innate gifts but from an interplay of fair (but not extraordinary) natural ability, quality instruction, and a mountain of work. This new discipline - a mix of psychology and cognitive science - has now produced its first large collection of expert reviews, the massive Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 052184097X).

The book essentially tells us to forget the notion that "genius", "talent" or any other innate qualities create the greats we call geniuses. Instead, as the American inventor Thomas Edison said, genius is 99 per cent perspiration - or, to be truer to the data, perhaps 1 per cent inspiration, 29 per cent good instruction and encouragement, and 70 per cent perspiration. Examine closely even the most extreme examples - Mozart, Newton, Einstein, Stravinsky - and you find more hard-won mastery than gift. Geniuses are made, not born.

Extraordinary efforts

"It's complicated explaining how genius or expertise is created and why it's so rare," says Anders Ericsson, the professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee who edited the handbook. "But it isn't magic, and it isn't born. It happens because some critical things line up so that a person of good intelligence can put in the sustained, focused effort it takes to achieve extraordinary mastery. These people don't necessarily have an especially high IQ, but they almost always have very supportive environments, and they almost always have important mentors. And the one thing they always have is this incredible investment of effort."

This is mixed news, says Ericsson. "It's funny, really. On one hand it's encouraging: it makes me think that even the most ordinary among us should be careful about saying we can't do great things, because people have proven again and again that most people can do something extraordinary if they're willing to put in the exercise. On the other hand, it's a bit overwhelming to look at what these people have to do. They generally invest about five times as much time and effort to become great as an accomplished amateur does to become competent. It's not something everyone's up for."

Studies of extraordinary performance run a wide gamut, employing memory tests, IQ comparisons, brain scans, retrospective interviews of high achievers and longitudinal studies of people who were identified in their youth as highly gifted. None bears out the myth of inherent genius.

Take intelligence. No accepted measure of innate or basic intelligence, whether IQ or other metrics, reliably predicts that a person will develop extraordinary ability. In other words, the IQs of the great would not predict their level of accomplishments, nor would their accomplishments predict their IQs. Studies of chess masters and highly successful artists, scientists and musicians usually find their IQs to be above average, typically in the 115 to 130 range, where some 14 per cent of the population reside - impressive enough, but hardly as rarefied as their achievements and abilities.

The converse - that high IQ does not ensure greatness - holds as well. This was shown in a study of adult graduates of New York City's Hunter College Elementary School, where an admission criterion was an IQ of at least 130 (achieved by a little over 1 per cent of the general population) and the mean IQ was 157 - "genius" territory by any scaling of IQ scores, and a level reached by perhaps 1 in 5000 people. Though the Hunter graduates were successful and reasonably content with their lives, they had not reached the heights of accomplishment, either individually or as a group, that their IQs might have suggested.

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