This is an excerpt from the prologue of The Genius Checklist by By Dean Keith Simonton. Called “A surprisingly swift and wry overview of the occasionally contradictory factors that can foster creative genius.” by Publishers Weekly, The Genius Checklist draws on both scientific research and historical anecdotes to explore the paradoxical nature of genius.
Not long ago I published a rather speculative essay in Nature about whether genius had become obsolete in the current natural sciences. Without my consent, the journal’s editors changed my original title into another that was much more provocative: “After Einstein: Scientific Genius is Extinct.” I seemed to be claiming that geniuses had ceased to exist! My email inbox was soon inundated with reactions both supportive and critical. The supportive group encompassed a diversity of opinions, such as those who argued for the “end of science” as a creative enterprise altogether. Yet the critical group was much more intriguing because it most often involved irate protests from self-proclaimed “neglected geniuses.” A typical example was someone who claimed to have completely overturned Einstein’s physics, but who was still impatiently waiting for a call from Stockholm to schedule the Nobel Prize ceremony. If Einstein was universally acclaimed as a genius, he did not understand why he wouldn’t receive the same acclamation for proving Einstein wrong. After all, E = mc2 should actually be E = mQ2. Just don’t make the mistake of asking what Q stands for!
Sometimes these overlooked geniuses expected me to certify their claims. Wasn’t I a presumed expert on the science of genius? When I declined to validate their genius status with some impressive-looking certificate or at least a rubber stamp, a few accused me of being an absolute fraud, even posting their accusations on their personal websites (where their earthshaking work is most often published). One made it very clear that he expected me to be fired by my university as soon as the hoax that I perpetuated had been revealed. Being an expert on genius thus seems to have a downside: Too many out there are seeking vindication, and now! None of them wanted to wait around for posthumous fame.
You don’t have to be a crackpot to place so much value on genius. In 1981 the MacArthur Foundation began its Fellows Program to honor highly creative people with a substantial amount of money with no strings attached (presently $625,000 paid over five years). Journalists immediately proclaimed the Fellowship a “Genius Grant,” thus certifying the recipients as genuine geniuses. Both brick and internet bookstores contain self-help books with titles like Discover Your Genius, Awakening Your Inner Genius, and The Secret Principles of Genius. Just follow their proffered pearls of wisdom and your own genius is guaranteed. Of course, many parents hope that one of their children is a “budding genius,” sometimes even trying to accelerate the budding by exposing their infant to some “Baby Einstein” product. Genius is so highly valued in contemporary society that the honor is often loosely applied to achievements that don’t necessarily require superlative intellectual capacity—such as outstanding athletes. What does it mean to apply the designation “basketball genius” to a point guard like Stephen Curry? Sure, he has broken almost all records for field goals beyond the arc, but does that really signify something more than supreme talent?
Although “genius” is often bandied about in popular culture and mass media, the word is most frequently used in complete ignorance of the extensive scientific research on that very subject. These investigations began more than 150 years ago and continue to the present day. Of course, these research findings are not accessible to general readers. Most results are buried in technical journals full of esoteric statistics and mathematics. So somehow the central discoveries must be extracted and communicated to a broader audience. That is one major goal of this book. The principal way of achieving this end is to make ample use of concrete illustrations and anecdotes drawn from the lives of well-known creative geniuses. True stories instead of numbers and equations—stories that actually illustrate what we now know.
Yet another goal is just as important: The need to convey the complexity of the scientific results, but without making the presentation too complicated. Genius operates in ways sometimes so subtle as to seem contradictory. For example, is genius born or made? The correct scientific answer is both born and made. But too often authors will choose sides, such as arguing that genius is entirely made rather than born. To avoid such oversimplifications, I have translated the scientific results into nine paradoxes representing both sides rather than just one. Contradictory though the resulting tips may seem, both arguments contain a grain of truth. Indeed, knowing when one aspect or the other holds is crucial to understanding the intricacies of genius. For instance, often the correct tip depends on the contrast between scientific and artistic genius. What kind of genius do you want to be? A reincarnated Albert Einstein or the latest Pablo Picasso? The answer makes a big difference regarding the most appropriate advice.
The net outcome is a list of nine paradoxical tips that constitute a sort of double-edged checklist about how to assess whether you or anybody else counts as a genius. Hence, listen carefully!