The Hidden Habits of Genius

Geniuses are among the most admired people in human history. Geniuses like Albert Einstein, Ludwig van Beethoven, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, and Toni Morrison all stand way out there on the extreme edges of achievement in their respective fields.

But what makes these people geniuses? And can we become geniuses ourselves, or at least get a little closer?

The Hidden Habits of Genius: Beyond Talent, IQ and Grit – Unlocking the Secrets of Greatness, by Craig Wright explores the characteristics and behaviors of genius.

Craig Wright is Professor of Music Emeritus at Yale University where he created a popular “Genius Course” that explores the lives and lessons of geniuses who have changed the world.

Cover of The Hidden Habits of Genius

The Hidden Habits of Genius
By Craig Wright
Dey St., New York, 2020

What is a genius?

The best part of the book by far is the Introduction where Wright defines “genius.” It turns out the word has meant different things at different times and in different places. Here’s Wright’s definition:

“A genius is a person of extraordinary mental powers whose original works or insights change society in some significant way for good or for ill across cultures and across time.” [p. 6]

Let’s unpack this. First, Wright’s definition refers to mental ability. Sorry, Usain Bolt, you may be an astonishingly fast sprinter, but you’re not a genius. At least you’re not a genius because of your running.

Second, we’re talking about people who produce original works or insights. That rules out performers, actors and actresses, most celebrities, and athletes (again). Originality and creativity are prerequisites of genius according to Wright.

Nest, we’re looking for significant change or impact to society. This one’s tricky because impact very often lags creation. There are plenty of artists, scientists, philosophers and others who weren’t recognized as geniuses during their lifetimes. Worse yet there are plenty of people outside the West who deserve to be recognized as geniuses but aren’t due to bias or ignorance. So it can take some time and some luck for genius to be recognized.

It also means someone who sits meditating in a cave for 40 years reaching dazzling philosophical insights but who never tells anyone or writes them down is not a genius either because they won’t cause any change in society.

Lastly, we need to distinguish talent from genius. Wright quotes the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who said this back in 1815:   

“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.” [p. 5]

Brilliant! That little gem made the whole book worthwhile for me.

It’s why most child prodigies are not geniuses. They perform with ability far beyond their years, hitting targets that none of us can hit, but most of them don’t go on to create original works of their own. Wright says that Mozart is the exception that proves the rule; a child prodigy who also composed original music from a young age.

In the same vein, I think we intuitively understand the difference between a tribute band that plays Led Zeppelin songs note for note and Led Zeppelin itself.

The “habits” of genius

The main body of the book consists of 14 chapters, each exploring a different “habit” of genius.

Except that several of the chapters aren’t about habits at all. The first chapter explores whether genius is due to nature or nurture. Wright concludes both are required. Geniuses do work hard, often obsessively, but practice only gets you so far, he says. Genius also requires creativity and originality which seem to be more innate.

The second chapter is about gender. History records far more male geniuses than female, but as Wright points out, that’s because for most of history we didn’t give women the education, resources, support, and most importantly the time, to become geniuses.

Wright notes that most geniuses come from the middle classes. Too poor and you don’t have the opportunity to become a genius; too wealthy and you don’t have the motivation.

Another chapter looks at the correlation between mental disorders and genius. Again, not a habit.

The habits Wright does cover include perseverance, resilience, rebelliousness, curiosity (being a fox rather than a hedgehog), imagination and the ability to connect ideas together in new ways, and finally relaxation and dreaming.  

Each chapter has a similar structure. They begin with an introductory story followed by lots of historical examples, quotes and biographical sketches of well-known geniuses who exhibited that particular habit or characteristic. Many of the chapters end with about half a page of concrete suggestions for what you might do to develop the same habit.

One tip: keep a notepad and a pen by your bedside or shower to capture ideas that come to you in a relaxed state.

But be careful what you wish for. Many geniuses were (and are) jerks or worse. Steve Jobs routinely humiliated the people who worked for him. Einstein was a lousy husband. Beethoven had a terrible temper.

Unsolicited Feedback

I don’t like the title of this book: The Hidden Habits of Genius. If you’ve just written a 250-page book purporting to expose the habits of genius, then they’re no longer hidden. They’re right there on the page in black and white.

<rant> The same goes for the endless slurry of online articles and posts claiming to reveal stuff like “17 travel secrets the airlines don’t want you to know,” or “23 exclusive Chicago bars the locals don’t want you to find”, or “11 hidden tax strategies only billionaires know.”  These are all stupid titles for stupid articles. If something is on the internet it is, by definition, not secret, not hidden, not exclusive. </rant>

One habit notably missing from The Hidden Habits of Genius is collaboration – the ability to work productively with others. Sometimes it’s true that the people we celebrate as geniuses worked alone. Yet there are plenty of examples of genius resulting from collaboration: Lennon and McCartney in music, Kahneman and Tversky in psychology. These days, in scientific research, collaboration within and across universities and labs is the norm. Jennifer Daudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on CRISPR gene editing, but dozens of people were involved in its discovery. I wonder if our conception of the solitary genius toiling away in isolation is mostly a fallacy. Wright touches on this in the book, but I think it deserves a lot more attention.

Like I said earlier, the Introduction to The Hidden Habits of Genius was the best part of the book. I found the rest of it to be OK but a little repetitive.

If you’re looking for a step-by-step guide on how to become a genius yourself, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for ways to push your children to become geniuses, Wright will actively discourage you, and rightly so.

Still, adopting many of the habits Wright describes in the book makes perfect sense. These habits will likely help you achieve your goals, whatever they are, even if you never become or never aspire to genius.

Thanks for reading.

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3 Responses to The Hidden Habits of Genius

  1. I find this definition of genius to be fascinating. I’ve not made the connection of genius and societal good, for instance. But I like this expanded view!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Intriguing! I have occassionally considered what I mean when I think something is “genius” but not to this level of depth. Your point about collaboration deserving more attention in this context is a good one. I’m the sort of person who always thinks about new habits at the start of a new year, so maybe I’ll check this out.

    Liked by 1 person

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