What genius really means


I believe that what differentiates geniuses and other mortals is not in what they were born with, but what they figured out – about thinking, about themselves. And how early they figured that out, because the earlier, the more practice they had at thinking differently.

Critically, they figured out how to think, and they understood the meaning of deliberate practice.

The word genius means different things to different people. Some attribute those with high IQ (or similar metrics of intelligence) as genius. Others speak of gifts such as an eidetic memory, or how fast a person can consume knowledge.

Hollywood has also spared no effort in marketing such “genius”. Consider the famous TV serials such as: Prison Break (Michael Schofield),

[Suits](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suits_(TV_series) (Mike Ross),

Criminal Minds (Dr. Reid),

and to some extent,

The Big Bang Theory (Sheldon Cooper),

just to toss a few.

But genius could also mean those who produced great, life-changing results. But more than just the results, the amazement comes from the often insanely inconceivable process in which these geniuses produced those results – in the likes of men such as Leonardi da Vinci, Niels Bohr, Thomas Edison. I’m talking about these.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those who believes we’re born absolutely equal and everything else is a function of your upbringing, exposure and opportunities thrown your way. We’re not equal. Some of us are endowed with beauty, some with incredible intelligence and memory that they passed the Bar for fun, some with enough charisma to stage a revolution, and some with eloquence sufficient to talk a fish out of the water, so to speak.

However, I believe that no matter what gifts you have, or don’t, an overwhelming difference between the smart ones, and the less so, lies in whether or not you’ve, again, figured out how to think, and understood the meaning of deliberate practice.

Figuring Out How to Think

Figuring out how to think is absolutely fundamental in being better, smarter, and more creative. In other words, you need to think about how to think.

The article How Geniuses Think sheds some insight into how these great geniuses think. I’ll summarize it for you here in one sentence.

It’s not what you think, it’s how you approach your thinking.

Most of us, when faced with something new, are totally conditioned to revert back to what we know, which by definition almost always means what we were taught, and apply the similarities to the new thing at hand. After all, we humans are incredible pattern matching machines. Let’s try it.

What’s one divided by three?


Anything else?

It’s natural, it’s what we’re good at, and it’s what we are going to do.

But that’s not creative thinking, that’s not pushing boundaries, that’s not seeing new patterns and dimensions. To see a new pattern is to discard the old patterns, to turn off or temporarily disable that pattern matching subconscious machinery and enable new, baby-style learning. A baby does not have a cache of memories or experiences or pre-conceived notions to pattern match against. Everything is new. That’s how to think.

That’s not to say the first instinct cannot be the “obvious” answer. But it’s critical to not stop there.

Here’s another one:


What’s the answer? (Btw the pre-school part is a very, very big hint. Too big, in fact).


Creative geniuses are geniuses because they know “how” to think, instead of “what” to think.

Sociologist Harriet Zuckerman published an interesting study of the Nobel Prize winners who were living in the United States in 1977. She discovered that six of Enrico Fermi’s students won the prize. Ernst Lawrence and Niels Bohr each had four. J.J. Thompson and Ernest Rutherford between them trained seventeen Nobel laureates. This was no accident. It is obvious that these Nobel laureates were not only creative in their own right, but were also able to teach others how to think creatively. Zuckerman’s subjects testified that their most influential masters taught them different thinking styles and strategies rather than what to think.

In summary, the article distills down a number of ways of “how” to think:

  1. Explore all approaches, not just the ones you knew.

Geniuses think productively, not reproductively. When confronted with a problem, they ask “How many different ways can I look at it?” Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken.

  1. Make novel combinations, even when two concepts are completely foreign to each other.

Leonardo da Vinci saw a relationship between the sound of a bell and the ripples a pebble makes hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

  1. Take two opposites, and forcibly hold them together till they make sense, or don’t.

Physicist Niels Bohr believed that if you held opposites together, then you suspend your thought and your mind moves to a new level. The suspension of thought allows an intelligence beyond thought to act and create a new form.

  1. Express yourself, in many different ways.

Einstein always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible, including diagrammatically. He thought in terms of visual and spatial forms, rather than thinking along purely mathematical or verbal lines of reasoning.

  1. Produce, a lot.

Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents, still the record. He guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months.

If you’re still not at the article yet, go read it.

However, unless you’ve already figured out how to think (and that means you’re probably one of those geniuses, or somewhere pretty close, and I salute you for it), just being told how to think is not quite the meaningful recipe. The secret sauce is seeing someone do it, preferably again and again, in front of you. That’s where your mentor comes in. I’m not referring to the traditional concept of a teacher (or sifu, or master), but having the opportunity to be exposed to the right people.

The other thing about us humans is that we’re great mimicry machines. We can and love to mimic. We’re born to mimic, and not in a negative way. It’s literally how we learn, and how we survive. But we can’t mimic, if there’s no one to mimic. Or worse, if we’re surrounded by mediocrity, it is very easy to mimic the mediocrity.

Having a person, or better yet, a group of such people surrounding you sets the bar such that you do not even conceive being lesser than that. That becomes the minimum, the survival state, the rule. Once we are operating in such an environment, you have much less chance of not learning and becoming better.

“A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself.”

– Macrus Aurelius

Hence, all I can say is, if there’s an opportunity to learn from the best, and if that’s what you want to be, you should go seek out the best. It’s not a bad idea to be the dumbest guy in the room.

Deliberate Practice

Practice makes perfect. We’ve all heard about that mantra since we were kids going to school. However, I think somewhere along the way of that being drummed into us, the essence of that phrase got lost. Or perhaps the person or persons trying to drill that into us never really quite understood what that phrase meant in the first place. That’s pretty likely, actually.

Practice indeed makes perfect. The first time you do something, you are a beginner, a novice, a newbie. You’ll stumble, you’ll make mistakes. You’ll look dumb. If you don’t get scared off (or you don’t have a choice), then you do it again, and you’ll get a little better. Maybe you make new mistakes, but you’ll probably make smarter mistakes, and you should repeat the old mistakes less. And then you do it again, and again, and again, till you’re a master at it. Till you’re respected, a guru. And that’s the most dangerous point.

Once you’ve become a master, you’re no longer practicing, you’re repeating. Repeating something at a given skill level is not practice. Repeating does not make perfect. You need to stop repeating. You need to deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. Deliberate practice is different from work, play and simple repetition of a task. It requires effort, it has no monetary reward, and it is not inherently enjoyable.

When you engage in deliberate practice, improving your performance over time is your goal and motivation. That’s not to say that deliberate practice can’t be designed to be fun, but it isn’t inherently enjoyable on it’s own.

If you want to gain skills rapidly or approach expert-level status at something, you must understand the importance of deliberate practice and learn how to incorporate it into your daily life.

Herein lies the difference, at the start, whether it’s something you’re interested in, or you’re forced to do (maybe it’s your job), in your mind and to the world you are willing to admit that you’re new at it, and you’re bad at it. You just started. Hence, you’re willing to try, to ask, to make mistakes, to learn from them.

However, once you start getting good, start getting respect, and start having others consult you for your opinion and advice, then you’re in this zone where you have something to lose when you say “I don’t know”, and when you make mistakes, especially in front of other people. Furthermore, it could be a double whammy because you already have a baseline skill that others perhaps do not, you could start to get complacent. And it’s not wrong, after all, you have something that others don’t, so it’s true that you’re “better”. And that’s when you are no longer practicing nor learning, but just repeating.

The key point is that once you’re already “good” at something, you need to move on, you need to stretch and deliberately practice that stretch. You want to put yourself squarely outside your comfort zone, but not so far out that it becomes irrelevant to your quest of becoming better, or that it demoralizes you to the extent that you revert right back into that comfort zone.

For instance, if you’re a great pianist in classical music, you need to move on into other areas, best those unlike classical music, like learn the pop style, or the jazz style. You’re outside your comfort zone, but your training and skill as a classical pianist will accelerate your ability to pick up the new style of music. And you’ll be the greater pianist for it, able to integrate elements from other styles into your playing and composition, effortlessly, when the situation calls for it.

If you’re a great programmer in C, you need to move on to other languages, best those unlike C, like Lisp, or Haskell, or Forth. Again, you’re still in your comfort zone, your understanding of programming, of the machine, of code and of design will propel you to learn the new dimension of the new language – the new constructs, ideas, idioms. Again, you’ll be able to seamlessly call upon your new ideas, making your code more elegant, more beautiful.


Take for example programmers who have experience in both the imperative and functional style. Their code often fuses the functional style of programming in areas which are best expressed in that style, even when the main code base is imperative. Similarly, programmers who delve into firmware programming in assembly produce crazy (in a good way) code, because they truly understand the machine. We sometimes jokingly-insult them and call them Real Programmers. Jokes and folklore aside, these are the guys who are truly in sync with the machine, and it shows in their (higher-level) code. Learning a new dimension will only make you a better programmer. You’ll know where your current tools fall short, ways to get around those problems, concepts and ideas from other languages which you can model and incorporate. And that’s just about programming languages.

After all, the best athletes cross-train.

However, again knowing this and being motivated to deliberately practice isn’t the complete recipe. No doubt, it will go a long way in making you a more highly-skilled person.

But here’s where the mentor can come in and accelerate that. Because at this point, there is a question: what exactly should i deliberately practice? In today’s wide open world, the possibilities are endless. A mentor will be able to propose some directions, as well as debate with you about the pro and cons of that direction, because he’s done it before.

There’s no need to follow his or her path, but it acts as a lighthouse. You may agree and follow, or you may disagree and go your own way. Or you may adopt bits and pieces. In any case, you are better off in your decision-making process.

But that said, even without guidance, there’s no reason to not deliberate practice.