• Reading Level 5
Science | History | PSHE

Discovered! Secret formula behind every genius

Are there rules to becoming a genius? A Harvard academic believes that he has established the key ingredients – but warns that those with great minds are not always great human beings. For London music lovers, the concerts by an eight-year-old boy in the summer of 1764 were the highlight of the season. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s brilliance extended to playing the harpsichord with a cloth over it so that he could not see the keys. But then his father fell ill, and his next performances had to be cancelled. What would Wolfgang do instead? Simple: he sat down and wrote a symphony. Concert promoters described the boy as “the most extraordinary Prodigy, and most amazing Genius, that has appeared in any Age”. When, 220 years later, one American academic devoted himself to studying Mozart’s manuscripts, he found that the composer “could effortlessly conceive of great swaths of music entirely in his head, with almost no corrections”. The academic, Craig Wright, found himself wondering what it was that created such a brilliant mind. Now he has written a book on the subject called The Hidden Habits of Genius. The first thing was to define what a genius is. The answer Wright arrived at was “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”. He then reduced this to a formula: G = S x N x D. G stands for genius, S for the significance of a person’s work, N for the number of people affected by it, and D for the duration of its impact. But Wright’s students at Harvard University pointed out a flaw. The formula might work for someone like Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist whose work in microfinance has changed many thousands of lives. But suppose the genius lived on a desert island: Jack Ma could hardly have developed his business expertise with no customers. Suppose, too, that no one could be bothered to engage with the genius’s ideas. Would Toni Morrison have been less brilliant if nobody had got round to reading her novels? Wright came to the conclusion that genius is a two-way street. It requires both a brilliantly original mind and a society that is receptive to it. Rather than being absolute, it depends on time, place and culture. There are, however, certain essential elements. One is curiosity. As Wright puts it, “having a childlike imagination through adult life” as well as “the capacity to relax so as to allow disparate ideas to coalesce into new, original ones.” Leonardo da Vinci was described by Kenneth Clark as “the most relentlessly curious man in history”. Another element, Wright says, is persistence: “the ability to construct a habit for work so as to get the product out the door.” Geniuses are also passionate optimists. But there is a downside to brilliant people – they tend to be obsessive and self-centred. Martha Gellhorn said of her husband Ernest Hemingway: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.” And Katey Dickens said of her father Charles: “He did not care a damn what happened to any of us.” Are there rules to becoming a genius? Pluck or luck? Some say, yes. The main one is to work extremely hard and not to give up: there are a huge number of gifted people, but many of them do not make the most of their abilities because they lack persistence and determination. Another is to keep your mind open to new ideas, which is something you can achieve by making a conscious effort to listen to other people. Others argue that genius relies on elements over which we have no control. First of all, you need a brilliant mind, which is a matter of genetics. Equally essential are an environment that allows you to develop your abilities and a society that appreciates and encourages you. Whether you have those simply comes down to the luck of being born in the right place and in the right age. KeywordsLeonardo da Vinci - An Italian artist and inventor (1452 - 1519), considered to be one of the world's greatest geniuses. He painted the Mona Lisa and designed an early flying machine.

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