Discovered! Secret formula behind every genius

Unthriftily gifted: Three of history’s undisputed geniuses.

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.

You Decide

  1. Is being hated a price worth paying for genius?
  2. Could having enormous emotional intelligence be described as genius?


  1. Paint a portrait of one of the geniuses in this article.
  2. Hold a debate in which each person represents a different historical genius and has to argue that he or she is greater than the others.

Some People Say...

“Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931), American inventor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that views of genius vary from one society to another. In Western society the dominant one is of a hugely gifted individual. But in Japan this idea is disapproved of: according to one proverb: “The nail that sticks up the most gets hammered down the hardest.” Native Americans believe in “the genius of the community”: if one person comes up with an idea that benefits everyone, that is terrific, but there is no reason to remember his or her name.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether a certain amount of time is required to develop genius. Some psychologists believe that Mozart could not have become the brilliant composer he was if he had not practised music for at least 10,000 hours as a child. They also argue that having pushy or encouraging parents is essential. Craig Wright, however, calculates that Mozart needed a mere 6,000 hours to reach his extraordinarily high standard.

Word Watch

An early keyboard instrument which was a forerunner of the piano.
Quantities. The term was originally applied to an area of a field which had been mown.
A system of lending small amounts of money to people, rather than the large sums that banks usually deal in.
Jack Ma
A Chinese businessman and philanthropist who is one of the 20 richest people in the world.
Toni Morrison
An American writer best known for her novel Beloved. She won the Nobel Prize in 1993.
Come together in a single unity. It derives from a Latin word meaning to nourish.
Leonardo da Vinci
An Italian artist and inventor (1452 – 1519) who painted the Mona Lisa and came up with an early design for a flying machine.
Kenneth Clark
An English art historian best known for the TV series Civilisation.
Martha Gellhorn
An American journalist who made her name as a war correspondent. She was the only woman to accompany the D-Day landings in World War Two.
Ernest Hemingway
An American novelist whose books include The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls. He won the Nobel Prize in 1954.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.