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Society of Mind

7.10 genius

We naturally admire our Einsteins, Shakespeares, and Beethovens — and we wonder if machines could ever create such wondrous theories, plays, and symphonies. Most people think that accomplishments like these require talents or gifts that cannot be explained. If so, then it follows that computers can't create such things — since anything machines do can be explained. But why assume that what our greatest artists do is very different from what ordinary people do — when we know so little about what ordinary people do! Surely it is premature to ask how great composers write great symphonies before we know how ordinary people think of ordinary tunes. I don't believe there is much difference between normal and creative thought. Right now, if asked which seems the more mysterious, I'd have to say the ordinary kind.

We shouldn't let our envy of distinguished masters of the arts distract us from the wonder of how each of us gets new ideas. Perhaps we hold on to our superstitions about creativity in order to make our own deficiencies seem more excusable. For when we tell ourselves that masterful abilities are simply unexplainable, we're also comforting ourselves by saying that those super-heroes come endowed with all the qualities we don't possess. Our failures are therefore no fault of our own, nor are those heroes' virtues to their credit, either. If it isn't learned, it isn't earned.

When we actually meet the heroes whom our culture views as great, we don't find any singular propensities — only combinations of ingredients quite common in themselves. Most of these heroes are intensely motivated, but so are many other people. They're usually very proficient in some field — but in itself we simply call this craftsmanship or expertise. They often have enough self-confidence to stand up to the scorn of peers — but in itself, we might just call that stubbornness. They surely think of things in some novel ways, but so does everyone from time to time. And as for what we call intelligence, my view is that each person who can speak coherently already has the better part of what our heroes have. Then what makes genius appear to stand apart, if we each have most of what it takes?

I suspect that genius needs one thing more: in order to accumulate outstanding qualities, one needs unusually effective ways to learn. It's not enough to learn a lot; one also has to manage what one learns. Those masters have, beneath the surface of their mastery, some special knacks of higher-order expertise, which help them organize and apply the things they learn. It is those hidden tricks of mental management that produce the systems that create those works of genius. Why do certain people learn so many more and better skills? These all-important differences could begin with early accidents. One child works out clever ways to arrange some blocks in rows and stacks; a second child plays at rearranging how it thinks. Everyone can praise the first child's castles and towers, but no one can see what the second child has done, and one may even get the false impression of a lack of industry. But if the second child persists in seeking better ways to learn, this can lead to silent growth in which some better ways to learn may lead to better ways to learn to learn. Then, later, well observe an awesome, qualitative change, with no apparent cause — and give to it some empty name like talent, aptitude, or gift.

Finally, an awful thought: perhaps what we call genius is rare because our evolution works without respect for individuals. Could any tribe or culture endure in which each individual discovered novel ways to think? If not, how sad, since the genes for genius might then lead not to nurturing, but only to frequent weeding-out.