Maybe "Genius" Is Just Baseline Ability Times Effort

It's nice to think that Einstein was born a genius and a mind like his is simply unattainable by us mere mortals. It means that we can slack off, because it's simply not possible to be that smart; let's fire up Big Bang Theory and keep the ol' mental train in the station.

I certainly have this subconscious bias towards overvaluing innate "talent" over extended, intense effort.

But, a couple different things I read this year have changed my mind and have led me to believe that, given some reasonable baseline of innate ability, the person who simply puts in the hours can appear, many years later, as a "genius" destined for greatness from birth.

Richard Hamming, the famous mathematician, recounts a story of a "brilliant" co-worker his legendary lecture "You And Your Research" (which you should pop open some wine and watch in its entirety sometime):

One day about three or four years after I joined [Bell Labs], I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?’’

He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised, Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.’’ I simply slunk out of the office!

Tim Urban, the mind behind Wait But Why, observed what happens when we tell ourselves that some people are just "born with it," instead of recognizing the years of practice they've put in to get good at something:

When you overrate the impact of innate talent on how people fare in their careers—and you also conflate talent and skill level—it won’t leave you feeling great about your chances at many paths.

Geniuses be warned: my new strategy is to just outwork you.

Genius Is Only Obvious In Hindsight


I don’t consume cannabis very often, but when I do I usually end up watching documentaries about Thomas Edison.

Which, as I write that, makes me think I should smoke weed more often.

Anyways, a historian in one documentary said something that was deceptively profound.

“Edison decided he was going to be about inventing. He was going to invent full-time.”

That was a new concept in Edison’s day? That blew my mind. Today, one of our most popular TV shows revolves around people pitching their inventions in the hopes of turning it into a successful business.

Obviously, people invented stuff in Edison’s day, but apparently he was one of the first people to do it as his main hustle, exclusively inventing and commercializing brand new technologies.

At the time, there wasn’t even really a mental model of what a “successful” inventor looked like. Edison had to figure that out.

Tragically, humans hate this sort of ambiguity.

When we think about our careers and the contributions we want to make to the world, we often lack Edison’s courage and prefer to just do the things we’ve seen work before. It’s easier to cut and paste from a few compelling role models, proven professions, or tried-and-true paths.

Sometimes, following the crowd works (the now-conventional wisdom “learn to code” probably isn’t bad advice in general). Sometimes, though, it’s tragic (are people still getting accounting majors?!).

Even if pursuing a “traditional” path works out financially, it’s not hard to accidentally sacrifice what is uniquely valuable about your perspective or personality in the process.

“The people who make Vice President at this bank are soulless, miserable creatures who frequently fill their comically-large penthouses with people they, deep down, despise. Therefore, it is imperative that I kill my personality and sense of humor as soon as possible. Because, money.”

That outcome feels as tragic as picking a dying career path. They both cost the world a unique contribution.

At some point, every compelling role model had to ignore the prevailing wisdom of their time and be the first person to do something.

They had to suck it up and deal with the uncertainty.

Their genius is only obvious in hindsight.

Our “normal” is just the world a few weirdos championed 50 years earlier.