stew's letter 5

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.