The Myth of Genius

Tales of innate talent are just excuses for our own failure. Here’s the recipe for success.

By Alexander Fankuchen

We’re romantically entangled with tropes of genius. Film, literature, and history canonize individuals whose intrinsic talent supposedly elevated them above everyone else. There is the autodidact, à la Good Will Hunting, who emerges from exile, fully equipped to battle coddled intellectuals as peers. Or the polymath, a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci, whose talents are multifaceted and omnipotent. Our fascination with talent exists not only because genius is plausible, but also because it engages an appetite for myth-making that may reveal more about our desire to believe than hard evidence of innate gifts.

Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine/ Public Domain via Wiki Commons

Talented celebrities float to the surface of the public consciousness, but we often don’t know that many of them excel in un-like fields as well. Omar Sharif, the Oscar-nominated actor from Lawrence of Arabia, was a world-class bridge player. The late, great David Bowie was an innovative businessman, who went so far as to issue bonds in himself as a fundraising technique. The New York Times recently profiled Michael Punke, author of “The Revenant,” who also happens to be a World Trade Organization representative for the United States. What traits do these remarkable individuals share? Does their multifaceted success illuminate how one vocation can enhance abilities in another? Or do dissimilar pursuits just draw on widely applicable skills that these individuals possess and others do not?

Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, psychologist and author of “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” has dedicated his career to understanding how people become exceptional within a field. His research shows that expertise is entirely nurtured. It’s not as simple, however, as the oft-cited “10,000 hour rule” (the concept proposed by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” which states that becoming an expert in a field requires 10,000 hours of committed practice). While Dr. Ericsson’s studies support that experts typically spend more than 10,000 hours perfecting their art, practice must be regular, intentional, and guided by an existing expert. This “deliberate practice” goes beyond simple repetition and adjustment to diagnose problem areas.

A well-studied example is online chess. Counter-intuitively, Dr. Ericsson relates that “If you play online chess, it turns out that the time that you spend playing it doesn’t correlate with performance.” In short, even learning from your own mistakes is not as edifying as it appears, because it limits both the errors you can learn from as well as your exposure to instructive solutions. Instead, gaining expertise requires you to study situations and solutions you couldn’t contrive yourself such as problems from great historic chess games. This is called “deliberate practice.”

Bobby Fischer observes William Lombardy play Corvin Radovici at the Chess Olympiad PHOTOGRAPHY BY ULRICH KOHLS (full credit below)

If we accept this hypothesis for success, it’s possible prodigies do not spring upon the earth fully formed, but instead are the product of intense commitment that we don’t see. Even prodigies like Bobby Fischer (a chess grandmaster at 15), have thousands of hours of practice under their belts before stepping onto the stage. Mozart may have been a well-regarded composer at age 17, but his symphonies that have stood the test of time came much later in his career, once he had practiced for tens of thousands of hours.

There are, nevertheless, circumstances that do not fit neatly into the concept of deliberate practice. For one, leaders within a field, like Stephen Hawking, cannot be guided by someone whose knowledge extends beyond their own. Here Dr. Ericsson makes a concession: “If you’re looking at someone who is on the edge of the knowledge in a domain, in their case, they’re going to have to do it themselves.” However, these leaders still only push the boundaries of their fields after years of deliberate knowledge-building. Dr. Hawking had studied for more than a decade before achieving renown as a cosmologist and his greatest contributions to science, such as quantum gravity, were built on established theories.

Here, the words of an avowed genius are prescient. Sir Isaac Newton, supposedly, said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Genius is also a product of the historical moment. In Dr. Ericsson’s estimation, Columbus did not “discover” the Americas because of some inexplicable stroke of genius, but more likely because he had resources in an age of seafaring exploration. If he hadn’t done it, someone else would have.

How does research explain exceptional individuals who achieve renown within their field based on innate talent? Simple: They don’t exist.

Are the archetypes of the prodigy, the savant, the Renaissance man, and the autodidact complete myth? It appears so: “I’ve spent 30 years inviting people to counter-prove these concepts,” Dr. Ericsson says. There has never been a reliable counterfactual argument supported by an individual who can pass rigorous testing without evidence of prior practice. He has never seen an individual whose excellence was not the result of formal training. How does research explain exceptional individuals who achieve renown within their field based on innate talent? Simple: They don’t exist. All achievement we see is, in fact, the product of extended deliberate practice. Dr. Ericsson explains that he has “yet to find attributes that cannot be influenced by training.” In his estimation, anyone can build proficiency in any field. The sole reason most of us don’t build expertise is lack of the single-minded focus required to engage in deliberate practice over years.

This research also explains those rare multi-talented individuals. Rather than indicating an underlying intellect or talent for skill acquisition, such diverse experts have, more likely, engaged in deliberate practice across fields. Dr. Ericsson agrees that the primary advantage that they have is an awareness of what it takes to become an expert and, therefore, are better equipped to maintain the deliberate practice required to build new skills.

It’s possible that engaging in deliberate practice increases a person’s ability to engage in more deliberate practice. Psychologist Dr. Angela Duckworth puts forth this idea in her new book “Grit.” Duckworth argues that long-term success takes grittiness, a combination of passion and perseverance. These key qualities, though, can grow over time with practice and be applied across fields. As you persevere, you become more persevering.

This concept was inspired by a theory Dr. Brent Roberts and other personality researchers call the Corresponsive Principle. It states that the same qualities that attract us to certain situations are reinforced by those situations. Duckworth surmises that when applied to her recipe for success it means that some people are more inclined to be passionate and persistent, but that those qualities are also reinforced when we engage them. “My best guess,” Duckworth says, “is that following through on our commitments while we grow up both requires grit and, at the same time, builds it.”

Queen’s lead guitarist Brian May is also an astrophysicist. Here, he visits the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Sept. 2015 Courtesy of ESO/G. Huedepohl

These findings are difficult to reconcile with our conventional understanding of genius. We’re seduced by the notion that individuals happen upon their talents; sometimes experts even enable that misperception to cultivate their own mystique. But with the benefit of hindsight we can dispel myths like that of virtuosic violinist Niccolò Paganini. The story goes that Paganini broke one string after another while performing only to continue on a single string before a rapt crowd.

In reality, he composed on only one string, then broke the others intentionally for dramatic effect. Paganini’s talent not only included a mastery of composition built over years of practice, but also an understanding of how to seduce an audience by playing into their desire to believe that genius emerges spontaneously.

Instead of pondering the existence of remarkably gifted individuals, it’s more worthwhile to understand why society gravitates toward the myth of the savant. For one, hearing stories of the gifted restores our belief in the miraculous, a belief that life experience constantly erodes. Appositely, believing that certain individuals succeed as a result of innate talent gives us a convenient excuse for our perceived failures. But should you subscribe to the notion that all talent is nurtured, the recipe to becoming an expert is quite simple: time and diligence.

Alexander Fankuchen lives in San Francisco and has written for publications including The New York Observer and The Inertia.

Featured Image By Thiyagu Ganesh (Own work) via Wiki Commons

Photograph of Bobby Fischer courtesy of Bundesarchiv, Bild 183–76052–0053 / Kohls, Ulrich / CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wiki Commons