What Is Genius?
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What is Genius?

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Genius is
1 percent inspiration,
99 percent perspiration.

Thomas Edison
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Introduction

What is genius? At first glance, the meaning seems obvious—something like the realization of extraordinary potential. But look closer, and the word becomes more elusive. Where does extraordinary talent end, and genius begin? To what extent is genius cultivated, and to what extent is it innate? Under what conditions does it flourish? And how might we foster more of it?

No discussion of genius can avoid biography. There are the great scientific minds, like those of Newton and Einstein, capable unveiling deep truths about the nature and workings of the universe. Michelangelo and Beethoven created works of art that speak to us from across the centuries. Innovative geniuses like Franklin and Edison created products that vastly improve our quality of life, and entrepreneurial geniuses like Carnegie or Jobs find ways to make those advancements accessible to millions of people around the world. Brilliance is a central characteristic of genius. 

But there is another quality to genius, a more personal quality, involving the intellectual and moral virtues. Geniuses are habitually curious, attentive, open-minded, and imaginative. Their work ethic tends to be relentless, methodical, diligent, and purposeful. That unique combination of mental and moral virtues can make them, quite literally, the one in a million individual. And the benefits they are able to bestow on humanity can last for centuries. In this series of essays, we explore what genius truly means. And though we cannot all be geniuses, we can greatly improve our lives by adopting their habits of mind and heart, in an effort to lead ever-more productive lives.

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Opinions

David Lubinski

Professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

Genius is arguably one of the rarest, if not the rarest, phenomenon in the human condition. In Murray’s (2003) compelling analysis of Human Accomplishment, genius is seen as describing individuals who generate products that transform humanity. When leaders in the field examine their creative contributions, a frequent response is: “How could a human being have done that?”  Because genius is such a rare phenomenon, some have questioned whether it is meaningful to attempt to study it scientifically. Given some estimates suggesting that only about 400 individuals over the past 2,000 years could meet the unassailable criteria across all domains (literature, the military, and science & technology, to name just a few), are there ways to scientifically examine these rare occurrences? 

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Darrin M. McMahon

Professor of history at Dartmouth and author of Divine Fury: A History of Genius (Basic).

If you’ve been to the movies lately, chances are you’ve learned something about what makes a genius a genius. Benedict Cumberbatch’s stunning depiction of the British mathematician Alan Turing in the Imitation Game and Eddie Redmayne’s no less compelling performance as the physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything provide master-classes on the particular virtues long believed to set these particular creatures apart.

Both films present men of daunting intelligence as creative visionaries and highly original minds. Turing, in cracking the Nazi Enigma code, conjures computers before there is any such thing; Hawking stares into space to perceive events on the horizon of possibility, where others see nothing at all.    

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Rex Jung

Neuropsychologist and assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico.

In 1984, when I was 20 years old, I felt a burning sensation in my stomach that would not go away. I was a sophomore in college, taking courses in finance and trying to get a young lady in one of my classes to take notice of me. The gnawing in my gut grew worse as it became increasingly evident that her affections were elsewhere. I went to the doctor, dutifully swallowed the pink “barium” milkshake, and was diagnosed with a duodenal ulcer. The doctors told me that this ulcer was due to “stress,” a penchant for spicy food, and various other defects of my character that I must stop, immediately, in order to rid myself of this disease.

I would like to say that I won the heart of that young lady, that I gave up spicy foods, and that I abandoned my stressful ways. None of that happened. Instead, my ulcer gradually dissipated, I finished my degree, and life trundled on. But around the same time, something wonderful was happening.

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Global religious leader, philosopher, author and moral voice for our time.

In 1756, Voltaire wrote a sharply anti-Semitic essay on the Jews. They had, he said, contributed nothing to civilization. Their religion was borrowed, their faith superstitious, their originality non-existent. They were “an ignorant and barbarous people.” Still, he added, “we ought not to burn them.”

In the course of the next two centuries, Jews (or individuals of Jewish descent) became pioneers in almost every field of endeavour: Einstein, Bohr, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, Freud, Adler, Klein, Spinoza, Bergson, Wittgenstein, Mahler, Schoenberg, Heine, Bellow, Agnon. The litany has become a cliché: less than a fifth of a percent of the population of the world, Jews have won 22 percent of all Nobel prizes.

What led to this efflorescence of genius? 

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John Steele Gordon

Author and scholar of business and economic history.

As playwright Peter Shaffer brilliantly elucidates in Amadeus, the distance between competence and genius is, paradoxically, at once minuscule and infinite. Antonio Salieri was a good, competent, and popular composer—but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a genius. So Salieri is forgotten; Mozart, immortal. 

We will probably never know what makes the difference between competence and genius in the arts. But genius is found in every field of human creativity, and in many, its essence can be perceived.

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Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein

Founder and director of The Elijah Interfaith Institute.

All religions recognize there are outstanding individuals, whose spiritual insight and power surpass those of others. These individuals help create, define, drive, reform, and inspire their traditions. To a large extent, they serve as models that others hope to emulate, the bodily manifestation of ideal traditions. What makes these individuals more than the ordinary teacher or the successful practitioner is that they bring something novel to the religious community. They thereby facilitate a regeneration of the tradition and a spiritual renewal in the lives of its adherents.

The religious genius has the capacity to apply intuition and intellect to bring about a new understanding, one that is grounded in awareness of a broader existential dimension that leads to a deep personal transformation. The new understanding offered by the religious genius provides creative and constructive solutions that help solve religious and spiritual problems. A religious genius will accordingly have high positive output, effectively addressing challenges that are fundamental to a tradition or, more universally, to being religious.

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The Big Ideas

The Big Ideas program invites you to join us as we explore the most challenging questions facing humankind. Through open-minded inquiry, rigorous thinking, and civil, informed dialogue, we hope to enlarge our understanding of the universe—and our place within it.