What Makes a Genius?

Monday, March 08, 2010 - 06:00 AM

All this week we're talking about geniuses — people who've attained extraordinary success. But it's not just about the elites in society. David Shenk is the author of the reassuringly titled book "The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong."  We're asking you, Who is the genius in your life and why?

David will also be taking your questions about genius all week. Add them to the comments section below.

Click here to read the first chapter of "The Genius in All of Us," and check out David Shenk's blog here.

In the meantime, here are some examples of what people consider genius throughout history:



Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist (1879-1955)

Thomas Edison, inventor (1847-1931)


Merce Cunningham, avant-garde choreographer (1919-2009)


Temple Grandin, professor of animal science, author, activist (born 1947)


George Balanchine, choreographer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet (1904-1983)


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Comments [10]

Peg from Willseyville NY

Re genius: Instead of encouraging our children to "Be all you can be," how about advising, "Be who you are."

Why are we pressuring all children to go to college when there are so many other routes to personal satisfaction (genius)? Besides - if everyone goes to college - WHO WILL clean out our toilets?( maybe we'll have a degree in bathroom cleaning?)

And, of course, who's supposed to pay for all these degrees?

On my small farm, I do not need someone with a college degree. I need someone who is smart, not afraid to do physical work and has an aptitude for detail. Farming is not easy - it requires an active mind and body - not a college degree.

There are plenty of "jobs" out there. Many of them are just formalities of showing up and spending a few hours a day doing some sort of data entry in an office (isn't that where everyone has a job?). So many Americans equate jobs with actual work - but they are not the same. Work actually gets something accomplished. It does not always come with a salary. A job doesn't necessarily get anything done, but it does come with a paycheck.

Mar. 12 2010 08:42 AM
Rowland Huddleston from Nashville, TN

In five years of teaching Conflict Resolution in Metro Nashville schools we have "learned a few things" that I would appreciate your thoughts on. 1. The thing foremost on most kids minds is how to keep from being picked on. 2. That a feeling of success is important for open minds necessary to learning. That feeling unsuccessful in school makes us feel stupid and feeling stupid shuts down the mind. 3. That each child has a personal set of learning modalities. And perhaps all children are primarily kinesthetic until a certain developmental age. 4. That about 1/2 of the student population finds school to lack opportunities to excel in their primary modalities. 5. That complete focus on standardized tests can actually reduce the testing scores of these underserved students by depriving them of P.E, Recess, Art, Music, Nature and interpersonal communication in their school day. and 6. Society needs every one of its children to wake up every morning thinking "Hot dog, I get to go to school and do my stuff." We have got the world so screwed up we need these kids to stay in school, out of crime and gangs; and become physicists, geologists and teachers instead of prisoners.

We have several ideas to share on these subjects as well as an innovative way to teach Conflict Resolution to kids who have such a strong belief in violent solutions as to be unable to hear non-violent techniques.

I will go right out and read the rest of your book as well as e-mail links to chapter 1 ASAP but would you please let me know what you think of our current assumptions? (Being fully aware of what making assumptions implies on my part).

Thank you so much for your work and insights which will make such a difference to our national future.
Rowlalnd Huddleston, Executive Director, MediationWorks! in Nashville

Mar. 11 2010 11:53 AM
Hesch from The Lower East Side of NY

I was *very* impressed by this on a 12-foot-wide banner in the lobby of the Gym building at KingsBorough Community College in Brooklyn, NY:

“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” - Michael Jordan

Mar. 11 2010 08:24 AM
Johnny Sadoff

I'm an educator in Boston and wondering whether you think the current education system fosters or hinders the development of genius in students. In addition, I'm an expert chess player and am a huge fan of The Immortal Game. Do you think the tool of chess could be a good way to foster the development of genius in students? Thanks.

Mar. 09 2010 10:55 PM
jimowens from New York City

If I could be a genius at one thing I would choose ...Parenting.

Mar. 09 2010 01:38 PM
doris from New York City

Genius? My little grandaughter, Sadie. Now three but talking in complete sentences at 14 months. She is counting, and spells names. Sees all, knows all and tells jokes, too.

Mar. 09 2010 09:12 AM
Brenda from Grosse Ile

If I could be a genius in one topic I would want to be a genius in the stock market. If I was, I wonder if I would have seen all this coming?

Mar. 09 2010 08:30 AM
Melanie Hubbard from Oklahoma

Why do really smart people seem to have no common sense at all?

Mar. 08 2010 02:57 PM

I have had the honor of working for 1 Nobel Prize Winner, talking to One, being in lectures by one, taking a course by one and being in the class of someone expected to win it. If the Prize qualifies for genius, and I think it doesn't, these people were endowed with good genes, open to listening, open to learning, focused, persistent, saw how one thing connects to the other, imaginative, free-thinking, good humored and at most times decent people. I doubt they played violin when they were three. And I think they all knew that despite some advantages they had, that they won a lottery that brings it all together - what I said above, the right subject, the right time, etc.

In other words, they would die in corporate America.

The word genius is used very loosely in our society. Especially by groups like entertainers and media types that reward each other seemingly on a weekly basis. More than athletes, more than scientists, more than our nation of Dilberts, more than anyone.

Maybe you could define genius as a certain IQ or ability. There are many definitions one could think of.


Mar. 08 2010 10:14 AM
Hansel Escobal from West

The definition of 'Genius' is all in the application of your knowlwdge. In 4th grade my brother and I were tested and they told my Mom that we had IQs of 150 & 152 (borderline Genius). My brother by the age of 38 had become a junior partner in the 3rd largest Architectural firm in the U.S., owns 2 properties, has traveled all over the world and speaks 5 langs (3 fluently). I, at the age of 41 and despite trying countless opportunities, have a moderate paying programming job, had 1 vacation in the last 10 years, 3 failed businesses and am working paycheck-to-paycheck. No wonder my Wife doesn't believe me when I tell her 'No, really, this is a better idea...'!

Mar. 08 2010 10:12 AM

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