Dan Dascalescu's Homepage
/essays/what makes a genius

What makes a genius

I ran on the Steve Pavlina forums across this unsourced quote form an unnamed book:

"I like especially the work being done by Dr Donald W. MacKinnon, director of the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research in San Francisco. Five hundred and thirty really top notch leaders in many different fields were studied - the shining lights among artists, architects, mathematicians, engineers, research scientists and writers, among others; all people who represented original and creative thinking. They found that having a high I.Q. was not a consistent or reliable requirement, although all of the people were in the normal-to-bright category. In addition: 'It is certain that most of our most creative subjects hadn't been grade getters.' Most of them had a C or B average and many would not qualify for entrance to some of our graduate schools today. The most significant qualities to emerge from this study (and many others as well) were: curiosity, skepticism, independence, aesthetic sensitivity, introversion and nonconformity. Many of these people seemed to have 'a sense of destiny', which tended to make them refuse to conform in their thinking."

I'm a pretty usual case of university drop-out hating the guts out of the classic education system, and I have several friends cut from the same cloth, so the quote resonated with me. I tried to find the source of the quote, but a fair amount of Googling failed to produce said book. However, I found an article published in the May 1962 issue of Popular Science. Excerpts:

Maybe you, too, are an unnoticed genius

Both Edison and Einstein were considered pretty dull, if not stupid, when they were kids. Even today, there is no sure way to pick out the great ones [...] soon enough to make sure they get the training and encouragement their talents deserve. [...]

Now scientists hope to stop this waste of human resources with better ways of telling who has the priceless spark of genius and who hasn't. At the University of California, for example, Dr. Donald W. MacKinnon analyzes "creative individuals" to learn what makes them that way. Some of his findings will surprise you.

Dr. MacKinnon works on living specimens, certified to be outstanding by experts in their own fields. [...] In the past six years, 530 engineers, mathematicians, industrial-research scientists, architects, writers, and college students "all highly creative" have checked in at the rambling old house in Berkeley that serves as a laboratory. There they were subjected to batteries of psychological examinations. (The tests were originally worked up in World War II to select cloak-and-dagger operatives for the Office of Strategic Services.)

It turns out that truly creative people - not dreamers, but men who invent original solutions to real problems and then carry through their solutionsâ - are different, all right, but in unexpected ways.

They're not necessarily very smart. None are feeble-minded, but their actual IQs don't seem to matter much.

They do not shine in school. Their college grades - even among the scientists - had run to Bs and Cs. Many wouldn't be able to get into graduate school, the way entrance requirements stand today. One of the most outstanding architects had actually been counseled by his dean to take up something else because he had shown no talent for architecture.

They are curious and skeptical, with an unusual knack for getting the right answers with what seem to be the wrong questions.

They are very sure that the work they do is right and important - no matter what anybody else thinks. (This is the way geniuses are supposed to act, and they do.)

They prefer to do things the hard way. They choose drawings that are more abstract than the ones other people select, and when they make up patterns themselves, they use more colors. Apparently they can imagine higher types of simplicity and order than the less gifted can.

They are not at all stiff-upper-lip types. They reveal their own feelings and sensitively read others' "the way women do" but are otherwise very masculine.

They are all highly intuitive, focusing on what could be rather than on what is. But beyond that there are striking differences among inventive types. Writers go by feel without making judgments; scientists weigh things logically and come to firm decisions. Architects are in the middle, some leaning one way, some the other way.

They are mavericks, ruggedly independent in their beliefs and ideas. Outwardly, however, they conform to the everyday world. They live and behave like ordinary businessmen [...]

These conclusions have not yet generated a foolproof test for spotting inventive genius. But they do point the way. How do you measure up?