As a follow-up to this post about Einstein, this blog will explore the nature of the brightest bulbs history has known – and there will be a number of quotations about genius, creativity, and hard work in the end. Much of the inspiration for this piece comes from an article in National Geographic by Claudia Kalb. Questions that have intrigued humans for millennia include: What is the nature of genius? Is it just about I.Q.? How important is hard work? Can anyone be creative? Are the brains of very intelligent and insightful people different than those possessed by the rest of us? Let’s explore! Note: the quotes with no author are by Claudia Kalb, the author of the article I highly suggest you read.
Imagine this: you visit a museum in Philly, and inside is an exhibit of 46 microscope slides containing none other than slices of Albert Einstein’s brain! True story. One thing that would be evident is just how unremarkable his neurons really were. It would be like looking at a pen used by Charles Darwin or a sketch pad Leonardo took pages from. These items, though extraordinarily valuable, are objects: they lacked the awesome power that the owner/user was able to imbue them with. This is the difference between brain and mind. Consider: when a person dies, their brain is basically exactly the same, yet, simply meat. All the grey matter is there, but the magic is gone. The “ghost in the machine” is now absent. It makes consciousness, the mind, and human potential a thing to truly marvel at.
Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the very laws of the universe. But our understanding of how a mind like his works remains stubbornly earthbound. What sets his brainpower, his thought process, apart from those of his merely brilliant peers [or the rest of us]?
So, let’s get to it: Is there something about genius that can be pinpointed? Is it like winning four times in a row picking numbers on a roulette wheel spin? Or is it much more integrative, complex, and cumulative? Though I think quotations about genius can highlight the panorama, here is Kalb’s opinion:
Genius is too elusive, too subjective, too wedded to the verdict of history to be easily identified. And it requires the ultimate expression of too many traits to be simplified into the highest point on the human scale.
Indeed, she suggests that we instead attempt to grasp the awesomeness of the phenomenon – the serendipitous amalgam of creativity, raw intelligence, dedication, ingenuity, practice, and luck (among others) that “entwine to create a person capable of changing the world.” Indeed, as I watch the mini-series produced by Ron Howard and others, Genius, it is clear how deep the great breadth of Einstein’s intellect is. Take away a minor component and he could have remained a Swiss patent office clerk who was in a troubled marriage and very socially odd; end of story. If he were born a decade later, someone else might have beat him to the punch.
Truly, the vicissitudes of life are amazing. Made popular by a hit movie, Alan Turing, the obvious genius who broke the Nazi’s “Enigma” code – thought to be unbreakable – not only demonstrated the mind of a genius, but also saved lives and virtually led to the creation of the modern computer. Epilogue: British authorities prosecuted him as a sodomite and ruined his life. No less an interesting historical figure was also wonderfully depicted in a movie, Srinivasa Ramanujan. He also met with an early death by disease. Interestingly, he was Indian, uneducated formally, poor, and believed God imparted to him his incredible mathematical skill. These geniuses clearly followed their own paths – perhaps in the extreme. It worked in their cases; sometimes following one’s own path leads to a dead-end – or a cliff. Nevertheless, education expert Alfie Kohn, Ph.D. says: “Creative problem solving frequently requires one to question assumptions, reason counterfactually, and consider issues from a fresh point of view. But perspective taking adds the further requirement that one imagine a point of view other than one’s own.” There are many quotations about genius that encourage one to think independently if at all possible.
Monumental intelligence is on its own no guarantee of monumental achievement, as Terman and his collaborators would soon discover.
In the above quote, Kalb is referring to Lewis Terman, an early psychologist who studied 1,500 school kids with IQs that were “near genius or genius.” They were so smart that you rarely meet someone with that level of intelligence (there are statistically as many that smart as there are folks you would take a look at or have a brief conversation with and say they were “mentally retarded” [developmentally disabled is the preferred term]. The study was fascinating not just because of how much that cohort achieved, but because of what some of them did not – despite having a genius-level IQ. Though the group amassed 350 patents and wrote 400 short stories, “several dozen flunked out of college at first.” I would imagine that there were schizophrenics, sociopaths, and alcoholics in the group. Two individuals didn’t make the cut, but in fact went on to earn Nobel prizes in physics. It’s just so interesting and hard to pin down. She points out that Charles Darwin – indisputably one of history’s top scientific minds and supremely dedicated researchers – considered himself “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.” One shudders to think what would happen if the captain of the H.M.S. Beagle never invited him on that trip to the Galapagos Islands…. Finally, Kalb brings up the idea that “monumental intelligence is no guarantee of monumental achievement,” and George Vaillant’s ground-breaking longitudinal (developmental psychological) study is definitely a great insight. Stay tuned for some quotations about genius that will broaden and deepen your knowledge about this topic!
Scientific breakthroughs like Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection would be impossible without creativity, a strand of genius that Terman couldn’t measure. But creativity and its processes can be explained, to a certain extent…. the aha moment, the flash of clarity that arises at unexpected times – in a dream, in the shower, on a walk – often emerges after a period of contemplation. Information comes in consciously, but the problem is processes unconsciously, the resulting solution leaping out when the mind least expects it.
That (above) is really quite an example of quotations about genius. It says to me that too much intense, unyielding focus can lead to a wall rather than a solution. Sometimes we just can’t obsessively think and compulsively work and stay fresh enough to do the kind of creative thinking that is necessary for success, insight, and ingenuity. On the other hand, jazz improvisation indicates that sticking with something – staying in the zone (i.e., “in flow”) is worth doing. Surfers don’t “bogue out” of a killer wave when it is, well, killer, right?! It seems like as long as it feels right and you get “lost” in whatever creative act you are engaging in, go with it; when you get tired or distracted, stop. I should stop writing this blog, but alas, I can’t bring myself to do it. The curse of a perfectionist… “When we stop and rest properly, we’re not paying a tax on creativity. We’re investing in it”
As far as the genetic contributors to intelligence, Kalb notes understanding it is “exceedingly complex, as thousands of genes may be involved – each one with a very small effect.” Indeed, Einstein himself said: “Understanding the atom is child’s play compared to understanding child’s play.” How’s that for one of the most fantastic quotations about genius!! It’s incredible to think that we human beings, who have been around for about 300,000 years, have only about double the number of genes of a fruit fly. Kalb continues:
Genetic potential alone does not predict actual accomplishment. It also takes nurture to grow a genius [by nurture she means this]. Social and cultural influences can provide that nourishment, creating clusters of genius at moment and places in history….
Natural gifts and a nurturing environment can still fall short of producing a genius, without motivation and tenacity propelling one forward. These personality traits…inspire the work of psychologist Angela Duckworth. She believes that a combination of passion and perseverance – what she calls ‘grit’ – drives people to achieve. “Fortitude and discipline are critical to success,” Duckworth believes.
Kalb notes that it doesn’t often happen quickly. Mistakes are made. Failures are had. Ideas and accomplishments can be cumulative. Indeed, no less a clear genius than Isaac Newton famously quipped: “If I have seen farther, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” “Big hits emerge after many attempts,” Kalb notes. She also shows that “Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and the first commercially viable light bulb, but those were just two of the 1,000-plus U.S. patents he was awarded.” She goes on to note the plight of women, noting that throughout history many, many have been denied their potential by social forces. For example, half of the women in the Terman study of genius ended up as homemakers. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but to think of a Marie Curie or a Katherine G. Johnson as a homemaker is, well, sad. We’re almost to the quotations about genius, hang on…
She ends with “…glimmers of genius in not just the rare individual, but in us all.” This does raise the question about whether we are cultivating it successfully in our schools and universities. In fact, Einstein said: “It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.” He is noting that the restless creativity, utter uniqueness, and persistent and constant wondering and questioning are not necessarily what American schools are in the business of teaching. I, for example, live in a state whose schools rank in the bottom 5% of the states. We are graduating students who don’t even know reading, writing and arithmetic well enough to get a high-level blue-collar career or begin succeeding in college, let alone be critical thinkers. I will only briefly mention that this relative ignorance, respect for authority, and maintenance of the status quo is correlated with the fact that South Carolina went for Trump by pretty large margins. Thus, education, intelligence, innovation, problem-solving, and wisdom are not being encouraged at the public-societal level, and this has consequences that if one thinks on it awhile can be disconcerting and dispiriting. How far from genius can a culture be? This far: “I hate to say it, but it does reflect the problems we’re having in the pipeline,” said Melanie Barton, executive director of the state’s Education Oversight Committee, regarding S.C.’s education ranking. “We’re not getting kids out with the skills they need to be successful. South Carolina has got to wake up. This the 21st century, folks. We’re not gonna go back to an era where a high school diploma means a living wage.” No, we are not. I certainly think there is room for technical education versus college, but that isn’t really the issue at hand. The issue is: Are we undercutting young geniuses who might have gone on to form the next revolutionary company or solve a significant social problem? It is paramount, if we take Benjamin Disraeli literally: “Almost everything that is great has been done by youth.” Genius Aldous Huxley adds: “Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shame, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.” Isn’t it a shame when they grow up to be factory workers, bartenders, or construction workers (read about Chris Langan)?
In sum, Kalb’s is a wonderful and inspirational article, and as a collector of quotes, I found more than a few quotations about genius in it.
Now, here are but a small sampling of quotations about genius, creativity, curiosity, wonder, perseverance, insight, and intelligence by many notable and astute thinkers from diverse backgrounds to be found in the Wisdom Archive. There are so many I am only including some from authors that start with A, B and C!
The greatest thing, by far, is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned; and it is also a sign of genius.
Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.
When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
For a long time it has been common for artists and writers to attribute any genius it might have to “the Muse.” They have held that this non-intellectual, other-than-them something is the source of all their good, really creative stuff. Today we know the Muse to be these unconscious mental processes that work on behalf of the intellect to solve are creative problems for us and make our creative breakthroughs.
It is one of the commonest of mistakes to consider that the limit of our power of perception is also the limit of all there is to perceive.
We seem to continue to expect intelligence and knowledge to predict rational behavior, as if rationality was some kind of byproduct of intelligence. Even skeptics can often be caught suggesting that if we just give people the right facts, they’ll change their minds about vaccines, E.S.P., and global warming. But that is not how people work.
To be a wit, intelligence is enough. To be a poet takes imagination.
It is easy to understand why dreamers tend to ignore and even deny the message of their dreams. Consciousness naturally resists anything unconscious and unknown.
Education should have two objects: first, to give definite knowledge—reading and writing, languages and mathematics, and so on; secondly, to create those mental habits which will enable people to acquire knowledge and form sound judgments for themselves. The first of these we may call information; the second: intelligence.
The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.
Create a vision and never let the environment, other people’s beliefs, or the limits of what has been done in the past shape your decisions. Ignore conventional wisdom.
Sorry, I have to use the phrase quotations about genius once again; that’s just how modern search engines work :/
To practice the Socratic art of living turns out, once again, to be the creation of a self that is as different from Socrates as Socrates was different from the rest of his world.
What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears.
In every human being, there are capacities for creative action… This need of human beings is almost as deep-seated as their need for air to breathe and food to eat.
The great moral teachers of humanity were in a way artistic geniuses in the art of living.
There is always the temptation when examining the lives of scientists to see their achievements as a continuation of traditions long in place. But Isaac Newton ushered in a revolutionary perspective in science that can’t be explained merely as his continuing work already in progress.
Men give me credit for genius; but all the genius I have lies in this: When I have a subject on hand I study it profoundly.
Well there you have it: just a few thoughts and examples of quotations about genius.