Genius isn’t the same thing as intelligence, there are plenty of intelligent mediocrities. The highest IQ on record (and yes, IQ is not everything, but it measures something important as well) is that of Vos Savant (Marilyn Jarvik). To the best of my knowledge she has no significant body of work in any field, nor any great accomplishments. Yet she is, unquestionably, so much smarter than someone like Napoleon that there is no comparison. Indeed even most composers and theoretical scientists have IQs that pale in comparison.
Intelligence is one factor in genius, and it is generally necessary to be highly intelligent to be a genius. But it is not sufficient. Instead, genius is about obsession. It takes, on average, about 10 years of dedicated study to master a field. This has nothing to do with formal education – some people learn at school, just as many great geniuses have not. The time can be reduced by high intelligence, but not as much as one might think.
Operating at the highest levels is about integrative complexity, and what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called Flow. Flow is the state where you are operating at the edge of your ability – where your mind can just barely handle whatever you are doing (or rather, thinking) at the moment. In such a state the outside world fades out, time stretches or contracts so that hours pass as instants, and thought and action become the same thing.
There are many ways to achieve flow – meditation is one way of systemizing flow so that you can achieve it at will, and so are many of the techniques that are considered to lead to enlightenment in many traditions. However for most people flow occurs when their abilities are precisely matched to the challenge they are facing.
Which brings us to integrative complexity. Integrative complexity is simply a measure of how much information you can hold in your head at one given time. The ability to hold a complicated argument in your head all at one time, with all its caveats and arguments, is an example of integrative complexity. Historical psychologists measure integrative complexity by reading the speeches and writing of historical figures and noting the number of clauses and caveats routinely used. Figures can move up and down the scale – for example, revolutionaries need to speak with low integrative complexity while revolutionaries, but successful rulers need high integrative complexity to actually run the state. A good case in point is Castro. During his time as a revolutionary his integrative complexity was very low, but once he was in power it rose significantly. Revolutionaries unable to make the shift up tend not to last once the revolution is won (Trotsky, as compared to Lenin, for example.)
Thinking or performing in any field is a skill. All skills operate in essentially the same way. When you first perform a skill you have to use your raw processing power (which, even for a genius, is very small). You have to think about what you’re doing. As you practice with the skill things you once had to think about become automatic and you are able to use those components automatically, while adding in other components. As such your ability to think or perform moves up the scale. In the physical arts an example would be learning a basic stance in martial arts – until you learn that stance, you can’t add a kick or an evasion, or even a movement within a stance. Once you add it, you can add a specific movement. Over time those movements become part of one thing or become an easily used language, and you can shift easily from one to another. This is the style of learning used in traditional Japanese arts, where, for example, an archery student might spend months doing nothing by draw his bow, never ever shooting an arrow, or where a traditional butcher would spend months practicing his grip, then months making only a few different cuts, on a specific type of meat. By the end of the process the archer always pulls the string correctly (and even this is made up of multiple parts, including breathing) and the butcher never holds a knife incorrectly, nor uses an incorrect knife.
But even if not formalized, this is how you get better at pretty much everything – you take the small and learn to do it automatically, and then you lump it into the big. In intellectual traditions part of this occurs when you learn specialized language. When I say “Externalization of costs in the food industry is health pollution” I’m saying something that would take a few essays to explain properly to people who haven’t internalized a particular understanding of economics and ecology.
A genius moves up the chain of integrative complexity quickly, but more than that a genius is addicted to a particular form or forms of flow. Operating at peak, in flow, is something everyone enjoys, but most people aren’t very good at obtaining peak. The problem is that the goalposts keep moving – as you get better at something, a performance that took everything out of you, and threw you into flow, will no longer do so. You have to step up, and make it harder, and risk failure, in order to do so. (The other method of obtaining something approaching peak is to reduce capacity. This is one of the things that alcohol and many other drugs do.)
And so, to the outsider, genius often looks like obsession. Operating at peak literally puts you in a place where your entire concentration is dedicated to what you’re doing. It can be profoundly alienating to the people around you.
The life cycle of genius varies between disciplines. Roughly speaking there are two different types of intelligence. There is liquid intelligence, which is raw processing power. This is your sheer ability to operate, and it is highest in the young. Fields that operate in pure symbology, such as math and physics, reward this very highly. The greatest mathematicians generally make their great discoveries in their twenties, and there is a saying that if you aren’t a great mathematician by 30, you never will be.
At the other end is crystallized intelligence. This is how much skill you’ve made automatic, or knowledge you’ve internalized as discussed above. Fields such as history, for example, value this sort of information highly. No matter how smart you are, it’s hard to know enough to make a significant contribution to such a field young.
Which leads to another important point. You can’t look it up! No, you can’t. If you don’t know it, if you haven’t internalized it, you can’t make connections between it and something else, you can’t work with it. The old saying that “the more I know, the more I know I don’t know” speaks to this. Most people have no idea of their profound ignorance. You can’t work with what you don’t know, and you can’t look up what you don’t know you don’t know. Genius – creative accomplishment, is about making new combinations with your skills and knowledge. Knowledge in a book, which isn’t in your head or your hands, can’t be used in that process.
Once you have all that knowledge, once you have all those skills, you have to do something with it. And while I’m not a genius, I’m here to tell you that creative work is a mystery even to those who do it. You put everything together, you stir it up, you think about it a lot and then half the time you give up and sometime later it comes to you in a flash – the pieces whirl around in your head, click and fit together and in that instant you see it. After you see it, you have to grind out the consequences of what you’ve seen, and you have to put it in language that other people can understand (invariably highly frustrating), but it’s that moment of insight, which Hambly once called “the cold clear ecstasy of intellectual discovery” which is the final, and ultimate payoff for all the years of constant refinement of skill and knowledge.
Hambly said something else which is entirely appropriate to the subject: “Love something for itself and it will give itself to you.” You can’t do all of this out of duty. Sometimes there are hard slogs, true, but ultimately no one is a creative genius who doesn’t, well enjoy isn’t quite the right word, but obsess in probably is, their chosen work.
There are other things that could be said, but we’ll leave it at that for now, except to note that I am not a genius (except in the strict and bogus sense that I have a high enough intelligence to qualify for the book definition used in some circles.) As Heinlein once noted about himself, I am smart enough to stand on the border of genius, to understand, but not to, mostly, do. Instead I am a generalist. I move from field to field, and I pick up the 20% of the knowledge of the field that is required to understand 80% of its applications, and then I move on to the next field. The late Oldman, whom some of you may remember, was a genius, one of the very few I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and he himself recognized the difference.
Most of my friends are generalists or specialists. A good specialist is someone who is a borderline genius and who makes the choice to dedicate himself to a field. A generalist is the same person who cannot give up the bright sparkly objects in other fields to concentrate on just one and work on that last 80% of the knowledge that separates the real specialist from the knowledgeable generalist. For concrete modern day examples – DeLong is a good specialist and Krugman is a genius and that is no insult to DeLong at all.
(Originally published at BopNews, also published at FDL).