The Cambridge dictionary defines ‘genius’ as “a very great and rare natural ability or skill”.
I’m not one to question the authority of such a reputable publication. But a growing body of research suggests that, far from being innate, genius is something one can learn, primarily through sheer hard work and determination.
Of course, a strong correlation exists between IQ and achievement. Nevertheless, research suggests that the proportion of people with IQs in the top 1% of the population that actually achieve greatness in any given field is surprisingly low.
A study of adult graduates from New York City’s Hunter College elementary school – which only admits people with IQs above 130 (ruling out almost 99% of the population) – backs this up.
Although the graduates were successful in their lives, Rena Subotnik, a research psychologist at the American Psychologist Association, noted that “there were no superstars,
no Pulitzer Prize or MacArthur Award winners, and only one or two familiar names”.
And if you look at supposedly natural-born geniuses throughout the ages, how many of them excelled at their particular area without dedicating their lives to it?
Did Einstein spend all night in the pub, arise bleary-eyed at 12:00pm the following afternoon, and then put in a lackadaisical three-hour session on the quantam theory of atomic transition probabilities?
When Vincent Van Gogh was invited to Alton Towers on a Saturday – if you’ll forgive the anachronism – he had to say: “sorry lads, as much as I’d love to ride on the Oblivion, if I don’t get Sunflowers finished soon I swear I’ll go mad” – which of course he did.
Bach would have left many more unfinished symphonies if he had spent his weekends chasing women instead of perfecting the Buxtehudian model of improvisatory preludes.
There are exceptions of course. George Best spent a lot of time and money on all booze, cars and women (“and squandered the rest,” he later admitted) but was still be a footballing genius on the pitch.
Paul McGrath was one of the best defenders of his generation, even though he, too, was an alcoholic. He also got special dispensation not to train from Graham Taylor, his manager at Aston Villa, because of his ‘dodgy’ knees. So the ‘practice makes perfect’ model falls down on two counts.