There has never been an easy way to define genius. Intelligence scores are sometimes used, though numbers fall flat when in many artistic domains. A Mensa-level mathematician might be a genius, but what of an acclaimed composer who dropped out of high school? Genius has always been a relative and subjective term.
Psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton contemplates two varying views of genius: one of achieved eminence, the other as exceptional intelligence. His research points strongly toward the first: genius as a skill that can be cultivated with discipline.
Simonton distinguishes between two popular definitions of genius. He points to Kant with the first, which is also the focus of his article: exceptional achievement. He cites Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy as examples of those who have produced lasting art. This is different than the type of genius measured on intelligence tests. As he notes, many people with high IQs “do not produce original and exemplary accomplishments.”
Heredity has long been an argument for genius: you either have it or don’t. While certain genetic circumstances set you up for success—runners with more fast-twitch muscle fibers tend to be sprinters, for example, while those with more slow-twitch fibers are better suited for distance—there is no predetermined roadmap to genius. Simonton does find two recurrences among geniuses throughout time, however.
First, they don’t put in as much time in one domain as their less creative counterparts. At some point a number of ideas collide and point to a new trajectory; their genius fits together the pieces. Simonton believes this can be challenging if you’ve spent your entire life focused on one domain of study.
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