Master Minds: What Makes a Genius? Certainly Not Going on a Creativity Course and Learning to "Think outside the Box". According to an Exhibition Devoted to Nobel Laureates, Genius Is the Product of Grinding Practice, Heroic Self-Absorption and the Ability to Recover from Mistakes

By Bywater, Michael | New Statesman (1996), November 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

Master Minds: What Makes a Genius? Certainly Not Going on a Creativity Course and Learning to "Think outside the Box". According to an Exhibition Devoted to Nobel Laureates, Genius Is the Product of Grinding Practice, Heroic Self-Absorption and the Ability to Recover from Mistakes


Bywater, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


It is the one. Win the Nobel Prize--for peace, physics, chemistry, economic sciences, physiology or medicine, or literature--and nobody is going to say "it was rigged", or "it doesn't count", or "so, you sold out". The worst they might say (particularly of the literature prize) is: "Who?" The Nobel lacks the taint of corporate money and branding--no mobile telephones, or whatever it is that the Man Group actually does (Booker did groceries; you don't get less exalted than that). Curiously, the taint of industrial death has leaked away; Alfred Nobel said that he dreamed of inventing a "substance or a machine of such terrible destruction that it would make war for ever impossible" and, with dynamite, he did pretty well for his times. Pretty well in terms of explosions, that is, but pretty badly in terms of people blown up.

Yet time has entirely cleansed the Nobel. No whiff of nitroglycerine remains, and the Nobel Museum is celebrating a century of distinction with an exhibition (running at the British Library from 7 December until March next year) that takes a slightly more introspective line through its laureates. What, it asks, leads to genius? How and where does it thrive? How can we nurture and promote it?

Good questions, and questions with money in them, too: google "genius", or anything related to it, and a slew of advertisements pops up, most of them leading to rather greasy websites offering miracle gimmicks to turn you or your child into a genius, an innovator, a "creative thinker". In the mercantile society, not being a genius is the mark of a slacker, someone who has yet to go that extra mile (or extra dollar) in self-improvement. Creativity and brilliance, it appears, are our universal birthright, and to suggest that most of us are much of a muchness and pretty dull dogs into the bargain is a monstrous heresy against the God of Can-Do.

Such fatuity doesn't stop the questions being worth answering, however, and the Nobel Museum will be inviting some celebrated names at least to consider, if not to answer, it. Nobody would want to miss, for example, George Steiner's views on the question of genius. On the other hand, Dame Anita Roddick's involvement seems slightly inexplicable: she is, after all, a businesswoman who did very nicely out of selling "ethical" splods and jollops made out of "natural" things like bananas, the crucial point being that nothing (except perhaps the bananas) suffered. It's a perfectly honourable way to make a living but it is hard to see what insight it gives into genius--unless it's that, in her own sphere, Roddick displayed some of what we might assume are the characteristics of genius: the ability to yoke disparate concepts (cosmetics and ethics, in her case) and thereby come up with a good idea, and the determination to keep going.

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Over recent years, there has been some evidence to suggest that the single unifying factor among "geniuses" is not inherent talent, not an egregious profundity of understanding, but, above all, the ability to practise. Watch any musical virtuoso at work and the evidence stares you in the face: he or she executes, with apparently insolent ease, passages which should by all accounts be at best intolerably difficult, at worst completely impossible. This is seldom to do with superhuman abilities (though in the case of Paganini, for example, the huge hands and hypermobility typical of Marfan's syndrome gave him a technical advantage over a human being of standard configuration). Nor does it seem connected to the woollier aspects of nurture: the hyperconfidence of genius cannot be transmitted by an adoring mother alone, otherwise the young men of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the smaller Greek islands would have cornered genius long ago. No: simple, repetitive, grinding practice would seem to be the key. …

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