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in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: October 1, 2021

Podcast #703: The Hidden Qualities of Genius

We tend to throw the word “genius” around pretty casually, saying so-and-so has a genius for a particular skill, or sarcastically pointing out someone’s failure by saying, “Nice work, genius!”

But what makes an actual genius, a genius?

My guest today has spent over two decades exploring that question by studying the world’s most iconic and original thinkers and creators, both past and present. His name is Craig Wright, he’s a professor emeritus of music at Yale who continues to teach a course there called “Exploring the Nature of Genius,” and he’s the author of The Hidden Habits of Genius: Beyond Talent, IQ, and Grit—Unlocking the Secrets of Greatness. Today on the show Craig reveals the characteristics and patterns of behavior of true geniuses, and begins by answering the questions of whether there’s a connection between genius and intelligence, and whether genius is hereditary. We talk about several drivers of genius, including situational advantages, a childlike ability to play with possibilities, a keen curiosity, a strong memory, broad interests and vision, the ability to toggle between intense concentration and loose relaxation, and keeping a daily routine. We then discuss whether there’s a connection between genius and mental health issues, and what effect being a genius tends to have on someone’s personal life. Along the way, Craig illustrates his points with examples from the lives of Mozart, da Vinci, Steve Jobs, and more.

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • What makes a person or idea “genius”?
  • Is there a connection between intelligence and genius?
  • The inheritability of genius 
  • How situational advantage elevates some over others 
  • The benefits of a lifelong child-like worldview 
  • The value of curiosity 
  • Going broad vs. going deep 
  • Is there any connection between mental illness and genius?
  • The tattered personal lives of most geniuses 

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, we tend to throw the word “genius” around pretty casually, saying, “So-and-so has a genius for a particular skill,” or sarcastically pointing out someone’s failure by saying, “Nice work, genius.” But what makes an actual genius a genius? My guest today has spent over two decades exploring that question by studying the world’s most iconic and original thinkers and creators, both past and present. His name is Craig Wright, he’s Professor Emeritus of Music at Yale who continues to teach a course there called Exploring the Nature of Genius. And he’s also the author of the book, The Hidden Habits of Genius Beyond Talent, IQ, and Grit.

Today in the show, Craig reveals the characteristics and patterns of behavior of true geniuses and begins by answering the questions of whether there’s a connection between genius and intelligence, and whether genius is hereditary. We talk about several drivers of genius, including situational advantages, a child-like ability to play with possibilities, a keen curiosity, a strong memory, broad interests and vision, the ability to toggle between intense concentration and loose relaxation, and keeping a daily routine. We then discuss whether there’s a connection between genius and mental health issues and what effect being a genius tends to have on someone’s personal life. Along the way, Craig illustrates his points with examples from the lives of Mozart, Da Vinci, Steve Jobs, and more. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/genius.

Alright, Craig Wright, welcome to the show.

Craig Wright: Hey, thanks very much, Brett, for inviting me.

Brett McKay: Alright, so you wrote a book called The Hidden Habits of Genius, where you look at human history, geniuses in human history, to try to figure out what it was they did that made them a genius. But before we get into those qualities, I think it’d be helpful to note how you defined genius in your research, because in the book, you note that you can define genius in all sorts of different ways. But in your book and in your research, you have an equation basically that defines genius, and here’s the equation, “Genius equals significance times the number of people impacted by an idea or creation times duration or lifespan of their insight.”

So basically, a genius creates something of significance that impacts a lot of people for a long time. So I think an important thing to note there, it’s not just about being good at something. Like, you couldn’t… You wouldn’t call someone like Michael Phelps a genius, even though he’s really good at swimming, but instead it’s about changing the world in some way with your ideas. So with that equation in mind, let’s talk about the factors that do or do not impact its component, starting with intelligence. Now, in your study of geniuses throughout history, did you find a connection between genius and intelligence?

Craig Wright: That was the single biggest misconception when I started this project. I had a stereotype in my head, “A genius does this, and a genius looks like this.” Maybe somebody that seemed hugely smart, would score 200 on an IQ test, who could just slap his forehead and say, “Aha. I’ve got it.” And that’s not really the way it is from reading, say, the lives and studying for 15 years the backgrounds of probably 100 different geniuses. It’s much slower. That so-called “aha” moment is actually the culmination of thinking over a long period of time. It’s just the piece, the tip of the iceberg and a great deal of substratum underneath.

So that’s important, that we don’t want to over-emphasize IQ, and from what I’m able to… They are very interesting tests. California, a guy at Stanford, for decades, did a test of some 500 individuals with IQs of 132 or higher, and at the end of the test, not a single so-called genius, no Pulitzer Prize winners, no Nobel Prize winners, no Academy Award winners. Nothing. As one of the people working on it said, “We didn’t have a single genius with all these high scores,” but by the same token, there were a couple of people that were rejected from this ’cause their IQ wasn’t high enough that went on… William Shockley and Luis Alvarez went on to win Nobel Prizes in the sciences, but they had been rejected ’cause they didn’t meet the IQ threshold. My sense of this is you have to have a good general IQ, and I would say there, based on the standards of today, probably 110, 115, 120, but once you reach that generally above average, sort of B-plus, A-minus IQ, then you’re in the game and it’s all these other enablers of genius that are gonna push you forward.

Brett McKay: Well, okay, so that’s interesting. So there’s… You don’t have to be Mensa-smart to be a genius.

Craig Wright: No. Okay, good for you. So you know about that. So maybe you tell us, Brett. What the heck is Mensa? You don’t have to be Mensa-smart. You’re absolutely right.

Brett McKay: Well, it’s that organization… If you have a certain IQ level, you could say, “Well, I’m a member of Mensa.” It used to be… I remember, like, it was a big deal. I don’t know if it’s such a big deal anymore. People don’t really talk about it.

Craig Wright: Yeah, I think people catch… [laughter] That maybe this is something of a scam. They’re sort of catching on to this, that you can do very well in this world without being a member of Mensa, and maybe you get so caught up in it all, “I’m so smart and I don’t have to do this or do that or… ” So I don’t know, but there is… I think it was founded in England in the 1940s, and so it’s been around for about 80 years or so, and you have to have a verified IQ of 135, I think is it, or maybe it’s 132. We’d have to check on that, perhaps.

Brett McKay: Okay, so genius intelligence, you’ve just gotta be A-minus, B-plus smart. Another interesting thing you noted is genius isn’t really heritable. Like, you can’t find genius pedigree. You found that geniuses typically don’t have parents or grandparents who were geniuses, nor do they have progeny who are geniuses either. What’s going on there, you think?

Craig Wright: I think it’s a kind of one-off event. It’s something akin to a perfect storm of… Let’s say of a genetic crapshoot. You’ve got a kind of reshuffling of genes with each new fertilized embryo, I suspect, and thereafter, they can re-assemble in some surprising ways. And it’s, as I say, something of a perfect storm. It happens, but it’s not heritable. Intelligence, a certain level of intelligence, a certain level of curiosity is heritable. The enablers, the drivers of genius have to come all together. They have to come all together at a particular point and at a particular time and at a particular way.

And when that happens, you get this sort of outlier. Psychologists have this fancy word for emergenesis, something that just hops out completely unexpected from the genetic pool. And it doesn’t hop out that way in generation after generation after generation. And very rarely do we have long streams or any kind of strings of genius. So it’s a kind of one-off event. My favorite story here, and as you know, Brett, from taking a peek at the book, is the story of the horse Secretariat. Now, obviously, the horses are not people, but that’s a horse that came out of nowhere in terms of its genetic pool. Out of 400 offspring, only one of them ever won one Triple Crown race despite the stud fees that were being paid. But that horse still and it still holds the track record. Secretariat still holds the track record of the three Triple Crown races. It was just off the charts. As they say, it was a one-off event, the perfect storm.

Brett McKay: Right. So there’s a genetic crop shoot going on with genius. There’s also a circumstantial crop shoot, like you talked about… I think everyone’s heard the story about Bill Gates. He happened to go to a high school where there was a computer or something like that. And if Bill Gates had been somewhere else, Bill Gates probably wouldn’t have been Bill Gates because of that environmental factor wasn’t there.

Craig Wright: It’s an interesting question, and it has to do with luck and genius. There’s a fancy word for that called situational advantage, situational advantage. Now, I suspect, having read a bit about Bill Gates, I suspect Bill Gates probably would have… His exceptional abilities would have manifested eventually. It probably would have taken him more time to find his way to computers. So he had a situational advantage. His interest, his passion was sort of jump-started by the fact, one, his parents were rather well-off, two, he had access to materials at the University of Washington there in Seattle, and three, he went to a very good school in which they appreciated and gave him access to computers.

He probably, again, would have wended his way in that direction, but it may have taken him longer. How do you get this situational advantage? Generally speaking, you have to move to places to put yourself in kind of, get in the game or get out of the game, in some cases. You have to move to a big city. Let’s say you’re a tech investor, you may wanna be in Silicon Valley. If you’re interested in the arts and Broadway Theater and stuff like that, you probably wanna be in New York. If you’re interested in energy production, maybe you wanna be in Tulsa. So, you have to get to these centers where there’s an agglomeration of money and where there’s agglomeration of talent and competition and information that you can run with and build off of.

Brett McKay: Alright. So we’ve talked about intelligence and genius, the connection there, not big connection there. We talked about situational advantage. Let’s talk about some of these habits that you’ve found when you actually looked at the lives of what these geniuses did. And one habit you found amongst all these geniuses you’ve studied is that they maintain a child-like view of the world throughout their adult life. What does that child-like world view look like for genius?

Craig Wright: It probably looks different for each child, and it may look different based on the emotional context in which that child is being reared. Children have wonderful imaginations and the curse is, the problem is that in terms of the process of growing up, adults, basically, I want to say beat the hell out of them. [chuckle] But suck all the… I don’t know, suck all the imagination out of them and I am just as guilty of this as a parent of four children, as the next. Although, I think I’ve learned a lot and I think I’m a lot better at it with the seven grandchildren. Kids have this fantastic imagination. They don’t know what is possibly… There’s this thing on a tape, I’ve watched this happen. There’s a thing on the table, and it could be this long thing with a point and some lead at the end or it could be this long thing that’s very sharp and has another kind of point at the end.

And how does a kid know that one is a pencil that they could create a wonderful drawing from, the other is a knife that they could kill a cat with or whatever. So only over time do parents, “No, no. Don’t touch it. Don’t touch it.” So we gradually develop this whole idea of the “don’t touch that” mentality, “Don’t go there. You can’t think that way.” So how do you fight against that? Let me indulge myself here and tell you about a couple of stories in my own life. Once on a family vacation, I think we had one son with his three children, then aged 8, 10 and 12 out at the beach making sand castles. They were making up stories and they were playing there in the sand castle and they had molded some characters.

And there’s the 12-year-old kind of voicing over this and making up this, “Oh, let’s do this then.” I said, “Well, geez, shouldn’t this kid… Is this appropriate behavior for a 12-year-old? Shouldn’t they be out there chasing a ball.” Or… That involved some kind of competitive sports or something like that. And then, then fortunately, I caught myself and said, “You know, this kind of imaginary play is really good. This is how people come up with ideas.” Alfred Hitchcock was famous as a director, who’s saying, “We’re pressing too hard. We’ve got to relax. We’ve got to play. We’ve got to have fun. We’ve got to imagine.” So go out there and be crazy doing anything, make a fool of yourself. Just release your inner creativity. Don’t set up these barriers.

Recently, with one grandchild, I have found myself climbing up, and at my age, it’s something of a challenge by climbing up into a tree fort. Tree forts are really cool. But you can go in there, and you go up in there, and you can play and imagine things. You can imagine pirates. You can imagine rocketships. You can think up characters. You can think up imaginary friends. There’s no reason that we should necessarily have to stop doing this as we grow up. Maybe the worst thing that we can say to a child is, “Oh, grow up.” Because maybe those creative fantasies or fantasies that they’re having will lead to better ideas because the mind of the child is not, and ultimately, the adult is not so constricted.

Brett McKay: Alright. So make time for play.

Craig Wright: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And I think you’ve highlighted there’s several geniuses that still played even as adults. I think Richard Feynman, he did magic, which you typically think of as like, “Well, magic, that’s what you do when you’re 12. You stop doing that when you’re 18. You’re getting serious with life.” But no, the guy kept doing magic tricks.

Craig Wright: Yeah. That’s a very good point. To be honest with you, good for you, Brett. I’d actually forgotten that Feynman did that. So, Brett one, Craig nothing on the magic score. [chuckle] Good for you. Keep going. [laughter]

Brett McKay: No. Yeah. Well, I mean, I think of other ones. I mean, like, okay, I don’t know. This is debatable if he’s a genius or not. Theodore Roosevelt, he continued to explore and have fun even as an adult, and then even after he was President, he kept doing new and different things.

Craig Wright: Well, Mozart is a perfect example of that. I mean, his sister said in an obituary form, he was always the eternal child. He would never grow up, but then when…

Brett McKay: Yeah, he would write… He liked potty language. He’d like…

Craig Wright: Yeah, that’s right. Potty talk. He didn’t make the distinction. He said a lot of stupid silly things and drove his father crazy. But then at the same time, he’s writing these operas such as The Magic Flute. We were talking about magic there. And it’s populated with all of his imaginary characters. He’s 35 years old when he wrote this. He has imaginary friends. He writes letters in which he refers to this imaginary friend, that imaginary friend. And my daughter, maybe you have children also, but we all know friends who have imagined, the children have imaginary friends. That’s a good thing to have. But Mozart, some of these minds, and Einstein was sort of the same way, too. They talked about… One famous physicist talks about the endless child-like mentality of Albert Einstein. And if you want to envision new things, this is probably a good way to do it. So I guess caveat to parents, don’t clamp down on your kid. If you think they’e being silly and immature, cut them a break, let them explore.

 

Brett McKay: And now back to the show. So one genius you explore in the book is da Vinci, and you go into depth on him to explore this idea of geniuses. One of the habits they have is they maintain an intense curiosity and a lust for learning their entire life. How did that manifest itself in Da Vinci?

Craig Wright: Da Vinci was fearless. He was interested in everything. He would climb mountains. He would dive into swamps. He would cut up bodies to find out how they worked. And okay, big deal, we have people working in pathology these days and coroners that did do biopsies, but they’re operating under refrigeration and they’re operating with air conditioning where the tissues doesn’t degenerate. Can you imagine doing this back in the 15th Century, where this doesn’t smell particularly good and you start cutting it up and this tissue is degenerating into muck. And by the way, the church thinks that this is illegal and may come along and arrest you for this, so you’ve gotta do at night when you can’t really see very well.

You’ve gotta be really interested in what you’re doing, finding about how the human body works. You’re cutting up eyeballs, you’re cutting out hearts and guts and all of this in the middle of the night under the most horrific conditions. Was that courage or was that curiosity? Did they go hand-in hand? Could he even smell the stench? Maybe he was so curious, he was so driven, so passionate by what he was exploring that he didn’t even notice. That’s an interesting possibility. So they are curious, well, another… I don’t think I got to this or maybe, I did. Yes, I think, I guess… Is that Isaac Newton when he’s working on his theory of light and color, he takes this thing called a bodkin, which is a big knitting needle, and he sticks it in his eye and he starts wiggling it around to see the effect of pressure on color perception. I’m not curious enough to want to undertake that particular task. I don’t know about you, Brett. Do you wanna try that at home this afternoon?

Brett McKay: No. I remember reading about that. Took a History of Science class and we studied in Newton. And yeah, when I read that, I was like, “I would never have done that.”

Craig Wright: Well, yeah, it must have been a really enlightened instructor there, ’cause that’s not a terribly well-known anecdote. Well, good for you. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And another thing about Newton is, okay, and sort of this connecting his idea of curiosity and how it can maybe help your main pursuit when you’re trying to be a genius. And a lot of people don’t know this about him, but he was really into… Okay, he’s the Father of Physics, basically, what we have, Newtonian Physics. But while he was exploring physics, he was also really into alchemy.

Craig Wright: Yeah. Yeah. And the occult. Now, in fairness to Newton, alchemy, back in the day, was about as close as they got to chemistry, but a lot of this wasn’t chemistry. A lot of it was just superstition and astrology and things such as that, that he was playing off of. He wanted to find a way of turning mercury into gold, so he was playing a little bit with that. He thought that this could be a real money maker, but he actually had more books on alchemy and astrology and sort of pseudo-science in his library than he had on physics. And for, I think about a 20-year period, that’s really what he was most interested in. He went over into the dark side, almost a kind of conspiracy theory with regard to.

I wouldn’t say fraudulent… Bogus, fraudulent, scientifically incorrect ideas or at least things that in the course of time had proved to be scientifically incorrect. So I guess the genius doesn’t get it right all the time. Isaac Newton got it wrong with regard to alchemy for about a 20-year period of his life.

Brett McKay: But I think the idea there is, be curious. Don’t be afraid to just… I think a lot times people think they had to stick with one thing. Well, you can have multiple interests. I mean, I wouldn’t say go start studying alchemy, so you can make the philosopher’s stone, but it’s okay to have multiple interests ’cause that can somehow… It might carry over. You might make connections you otherwise wouldn’t have made if you were just stuck to one domain.

Craig Wright: Yeah, that’s the thing. That’s the advantage of being the fox, thinking laterally in the story of the Fox and the Hedgehog, rather than going 1000 miles deep, you go 1000 miles wide. Why do you do that? Because you see a lot of stuff. Yes, you gotta pay your dues. Usually as a young person, you’ve got a good, what, maybe… If you want to be a petroleum engineer, maybe you’ve got to study chemistry very heavily in school. And then maybe go to a business school or something like that to see how the business of petrochemical production works or how oil companies ship things around the world or whatever. Yeah, you gotta learn some specifics, but actually over time, it probably would be useful to study other kinds of things.

Maybe ocean currents, may be geography, maybe weather patterns, things like this. And gradually, you broaden out your point of view. How does this give you a leg up? Why is this a good idea? I think, it’s because it allows you to combine things. If you’ve seen a lot of stuff, you have a greater chance of combining disparate things into new ideas. And that’s what Steve Jobs was always trumpeting. He said, “You know, that’s how smart people get where they get.” They just see things because they have the capacity of combining things. But in order to see things… Combine things, you’ve gotta be able to one, seen a lot of stuff, and two, have a reasonably good memory, so you don’t forget stuff. If you see something and forget it’s important or forget how it works, then that’s not gonna be much help. So, you have to have this, again, like intelligence I suppose, you have to have slightly above average memory, but that combined with a wide lateral vision can be a very powerful tool.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Speaking of Steve Jobs, like the thing, sort of the story that he did and how he was a fox and was able to combine things to make Apple was that he took that calligraphy class in college or just… I don’t know if it was even in college, I think it was just as an adult, he did it for fun and that gave an inspiration of, “Oh, we should make computers that are visually appealing and have a visually appealing interface when someone uses it.” And that’s how you got the first Mac.

Craig Wright: Yeah. And he studied zen, kind of the philosophy of it and how you think within yourself and how you stay in your zone, and how it’s possible to develop self-confidence that way. Chinese calligraphy and Zen Buddhism are not the kinds of things that you immediately associate with a computer engineer. And it’s these rather different combining mindsets from two rather different spheres of activity that allow the individual to have unusual and perhaps unique insights.

Brett McKay: Alright. So you wanna be a fox, have different interests, but also what geniuses were able to do, they were able to switch into hedgehog mode when they needed to. And so hedgehog is this idea of where you just focus on one big thing. Geniuses often did that.

Craig Wright: Yeah, they did, but sometimes it didn’t work out so well. Generally speaking, as I look at this over time, geniuses start small and narrow or they can go down deep, and then they broaden bigger out into bigger, bigger projects, whether it’s Shakespeare and the type of drama that he’s writing, whether it’s Mozart and type of opera that he’s generating or Wagner and the type of operate he’s generating or George Lucas and these big massive film projects that go on that encompass a number of volumes they’re seeing. Same thing with J. K. Rowling, a number of volumes of that sort of thing. And it doesn’t always end well for them. There’s this expression that I’ve come to be paying attention to called sunk cost syndrome, where you think…

And I suspect that Isaac Newton experienced sunk cost syndrome with regard to alchemy. You get going down a particular road of investigation. Great case here is Thomas Edison with direct current as opposed to Nikola Tesla’s alternating current. Edison started with direct current and began wiring Manhattan with direct current and it was expensive, and he was building all these generators. It turned out not really to be necessary with… You had alternating current, but he was so deeply into both the science and into the expense of it, he couldn’t cut his losses. And finally as a result of that, it cost him control of what? What was then, what was… Edison Electric which became General Electric and the bankers eased Thomas Edison out of it because he’d bet on the wrong pony there. He’d bet on direct current and didn’t know when to pull the plug.

And for so many of us in life, myself included, that’s the dilemma. You wanna be passionate. You wanna be perseverant. You wanna have grit. You wanna stick it out to the end, but supposing you’re wrong, this isn’t gonna work out. How do you know when that moment arrives? How do you know when it’s time to pull the rip cord on your great passion in life ’cause it’s just not gonna work out and go on to other things? That’s a really difficult moment, a really difficult thing to know. The only consolation is if you’ve studied a lot of things, you can then go on to something else where, if this your only pony in the race of life then you may be in trouble.

Brett McKay: I think what I was getting at with that geniuses getting a hedgehog mind, I mean, I was confusing, just being able to concentrate for a long time on a particular task or a thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re concentrating only on a single domain, but it’s just like the geniuses you highlight often are able to just… They had like these immense power of concentration. They can just sit for hours if they needed to, to really think through a problem till they got to a solution. Like you highlighted da Vinci when he was working on The Last Supper. Sometimes, he would go in and just stare at the wall for four hours and not do anything. And then he’d make just a few strokes and that was it for a day. That was work.

Craig Wright: Yeah. Or he could be over working on another project and suddenly just drop it and race across town, go up to that, in this case, The Last Supper and paint a couple of strokes there and go back to the other job. It’s just probably, he’s multi-tasking, but he has the capacity to concentrate intensely, even though physically, he may be somewhere else. It’s a very interesting case. But it’s an interesting kind of dichotomy between relaxation and creativity as opposed to concentration. And then getting the product out the door, so we wanna have these ideas that are original, maybe by combining things, maybe by having a great night sleep where we’re dreaming and we get this wonderful new idea, but how is this gonna work out? Is this machine really gonna work or what are the negatives here?

Can you think of all the reasons? Can you concentrate on how this will work and why it might not work? And just sit there for four hours and work through these kinds of things. So they go hand-in-hand in a strange way. I think that these great minds have the capacity to toggle and maybe that’s the key word here, toggle back and forth, toggle and forth between relaxation and imaginative insight and focused execution. “How will this work? Let me make this work. Let’s get this work done.” So at different stages of the creation, the process of creation, I suppose different sorts of expertises are needed.

Brett McKay: No. Yes. Often times, these geniuses kind of, they’ve figured out that they had to plan their… I mean, maybe they weren’t even planning their day, but they figured out a rhythm to their life where they’d have intense periods where they’re just thinking, working, etcetera. And then they knew, “Well, if I’m gonna get a solution to this, I gotta put that aside, go do something else, and then I’ll probably get an answer. Just popping my head when I’m relaxing.”

Craig Wright: Yeah. I think they do do that and there’s so many cases like that. That’s why if you have kids and one thing you should never say to a kid is, “Grow up.” Maybe another thing you should never say to a kid is, “Stop daydreaming and get back to work.” My mother used to say, yell that to me all the time in the kitchen where I’d be sitting in the dining room and doing my homework and clearly, not doing my homework. [chuckle] So it is this kind of tension between the two, and you have to have relaxation to give you the insights and you have to be able to concentrate to execute the insights. And in a number of different ways. It helps also to have a habit. And maybe one of the habits of genius is they have a habit. They have a schedule. Do you have the schedule for your life, Brett?

Brett McKay: I do have…

Craig Wright: In order to get your work done?

Brett McKay: Yeah, I do have a schedule.

Craig Wright: Yeah. And so, why do you do that?

Brett McKay: Well, I mean, first, with kids, you kinda have to have a schedule ’cause they have to be at school at a certain time, [chuckle] so that’s helpful. And then they’re gonna be home at a certain time. And so you gotta get the work done before they’re home and starting distracting you to hang out with them. So I mean, that’s part of the reason, but also it just gives some rhythm. I know when I wake up, “Here’s the sequence of things I’m gonna do today.”

Craig Wright: So there you are. You woke up and you say to yourself, “Well, maybe, I’ll go exercise first today, or maybe I’ll go out and garden and mow the lawn today.”

Brett McKay: No, no. I know that…

Craig Wright: “Maybe, I’ll go off to play golf today, or maybe I’ll go to work today.” No, you’re probably gonna do the same thing at roughly the same time every day, because that’s an efficient way of operating. You don’t waste a lot of time considering your options, you just go there. And once you’re in your study or wherever your work room is, or your studio or your lab, then what else are you gonna do? At that point, you can’t mow the lawn, you can’t play golf, so you’re sort of in… So, having a habit makes you a heck of a lot more productive.

Brett McKay: No. And it’s funny. I mean, I don’t think you’ve talked about this in your book, but it’s interesting to read some of the strange things that geniuses have done to get work done. There’s some writer, I forgot who it was or maybe it was a musician or… I can’t remember who it was, but when he didn’t wanna work, he would put himself in his room and strip himself naked and give his clothes to his servant, whatever, and said, “Don’t give me my clothes until a certain amount of time.” And he just wanted to be able to sit and work. I think that’s interesting. I mean, it’s interesting that you see that with a lot of geniuses.

Craig Wright: Yeah, that’s interesting. If you can find that one, send me…

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Craig Wright: Send that my way.

Brett McKay: I’m gonna send… Yeah, I’ll send that your way ’cause I’m reading… It was…

Craig Wright: Yeah. Brett, even if you have to make it up, you give us a good example of creativity and creative imagination here. Make up a plausible story, ’cause it sounds like a really good plot.

Brett McKay: No. Yeah. I know. It’s not. It’s definitely… I’ve read this somewhere. I know I’ve read this somewhere.

Craig Wright: No, no. I’d love to hear about it. ‘Cause that’s what I’ve missed.

Brett McKay: Something we haven’t talked about that I think people have this idea of genius is that geniuses tend to have some sort of mental illness. When you studied the lives of geniuses, did you find that connection?

Craig Wright: Yeah. I think… Yeah, let’s call it mental discords. They’re kind of…

Brett McKay: Sure.

Craig Wright: Somewhere off-kilter with the rest of the population. But remember, geniuses are supposed to think outside the box. Geniuses are not ordinary people. They don’t have the typical mindset. So if this manifests as some kind of seeming psychic disorder then that’s not entirely unexpected. And people, I’m no expert in Psychology, and I’m not a psychiatrist and no training in this whatsoever. But there are people, Nancy Anderson at the University of Iowa, Kay Jamison at Johns Hopkins that have written extensively and well about this particular topic and what they see is a correlation between mental disorder and particularly, artists, top of the list are poets and writers. Poets at the very top, as sort of… We won’t… Alright, so we can call them imbalance, let’s say imbalanced. A mental imbalance with poets and writers, musicians and painters, and on it goes. And once we get to the scientists, not so much. The idea of the mad scientist may be something of a fiction of some semi-disordered writer. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Well, that was Mary, the Frankenstein lady.

Craig Wright: Yeah, Mary Shelley.

Brett McKay: Mary Shelley.

Craig Wright: She created the… That’s absolutely right here. She created the archetype of the mad scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, but she was a writer. She was not a scientist. So scientists have a much lower factor of psychic disorder compared to the other sorts of artists. And there are lots of interesting questions about that, how it worked out. And so oftentimes, it works out by way of an advantage. Deafness was an advantage in a strange way to Edison. And what did he invent? The phonograph, so we could hear things. Beethoven’s music is so revolutionary, in part because he was hearing the world differently. We mentioned Isaac Newton. He probably was autistic, maybe Asperger’s. We don’t really know, and obviously, Asperger’s has been backed out of the autism spectrum. But the point is that he could really, really concentrate in an almost maniacal sort of way that seemed totally clueless with regard to personal empathy.

So there are characters and they have these special personal characteristics, and it’s interesting to note how oftentimes they seem to intersect with a different creative vision of the world. What role trauma plays in this is very interesting to note, to think about, a kind of psychic trauma. Is having a happy childhood… Dylan Thomas said, “The only thing worse than having an unhappy childhood is having a too happy childhood.” In other words, you’re not gonna be a creative spirit if you had a very happy, unblemished sort of well-centered childhood. I don’t know that that’s true, but it’s a very interesting theory. And it’s interesting to think about all of the individuals over the centuries who lost a parent at a very early age, whether it’s Bach or Virginia Woolf, or Picasso lost a sister, Tesla lost his older brother, all as children. Mozart loses his mother at an early age. Beethoven, I may have mentioned Beethoven’s mother. He had to go back and help raise the younger siblings. So that’s interesting and it’d be worth having somebody pursue that a bit more.

Brett McKay: Another thing with genius you explore in the book is, do geniuses have happy personal… Is there a cost to being a genius? And a lot of these geniuses we’ve talked about, they did significant work that’s impacted the lives of millions, billions of people, but if you look at their personal lives, oftentimes, I think with a few rare exceptions, it was a mess. Family life was in discord or they’re just not happy.

Craig Wright: Yeah. They seem to be happy in their own world, but they bring discomfort and unhappiness around them, generally speaking. There are a few exceptions. I can’t say that I would say that about Bill Gates. One hears about Elon Musk and his antics. One reads about Steve Jobs and his behavior. What a… They would… Well, we can’t say this on the air, anything like this, but he was called lots of names. And the quickest way to make the point is to say that the biography of Steve Jobs was the only biography I have ever read where there’s an index entry under the title, Despicable Behavior of. And so, that’s the kind of… That’s Walter Isaacson’s book, a biography of Steve Jobs.

So those are some of the kinds of issues in play here. The problem is that they’re so obsessive, they’re so one-tracked in getting the job done. They may be peripheral thinkers, but they’re not gonna rest until they’ve changed the world, whatever their vision of a changed world may be, that everybody else is kind of roadkill, collateral damage as they race forward to change the world. They are not empathetic characters with their colleagues, with their co-workers, and most of all, they’re not empathetic with the family members, their wives, their spouses, husbands, children of the genius.

Brett McKay: What do you hope people walk away with thinking after they finish your book?

Craig Wright: That’s a good question. I think it surprised me what people walk away thinking. I hope they walk away thinking, “Hey, I read this book and I’m gonna start leading my life in many different sorts of ways. I’m gonna be not so worried about my kid’s grades or SAT scores. I don’t really care if they get into Harvard. They could go to the University of Oklahoma and still… ” And there’s nothing the matter with the University of Oklahoma. I was actually born in Oklahoma, born in Lawton, Oklahoma, Fort Sill. So I think there are a lot of misconceptions here, and I hope I’ve allayed some of these misconceptions or exposed some of these misconceptions, and allow parents to allay some of the fears that they may have about failure and all of this sort of thing.

I hope they come away thinking that, “Hey, I could lead my life very differently with regard to relaxation, and I could turn relaxation into a way that makes me very productive and very creative.” I think what they say, ultimately, what I’ve been surprised by is the following. People read this book. I thought they might come to me first and say, “You know, I never thought of a genius quite like that,” or “I learned so much about… And I’m gonna become… I think I can become a genius.” What they say is, “You know, I really like this book because of the stories of all of the lives here. These are very, very interesting people.” So in a strange way, this is like reading 100 great novels on extracting the high points of a number of maybe as many of as 100 human stories here relevant to exceptional human accomplishment. And maybe that’s why I’m a humanist rather than a scientist. It’s not so much the specifics that interest me, but the people that are the geniuses that interest me.

Brett McKay: Well, Craig, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Craig Wright: You can go… Just go to Amazon, which is a creation of Jeff Bezos, a genius, par excellence, changing the world for all of us every day. If we needed proof of how a genius changes things, we need only go to Amazon and buy Craig Wright, The Hidden Habits of Genius. It comes in hardcover, it comes in a Kindle edition, it comes in audio format. And you can also go to a public library and get it there, too. I was pleased to even walk in my little local bookstore the other day, and there it was sitting on the shelf, so I think it’s available in virtually everywhere. And thanks very much, Brett, for asking about that.

Brett McKay: Okay, Craig Wright. Thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Craig Wright: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me again, Brett. Appreciate it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Craig Wright. He’s the author of the book, The Hidden Habits of Genius. It’s available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, craigwrightgeniusmusic.net. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/genius, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you could think of. And if you would like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you could do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com. Sign up, use code “manliness” to check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

 

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