Talent and genius

I have been reading about talent and genius over the last month. Both the New Scientist and National Geographic magazines have focused on these themes recently. One of the most interesting aspects is that many of those we refer to as having huge talent or being a genius (e.g. Einstein, Edison, Newton) have many similarities. Men of European origin. The stereotypes endure. A study published by Science found that girls as young as age six, are less likely than boys to say that members of their gender are ‘really, really smart’. Even worse, the study found that girls act on that belief and begin to avoid activities said to be for children who are ‘really, really smart’.

Some minds are so exceptional that they can change the world. We don’t know what exactly makes extraordinary people soar above the rest of us, but science offers some clues. In fact, the truest measure of genius is whether a person’s work resonates through the ages. An example is Michelangelo’s ‘David’ in Florence, Italy. Michelangelo took and used a block of marble discarded by other sculptors and 5oo years later admirers continue to flock to view the 17ft tall statue. Another example many readers might recognise is the work of the German-American Psychologist Kurt Lewin. Lewin is famous for his theory on organisational psychology (freeze, unfreeze, etc). His work only began to gather momentum a few years after his death and continues to be talked about and referred to by today’s academics.

No single factor

Even though it is possible to go to The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia today and view slices of Einstein’s brain, unfortunately they reveal little about the physicist’s powers of cognition. No one has yet discovered a single source attributable to being a genius and probably never will. It seems, however, that there are certain characteristics that contribute such as intelligence, creativity, resilience and good luck. Lewis Terman, the Stanford University psychologist who helped pioneer the IQ test, discovered that intellect alone is no guarantee of success. Notable breakthroughs would not be possible without a generous helping of creativity. Latest thinking has captured how so-called ‘aha moments’ that come when one is in the shower or taking a long walk come during periods of relaxation or contemplation. A great plug for taking holidays and getting away from the workplace. Rex Jung, a neuroscientist, describes how the brain cultivates internal thought processes during down time, which can include daydreaming and imagining.

Age and achievement

One interesting aspect in my reading has been the correlation between age and achievement. In 1953, psychologist Harvey Lehman published what remains the most comprehensive study on this topic. His research illustrated when out-standing achievement is most likely by discipline. Noteworthy examples include:

  • Chemistry: Marie Curie discovered radium in her early thirties.
  • Theatre: Shakespeare wrote Hamlet when he was in his early forties.
  • Novels: Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dellaway’ was published when she was in her early forties.
  • Psychology: Sigmund Freud’s work on Psychoanalysis was developed by the time he hit forty.
  • Music: Bach’s Cello suites were developed during his twenties and Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 during his thirties.
  • Film: Charlie Chaplin began his first U.S tour aged just twenty-one.
  • Mathematics: Terence Tao won the prestigious Fields Medal at the age of thirty-one.

The high point of ones’ career can depend on your chosen discipline and how soon you master it.  Of course, there are many examples of individuals waiting a lifetime before their work is recognised, as well as my earlier point about Lewin.

Countless psychologists have attempted to answer the question of whether there is such a thing as innate talent. Whilst the obvious is yes, it is not quite that simple. For example, a fascinating study was led by K. Ander Ericsson in the 1990s. As a session bass player in my  spare time, this intrigued me because the location for the study was Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. The sample group included stars, the ‘good’ and those unlikely to ever play at a professional level. A significant finding emerged from the study. This was that in order to make it into the elite category, any innate talent had to be underpinned by hours and hours of effort through practice. The average number of hours was 10,000. When you take a long hard look at somebody who achieves something great, it is never effortless. Success is hardly ever achieved on the first attempt. The phonograph and light bulb were just two of Edison’s thousands of inventions. So, it seems that my parents were right all along. There is no substitute for hard work.

Never alone

People who succeed alone are incredibly rare. Dean Keith Simonton researched biographical dictionaries for mentions of relationships among 2,026 scientists and 772 artists. He found that each had developed their own web of connections including collaborators, apprentices, admirers, co-workers, friends and mentors. Most humans want and need to interact with each other. We become members of groups such as Cubs and Brownies in our younger years. This continues throughout our life. As we get older, however, we become more selective about the types of group to which we want to belong. Often the choice is made by thinking about who shares a common interest and therefore might be able to understand the journey that I am on.

The mission to disentangle the origins of talent and genius are unlikely to ever conclude. There is so much more to understand about the brain, the way we are made and how we think. For those who occupy roles in the Talent function, your jobs are likely to be safe for some time to come as the exploration period has a long way to go. Hopefully, the next stage will uncover more of an insight not just about those names we all recognise but about what there is in all of us that might lead us to discover our own potential for talent and genius.


Clive Lewis OBE DL is a Business Psychologist specializing in employee and industrial relations. He is CEO of Globis Mediation Group.

Helen RobinsonCareer