The Uses of Genius

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was raised with the myth of genius.  I think most of us were, right?  Otherwise the reverence given people like Leonardo DaVinci would make no sense at all.  Or for that matter, the reverence given great artists, writers and musicians.

This might be worse in science fiction and fantasy.  I have heard from older authors that the best story to win awards is one of a misunderstood young genius.  (In light of recent events maybe that was a thing of the past, but all the same.)  Of course they also said to make double sure it should also have a cat.  Never mind that.

In my family the myth of genius was odd, because I think I got it second hand.  My parents were both if not smarter, more intellectually curious than most of their family (admittedly not my brilliant – and insane – maternal grandfather.)  What this meant is that they reached further than their family culture would take them, and they were aware there were people who got there quicker, easier.  Being generous people and rather devoid of envy, they attributed these people’s great strides to genius instead of attributing this to what we’d call “A more advantaged background” (What twaddle we talk these days, as though advantages existed midair, without being advantages towards SOMETHING.  Running very fast is not an advantage towards being a pianist, for instance.  Of course, what we mean by “advantaged” is rich, and that’s even sillier.  Oh, sure, if you want to attend an ivy league college it helps to have the money and the contacts, but if you want to make your way in the world, it can be a disadvantage.  Heinlein said something about not handicapping your children by making their lives too easy.  And he was right.)  So they both seemed to have this bizarre idea – incidentally fostered by the books they read and movies they watched – that true genius needs no teaching, it just is.  You know, Samuel Clemmens sending in his very first piece over the transom, and suddenly Mark Twain stands there, fully formed (don’t ask me.  This was literally how my father told me the story.)  A young Mozart seeing a piano for the first time, and playing like… Mozart (yes, I know, but I actually watched the movie that gave them that idea.)  Or the endless succession of twenty to ten year old Hollywood movies which were the fare in Portugal on Saturday afternoons where you know, the bumpkin from the country wonders in to the musical theater, opens her mouth and she IS the star.

I won’t go into how counterproductive this myth is, because that’s a whole article in itself, and I’ve talked about it before.  Let’s just say that the first time I sent a story out and it came back rejected (even though it also came with a free magazine, so I could see why it didn’t fit, and a note asking me to submit again) I decided that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer.  Or at least I wouldn’t be really good at it, so what was the point?  It took me five years and an obsessive inability NOT to write to get over this and submit again.

I’d like to think that was my insanity, but in fact, I keep running into writers who feel that way, so it must be a cultural thing.

So… to return to the point – the myth and the truth of genius.

Last week, just before the stomach flu landed, we went to see the exhibit DaVinci Machines in Denver.  It is fascinating, if you are near enough to go see it – or if it comes near you – but I strongly advise you NOT to follow the guide, because if you’re like me, in addition to wanting to strangle him about half a dozen times, you also will start having very odd ideas.

To begin with, let’s establish that Leonardo DaVinci was probably a genius.  Probably even an unmatched genius, in painting and in mechanical contrivance.

Probably, Sarah, are you high?

Well, almost certainly in painting.  At least I like his stuff (very generous of me, I’m sure.)  I’m simply not qualified to tell you how much of a leap it was over what was being done before him.

And mechanical?  Well… maybe.  His machines are of course fascinating and one keeps thinking of the limits of invention, when not supported by materials and the right moment, but that’s something else.

One of the bizarre things the guide said was that no one knew why DaVinci made these sketches of machines.  (Rolls eyes.)  I do.  It’s because at that time, part of the painter’s job was to create splendid artifacts for his patron.  These artifacts were mostly created for parades and display – in other words, their purpose was awe and pomp, not actual utility and not changing everyday life.

DaVinci’s sketches – and to the extent they were built, his machines – were almost certainly for this purpose.  And we simply don’t know what he was building on, because most other artists didn’t leave us such exacting sketches of the machines (which they might have considered the most important part of their work.)  To this day we wouldn’t know of DaVinci’s bicycle, if an apprentice hadn’t sketched it.

But let’s even establish that DaVinci’s machines were an enormous leap over everything that was made before.  They might have been.

If you look at genius square on, that would be the use of genius.  Heinlein said (The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress) that this type of genius, who can come up with an idea that no one else would have and lead civilization up one wrung comes up every so often in human history; that looking back one can see an almost mathematical progression – but one can’t predict it.)

At an evolutionary level, that would be the advantage of genius for the species, then – the ability to make a big leap and a big difference in some field that changes the way the species lives and makes it easier to get on.  Because, let’s face it, I’ve known geniuses.  Real ones.  (Though never one who could perform without learning, but never mind.)

Real genius – as opposed to simply being very bright – is by and large a handicap for the poor creature born with it.  For one it doesn’t extend across every field of human endeavor, but is usually highly concentrated.  Let’s say DaVinci’s ran to machines and painting, not unlikely, since engineering and visual intelligence are often co-existent.  We don’t in fact know if he could tie his shoes (for some reason geniuses have issues with this.  No, I don’t get it either) or cook his own breakfast, or if his singing voice made people flee the room with hands over their ears.  But that would be the way to bet, from other geniuses we know.  Also most true geniuses sit “crosswise in the world.”  If you read the history of people who were identified as being on the top 0.01% of IQ (and leaving aside for the moment how IQ is measured and how it applies) it’s grim.  Not only were most of them not successful, most of them are not functional.  And while this might be merely my impression, when I researched the matter, I retained the impression that most of them end up as recluses in a tiny room filled with rubbish.

However it could be one of those traits that while it is bad for the individual is good for the species, because just once in a long while everything aligns and the genius meets his moment and pulls humanity up a wrung to more comfort or better survivability, and thus is himself successful in passing on his genes, which will in turn go on to spawn a million misfits, and one lucky, just in time guy.

In that sense, Leonardo DaVinci was, in fact, a failure.  Oh, I have no idea if he passed on his genes.  The biographies make is sound unlikely in the extreme, but both sexuality and the recording of such moments were far more fluid in his day than ours, particularly in the painting class which was considered a sort of not really respectable demi-monde.  (Interesting to consider, for those who think Leonardo DaVinci was one the greatest genius humanity ever produced – he was an illegitimate child, born of the son-and-heir of the locality’s “important family” and the local slut.  Both his father and mother went on to have other children who left no trace in history.  Today, of course, he would almost certainly be aborted.  In his case it made no difference – probably – in terms of leaving a genetic inheritance for humanity.  But it makes one wonder.  Also casts strong doubt on the weird idea we have that being “wanted” is the determinant of anyone’s worth or right to be in the world.)

But I mean he was a failure because other than beautiful art (and I’m not knocking down the art’s ability to elevate the world) he did precious little to improve or even change the way everyday man lived.  Most of his inventions remained un-built, and might have been intended that way.

So, why was it, that I found the guide blathering on about Leonardo’s wisdom and his moral opinions?

It’s been a while since I’ve researched DaVinci (About ten years) so I don’t remember in fact whether his writings were seriously anti-war,  (other than a reflexive “yes, yes, very sad” and the pity of a conventional man of the time for the suffering caused) or even if his machines and contrivances were designed to help make war briefer and less chaotic.  (As my son pointed out a lot of the “war inventions” were in fact more suited to the sort of theatrical war that was part of pageants in those days.  Say the moveable  wood  parapets built into the wall to prevent siege ladders from pushing against it.  It would be a lovely contrivance in a quickly built wooden castle, say, love’s castle, being stormed by the knight’s of lust, or whatever – the sort of thing they did in that day.  How the spectators would ooo and aaah.  But put it in real war…  It would work once.  MAYBE.  After that they would not put the ladders up against the wood parapets.  And it might not work even once, because builders would be involved, and they’d talk, and in the city-states of Italy at the time, someone’s cousin would tell the other side.)

However, here was the guide telling us, with a sort of moral authority inherent in the fact that DaVinci was a genius, that he was anti-war.  The very strong feeling is that all of us should be anti-war.  (This is the moral equivalent of being anti-food.  Yes, we’re all anti-war in principle.  But it depends on the war, doesn’t it?  And the civilization that wants to survive cannot be uniformly against war, just like the person who wants to survive can be anti-sugar or anti-fat or anti-processed-foods, but can’t declare himself anti-food.)

May I say this idea that even if Leonardo were anti-war we should therefore also be anti-war, because he was a genius and we aren’t is, of course, arrant nonsense?

Yes, the wars of the time were often arrant nonsense too – but then we’re not there and we can’t judge.  And here’s the thing, even if DaVinci were as brilliant as everyone says he was, he couldn’t judge either.

His métier and his genius were confined to painting and machinery.  How would this make him a genius in economics, psychology or that dangerous game of one-upmanship that guaranteed survival for leaders and their cities at the time?  It wasn’t his job, and considering everything else he was doing, how could he know enough about it.

Take me – I’m no Leonardo DaVinci at any level, and my concerns are more pedestrian.  However, I’m very busy writing in several fields, in addition to looking after a family and the other quotidian concerns of living.  I draw and paint as a hobby, and I did study history of art way in pre-history, but at this point I can’t tell you how or why Leonardo was a genius in painting.  I can just tell you my untutored eye believes so.

“But Sarah,” you’ll say.  “He was a genius.  So he could learn more in a shorter time.”

Maybe.  My experience, again, is that geniuses are highly concentrated and motivated mostly by their interests.  I don’t remember when I studied his biography coming across a time when DaVinci’s interests strayed to economics or politics, or the study of war.  For one, if one were not of the right class, all of those could be lethal interests in his day.

So, why would we listen to what he has to say with rapt attention, or think he has some sort of moral pronouncements to make on things where his genius didn’t touch?

I think it’s something left from childhood.  We’re raised with people around us knowing so much more than we do.  That is, to an extent, the basis of our security.  And as adults we want to believe the same.  Let someone do wonderful things in one field, and we’re willing to assume they must be above us in all fields and capable of guiding us.  It gives us security.

But it also leads to very silly things, like painters (or writers, or musicians, or actors, or for that matter economists or computer-company-founders) thinking they have some sort of universal wisdom to impart and other people thinking it’s sane to follow them.

Do I know how to stop this?  Not a clue.  But I do wish it would stop.  It’s not only very silly – it is profoundly dangerous.

Mind is not morality.  Genius is never universal.

Genius has its uses, but being our mother and our father is not one of them.

In the world of adults, each of us must always muddle on alone.  There is no all-seeing, all-knowing superman to rescue us from having to think.


97 responses to “The Uses of Genius

  1. Never trust a genius commenting outside his field of expertise.

  2. And, while you didn’t mention it , it lends credence to the blatherings of actors and singers who should keep their mouths shut about things they don’t understand . Like politics, or innoculations, or damn near anything else these idiots ramble on about

    • As Alice Cooper said, shortly after saying he supported Romney, only an idiot would listen to a rock star when deciding who to vote for.

  3. Posting twice so as to not conflate two unrelated musing on the article. I am one of the very bright ones, though I doubt I come anywhere near the genius level. I have always been a little wistful that I couldn’t have been born average or a touch slow. My observations of life show that the less bright you are , the happier you are

    • Oh, I don’t know, Sanford. I was one of the very bright, too, and I can remember very vividly when I was ten years old and changed schools (all-girl schools, both), and my new socially-normal schoolmates decided the I was very strange indeed for reading so many books and so quickly, and enjoying it, too. (And they were all older than me.)
      There was a moment when I could have decided to go along and not delve publicly into the “life of the mind,” not try to defend it in the teeth of indifference and some malice. I was in fact dismayed that no one else was willing to admit liking books.
      I remember, as if it were yesterday, weighing that decision process. My ten-year-old response was, basically, “Fuck it. I’m damned it they’re going to tell me not to think, or at least pretend not to.”
      I assert that is a temperamental response (I was and remain a fundamentally stubborn character). I knew at the time it would make me lonelier and make it harder to find friends I could talk to. I didn’t waste a lot of breath worrying about it, though. In the most fundamental way, it made me happier in the long run.
      Life is what it is. Trying to game it by giving up in some fashion doesn’t make you happy, and “bright” is its own reward, if you let it be. I had two classmates who adopted camouflage instead until they became what they imitated, and I always thought them cowards, and very sad.
      There are genius types with strong characters, and ones with weaker ones. It’s character that makes you happy or not with your choices, not brains.

      • I would not have changed myself. The idea of being another slow witted type scared me. Being injured and losing my wits while being able to remember what I was is my biggest nightmare. Still doesn’t keep me from envying those who are content because they know no better

        • The younger kid — the one who is a 99.9 percenter — had massive head trauma at four. (Look, I was vacuuming. He was talking to his brother. We were supposed to go out to eat as soon as Dan got home. LITERALLY two minutes, and me in the next room. I hear a clunk. Genius thought it would be a good idea to balance on the edge of the claw-tub in stocking feet. this was the culmination of increasingly odder emergency room visits. I think it was the age.) Both the psychologist and the doctors who dealt with this think while he’s recovered a lot, it definitely caused permanent brain damage. Considering where he is and the trouble it’s caused, I wonder if it’s one of those “Good that comes out of bad.” Not that I don’t wish it hadn’t happened. BUT…

          • The moving finger writes, and having writ flips the world the bird.

          • Wayne Blackburn

            If you ever feel guilty about that happening during the couple of minutes when you when you weren’t looking, don’t. I whacked my head right in front of my mother. I was playing at 2 years old by standing on my parents’ bed and falling backward and bouncing. I got too close to the foot of the bed and hit the back of my head directly on the foot board. Not as serious as the one you describe, and I have a very hard head, so it didn’t really hurt me, but it certainly scared them to death.

          • The neurological community has finally admitted (after 45+ years) that I suffered permanent brain damage from a boxing accident while I was a cadet at the AFA. Other than giving me six months of headaches at the time, and multiple headaches since about 1985, I can’t tell if there’s any other difference or not. The headaches come from the neck, damaged by the whiplash action from the accident. I’ve taken multiple tests for just about anything academic, and still score in the upper 2-3%.

        • My biggest nightmare too– which has happened to me– I have learned to live through it. Plus I write better now in some ways than before. (chemo if you want to know is the culprit)

      • I had forgotten Flowers for Algernon. Scared the hell out of me as a teen

        • Flowers For Algernon was the first book given me at school that I read at one go. For some reason I was handed it in English, as an alternative to Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and did not stop until I was done — as a dyslexic it was an entirely new experience to have a book so capture me and to find that I had blown through like that.

        • Wayne Blackburn

          Me, too. We only read a short story from it, to just after he discovered what happened to Algernon, and I only recently found out that he died in the original.

          • My oldest daughter played one of the parts in the play the Little Theater group presented in Wiesbaden, Germany, back during my second/third tour there. It made me read the entire book. Definitely thought-provoking.

            As an aside, we read “Death Comes to the Archbishop”, by Willa Cather in high school. I’ve since read “My Antonia” and a couple of others she wrote. I like her books, although they can be a tad tedious in a place or two.

  4. Good grief! Don’t you understand that the beautiful stars and geniuses of the world are special. So while everyone should be assured of an equal out-come, because no one is any better than anyone else, we need to listen to these people when they affirm this because they are special.

    (White Queen thinking, I guess, at which I am not very good. Where is Dash when you need him?)

  5. After hearing too much about the Da Vinci that the French guide (at Ambois) wished had been at the court of Francis I, I wonder if (aside from his art and a few of the more practical machines, notably adapting the Archimedean Screw to lift water more efficiently), it is because no one could break the code in his notebooks. That the notebooks survived is one thing in his favor, and then to have designed nifty-looking stuff and have taken notes in code, wow! He must have been brilliant! If he was anti-war it was probably because 1) all Christians are supposed to be opposed to most wars, and 2) war drained money that could have been spent funding his art.

    There was, I should note, a cat sleeping in the middle of one of the beds at Ambios when I walked through, which does lend credence to the feline-contagion theory of genius.

  6. I’m also one of those that rate “very bright” or “near-genius”, and it screwed my life up royally a few times. For one, I didn’t have to study to get good grades, so I didn’t develop good study habits until I was 30 years old. I also sometimes make very ODD connections out of miscellaneous data, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union (I predicted it at work in 1988, and was given a royal dressing down by my “betters” for making such a stupid statement). I’ve always been “fairly good” at a dozen different things, learned things easily, and was able to do things without a lot of formal training. That attracts a lot of very negative attention.

    I’m not sure in my case how much heredity played a part. Both of my parents would have been labeled “odds” if such labels were used when they were in their early years. I learned a lot from both of them. I wish I remembered more of what my dad taught me when I was young. Today I do what pleases me, which is write science fiction. I hope to branch out into murder mysteries soon, though.

    • Bad study and work habits here too, Mike. I’m way better than I was in my youth, but there are areas where I could still use some improvement – nowadays I can be pretty diligent with stuff I like to do, even if I reach an impasse with something I can stick to it, but I still tend to slip, at least part of the time, with what I don’t like to do.

      The big problem was right after I finished school and started in university. I had gotten used to being able to get good average grades without really working for them in school, but that didn’t fly anymore in university. And it took me several years to start learning away from that. Which is the other half of the reason why I ended dropping out without a degree. The seasonal affective disorder wasn’t so bad during the early years of my adulthood that it could have prevented me from graduating, by itself, but I wasted those years by trying to learn those good study habits. And when I finally started to get that part under control the SAD was getting bad enough to be an actual problem by itself. Of course because of it I probably would not have been able to keep any of the jobs, not for long anyway, I might have been able to get with that degree so I don’t know if it really matters all that much in the big picture, but I have to admit the whole thing has always annoyed me.

  7. you wrote:
    “Genius has its uses, but being our mother and our father is not one of them.
    In the world of adults, each of us must always muddle on alone. There is no all-seeing, all-knowing superman to rescue us from having to think.”

    That’s the point! Some people want someone else to do their thinking for them. They don’t like thinking. It’s difficult. Some people must have ovine DNA, all they want to do is what everyone else is doing. They have no opinion of their own.

  8. “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” — Thomas Edison

    Even is someone achieves genius is one field and even if they were inspired in all fields, they simply don’t have time to put in the 99% perspiration outside a very narrow range of topics.

    • I would prefer an average child with a logical mind and plain ole’ common sense. Geniuses quickly lose the ability to ask “why?” since they think they know it all. As a former teacher, I constantly lament the loss of curiosity in young people. It’s why we are now a nation of lemmings headed off the cliff.

      • Actually — I don’t know when you stopped teaching — but I watched this with my kids. They didn’t lose curiosity. It was beaten out of them by a process similar to mind-washing.

        My kids resisted it. It caused no end of trouble. They learned to stop showing resistance, came home and ranted at will.

        • I had this conversation with one of the assistant professors in my accounting department about 1990; she observed that the group I had entered with was the last they’d seen that asked questions and involved ourselves with the material. Later groups only seemed to ever ask but one question: “Will this be on the test?”

          • My psychology professor begged me to go into the bio-psychology tract because as a writer and thinker I was heads above the average student. I was 39 at the time. I think that it was a good thing that I didn’t do it. I was sick two years later.

        • Wayne Blackburn

          Then you’ll have the ones like me, who didn’t really ask the questions, just read a lot. I may have learned not to ask the questions, because I always wanted to know the around-the-corner things that most teachers weren’t likely to know, anyway.

          Even today, I frequently want to know things that I can’t find, even on the Internet, though I will admit that I simply don’t have the patience to go to some of the forums where people may be who know the answers and ask, then wait for an answer, because many times, it takes 5-10 clarifications before I can GET an answer, since everyone seems to assume that I’m asking something else.

          • Then of course you have the students like me, who had a plethora of esoteric information, and loved to introduce it when it was tangental or especially if it was a contradictory exception to what was being taught. I always liked to get the teachers reaction 😉 The teachers who didn’t know the subject anymore than the lesson they were currently teaching would either argue with me, or get flustered and not know how to explain it. The others usually would give a reaction that went something like, “well yes of course, but that’s not what we’re teaching today, and YOU’RE CONFUSING THE REST OF THE CLASS! Let them learn this, and then we’ll deal with what your bringing up.” Very occasionally I would get the teacher who knew what I did and would end up going off on a tangent instead of teaching the intended lesson.

            Any reaction was acceptable to me, but I REALLY liked the teachers I could get flustrated to the point that they didn’t know what to do 😉

        • I was expelled from 4th grade at my parochial school (which was a literal convent school) for “excessive insolence”. The specific instance had a lot to do with my asking, in response to discussions of Genesis, about things like dinosaurs and the fossil record (not in so many words, of course, at 9).

          My parents, to their credit, didn’t give me a hard time about it and just moved me to another school, so I went from refusing doctrinaire brainwashing to the social school where I refused socially correct low-poppy brainwashing for another 8 years. (Did I mention I was stubborn?)

          When I was older and more sophisticated, I always thought the nuns had missed their opportunity by not offering me one of the standard retorts, that “God created the world complete with the fossil record as a test of faith”. I wouldn’t have believed it, but I wouldn’t have been able to refute it for years. That would have lowed me down. 🙂

          • Actually — I don’t know how old you are — but by the time I was in RE, the standard response was “the days referred to are G-d’s days and this is an allegorical account. You want the scientific, exact discussion, go ask a biology professor.”

            OTOH the FIRST question/answer of the catechism now resonates a lot more with this adult writer: “Why did G-d create man? Because he wanted to love us and be our friend.”

            The theology of G-d as the Author progresses apace 😉

            • Even such authors as Augustine and Jerome regarded it as a symbolic account, long before Darwin came along.

              • When you consider the implications of a Deity who is external to the Time Dimension(s) these issues become rather more confusing for the sequentiality-locked mind. If G-d is outside Time then he can create across Time and insert his inventions into the Timestream.

                If you have a child (or a long-standing relationship) you do not perceive that person as they are at present; you see them instead as a culmination of a process, you see them in-depth through the Time Dimension.

                The concept of G-d existing outside of Time has been explored by philosophers and theologians for centuries now.

        • I stopped in the 90’s. It was Cali and the “self-esteem” was so bad it was impossible to correct a student without getting backlash from the parents. That, and the other teachers would treat them like babies (it was elementary level) and explain we couldn’t expect much from them. Every time I tried to challenge the students I managed to get in trouble. At some point you just quit–many, many other teachers just left the profession and now… Well, we know what we’ve got now.

  9. My father was ODD and my mother is not. I was “very bright.” Most of my sisters 3 were normal and my youngest sister is a Downs Syndrome child. My brothers are all bright in their fields, and one maybe just under genius level. Since chemo I really miss thinking and the connections I used to make when my brain was in working order– it was the greatest loss (I have had many) in my life.

    However– I agree. I have met at least one (maybe two) geniuses and they had to be fed, clothed, etc because they had no means to care for themselves. If there wasn’t a woman or caretaker around them, they would starve to death. We might even find some of our geniuses in mental institutions. IMHO idiot savants and geniuses have a lot in common.

  10. I’ve always tested really really well, and I started doing so in elementary school. I still remember the sea change in how I was treated after taking that battery of assessment tests – basically overnight I went from from being another one of the vast herd of tail-end-of-baby-boom second graders to “the principal knows who I am (in a good way).” I got enough of a kick out of that recognition that I ran with it, got on the “gifted program” track, and experienced a lot of the negatives described by others here, from poor study habits to socialization issues to a tendency to have a somewhat narrow focus. I ended up studying aeronautical engineering and ended up in the semiconductor industry.

    My next younger brother, on the other hand, decided early on he wanted nothing to do with any gifted program, so he sandbagged the assessment test. He never had any problems keeping up in school, but was careful to never stand out academically so as to avoid impacting his social status, ended up doing more normal things like playing HS football and dating, studied business in college, and proceeded to build a career in telecom.

    I read widely enough to keep up in technical conversations with friends who are astrophysicists or astrobiologists or historians, and if you ask me anything in my areas of expertise or interest I think I have input that is relevant.

    My brother knows his expertise areas solidly, and does just fine outside of telecom when he decides he doesn’t need to obscure his intellect. He does, however, have better social skills to this day, and also has a very finely honed reflex of ducking into cloak that I lack.

    In my schooling, business, and personal life, and looking at my brother’s alternate choices, I think that Japanese aphorism about the nail that sticks up getting the hammer is pretty much correct.

    So what is the evolutionary selective benefit of “genius”, or at least of “brightness”? I think, as Sara mentions, it’s basically speed of learning. I’ve been thrown in the deep end in business more than once, and the only thing that saved me was that fact that I’m really quick coming up the speed on new stuff. As long as bright individuals are somehow immunized in their upbringing to over-analysis brain-lock, I can see a real across the board individual and societal advantage to being quicker on the uptake than the average person, even if for social status reasons that capability is disguised.

    And sometimes, you happen to get very pretty paintings.

    • My mother used to brag about my Stanford Binet score until we learned she made it up. I’ve never seen the results of any intelligence tests and I question their utility at indicating anything more than an aptitude for intelligence tests. I don’t think intelligence is so easily quantified.

      If asked, I generally tell people my IQ is 85 but I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

      • That’s where taking “office aid” courses pays off – working one period per day in the school office, if one were stealthy enough one could gain access to ones own official paper files and see ones actual test scores and private teacher notes.

        At least, that’s what I heard from someone. Once. I certainly never did that.

        Note that that horrible occurrence is apparently widely known in the education biz to scar individuals for life, as getting access to ones own IQ testing is pretty much the most heavily guarded information there was in the records.

        Or at least that’s what someone told me once. Certainly no direct personal experience here. Besides, the statute of limitations is certainly expired by now.

        • Ok, my schooling was weird. I went to the “other” high school, the one on BOTH the wrong sides of the tracks. I attended the same school, in the same buildings, for 12 years (no K back then). I had high school teachers that ranged from the “eh” to one that was a Rhodes Scholar, and a handful that had PhD’s (I didn’t learn that was exceptional until later – much, much later. I also learned that several of our teachers had “personality quirks” that kept them from teaching at “better” schools. Who cares, our group benefited.). We were also the first of the “baby-boomers”, born in 1945-46. The school was segregated then, but it drew from a very large, mostly-rural, mostly low-middle-income area. Things began to go slightly hay-wire (for the school district, not for us) in fifth grade, when we were all given the first state-wide “assessment” test.

          45 out of 140 tested in the upper 5%.
          23 out of 140 tested in the upper 1%.

          We were all given IQ tests (Probably Stanford-Benet) early in 6th grade. We were given a different IQ test at the end of the school year.

          We were given the Iowa Test for Educational Development in 7th, 9th, and 11th grade. Results were pretty much like the 5th grade level. The upper 2/3 of the class was given the SAT test in 12th grade. We had four people max them (1600 points). Mine weren’t that impressive, but I got an appointment to the Air Force Academy. BTW, I graduated 46th out of 133 students with a 2.96 GPA. Remember, poor study habits. I could easily have had a 3.5 or higher if I’d worked at it. Out of 133 graduates, at least 50 were offered some kind of college scholarship. This was 1964!

          Strangely enough, there was another class like mine, in 1976. Hasn’t been one since. One of my high school classmates is a psychologist. Her assessment was it was a fortuitous combination of time, place, and people, and she was greatly surprised it was repeated in 1976. One-third of the class of 1976 had a relative graduate in 1964.

          Trying to pin-hole people will make you crazy.

          • I made sure I stayed above a 3.0 GPA, because that kept my car insurance rates down.

            Poor study habits? What are study habits? I took a variety of gifted classes, but bounced in and out of some of the gifted programs, depending on if I liked the teacher or class better in the non-gifted classes. While I took a lot of gifted classes, almost all my friends were in the normal classes and probably around 50% of my friends never even graduated. Yeah, socially I didn’t fit in in the gifted programs, and had a tendency to look down on my fellow gifted classmates for being stupid, because they either had to work (ie study) at getting good grades, or they were totally lacking in common sense and what was to me important common knowledge; like how to jury-rig a junker rig so it would get you home.

  11. Also re needing a Genius Ubermensch to save us all: The worst boss I ever worked for was likely the brightest and definitely the most highly educated. The least productive least competent individual contributors I’ve ever worked with were PhDs from very high status private universities.

    Since business (i.e. financial) success is now fully discounted as a means of screening for potential political leaders, we are left with academic success (which I KNOW does not select for the ability to do ANYTHING practical) and political office holding (in which category I include attaining high military rank).

    In flying, there is a concept known as a graveyard spiral. Normally, when flying straight and level, if you pull back on the control stick or yoke, the plane’s nose pitches up and the plane goes higher. Thus if one finds oneself descending and one wants to halt that descent, one pulls back on the controls. However, if the plane is banked in a descending turn, pulling back on the controls only tightens the turn, which actually causes the plane to descend more rapidly. The pilot needs to first stop the turn by rolling back to wings-level, THEN pulling back on the controls to stop the descent.

    If success at political office holding is the only means left to select for political office holders, we’ve achieved full circularity and full positive feedback, and the current spiral is fully predictable. Looking for “successful” or “genius” political office holders to give them higher political offices is basically pulling back harder on the controls of state – it’s only making things spin faster.

    There needs to be an attitude correction first so any correction is actually applied in a direction that won’t make things worse.

    • Handing over control of a sailplane to a first-flight teenager with the single instruction “Keep the yaw string straight” can also result in some unusual flight attitudes.

  12. This post is mis-titled. Better it should have been called “The Abuses of Genius.”

    What you described about Da Vinci is a sub-category of those abuses: The Genius As Dancing Bear.

    During the Second Punic War, the Roman attempt to occupy Syracuse and prevent it from assisting Carthage was (almost) single-handedly defeated by the inventions of one man: Archimedes. Was Archimedes a genius? His contemporaries certainly did not believe so; they sneered at him as a second-rate intellect, incapable of pure reason. “Archimedes is so dumb, he has to experiment to figure [stuff] out,” they would sneer. And, of course, Archimedes was not anti-war, else why did he build so many war machines?

    Socrates was probably a genius. He was also a noted soldier. Alexander certainly displayed genius, as arguably did Genghis Khan. Undoubtedly George S. Patton was a genius. I don’t think any of those geniuses were anti-war.

    So this particular Dancing Bear was anti-war? Big whoop. I wager he was also a racist and sexist (although probably not a homophobe) — does that mean we should adopt Da Vinci’s views on those matters, as well?

    I doubt anybody ever asks that idiot guide to support his reasoning about Da Vinci being anti-war. It is, at its base, an endorsement of a historical character as “enlightened” because he shares one of our modern prejudices. It no more makes the Dancing Bear right than it makes our present day prejudice enlightened. Da Vinci’s genius is as relevant to the argument as the presence of the moon in the Seventh House and Jupiter’s alignment with Mars.

    • I think I remember reading something during all my Rennaissance History classes that both Michaelangelo and Da Vinci were employed at some time as war engineers. I know both designed roads and bridges and worked on siege engines. That was part of “patronage” during that time in history: you were hired to do certain things, which basically boiled down to whatever the man paying the bills wanted.

      • Wayne Blackburn

        There was a show on one of the science-type channels a while back (can’t remember which one), where they went and built a bunch of Da Vinci’s machines. Some of those things were more terror weapons than war weapons! The one that was pushed by horses, so that the machine protected them, and geared to swing arms tipped with scythes was evil-looking. Worked well, too.

  13. As to how society values genius, do some research into the lives of child prodigies and the results will be depressing. Typically their “heights” are not much greater than their non-prodigy peers, they just arrive there sooner and with less effort — and with far more ego and greater burden of expectation. They often have not learned how to work their way through difficulties and “burn brightly but briefly.”

    You want the wisdom of genius? I give you Theodore Kaczynski.

  14. If society truly valued genius we would regard it bluntly and objectively. It is a talent, like the ability to throw a baseball accurately at great speed. In itself that talent is unimportant and its possessor is not equally endowed with unrelated attributes such as courage, wisdom or moral virtue. It does not entitle its possessor to any special deference nor privileges other than those earned by mastering a unique skill and employing it for the benefit of the larger society — and in such instance is is not the talent but its productive employment that merits reward.

    An argument is valid or invalid in itself, and depends not on whether its arguer is genius or idiot, saint or sinner. If an argument cannot be put forth “in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the … stand we are compelled to take” then the status of its proponents will not enhance the argument nor make it more valid.

  15. Technically, I fit the “genius” definition. I’m another of those who coasted through school, and kept coasting through my first college degree because I didn’t hit anything hard enough that I HAD to work at it until my third year. This is not a good time to try to learn good study habits.

    Add in becoming the metaphorical punching bag for every kid at or near my grade in upper primary school (about middle school – when I was between about 9 and 12 years old) and trying to rebuild my personality because it was obviously something about ME that was wrong, and well…

    You get an interesting mess. The amazing thing is I have managed to become moderately functional. I can feed myself and tie my own shoes (although I prefer to leave them tied, but that’s more to do with the body’s tendency to treat every last calorie as precious gold than because I can’t tie them).

    Maybe I could have been more something, done more something. I don’t know. What I DO know is that kids like me get a seriously raw deal from all directions and usually end up as screwed up adults. Those here who haven’t, I congratulate you. You got lucky.

    The equivalent of that Japanese comment about the nail standing out is “tall poppy syndrome” which is savage in the teen and pre-teen years, and equally vicious in Australian general culture (unless you’re good at certain sports). I see it applying to general American behavior, too, although again, certain areas have exemptions. If you’ve got the good fortune to be insanely talented in those areas, you get the kudos. If your talents lie outside said areas, you’re a dangerous freak.

    This is why I have to constantly watch myself and remind myself that it’s not done maliciously, and that most people are not like me. Otherwise I’ll become a bitter misanthropic bitch.

    • I am not a genius by any definition. I had to do it the hard way. I came by my status as a screwed-up adult by dint of difficult, diligent effort and sweat.

      • Heh. Congratulations on your hard work, Rusty. It does indeed take effort to become a screwed up adult if you don’t already have a leaning that way.

      • Ditto. BUT I can tie my shoes. They just don’t stay tied. Which is why G-d gave me velcro.

      • I’m considered “fairly well adjusted”, except for a propensity of thinking of really NASTY ways of doing away with small portions of the world’s population. I blame that on my work in Vietnam, designing ARCLIGHT boxes and doing the post-attack bomb damage assessments. An ARCLIGHT strike is a weapon of mass terror — I was 35 miles from the one I experienced and I STILL wanted to wet myself.

        I can’t do EVERYTHING Heinlein listed in “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long” about specialization (spaceships haven’t been developed yet, and by the time we get to that timeline, computers will be voice-programmed, not data-coded), but I can accomplish successfully quite a few of them. The rest just requires proper training — the amount of training depending on how well I feel at the time. That’s why I like this group of commenters: most of you are not only ODD like me, you’re also fairly intelligent, can hold a decent conversation on a multitude of subjects, and a few of you even make me feel a tad bit inadequate at times — forcing me to apply myself and continue to grow intellectually. Thank you. (That goes double for our gracious hostess).

        • I don’t know, I suspect some type of keyboard-like data entry to be around for quite a while. Unless you have a subvocal mic voice-programming can be highly inconvenient for anything you don’t want others to overhear (as well as being distracting and annoying when several people are working in a limited space, such as I suspect would be the case in most spaceships)

    • I have two extreme talents– camouflage and mayhem. Since I have known since I was really young that I was a mayhem talents, I kept my temper and myself under a tight lease. I could see several moves ahead when it came to people and situations. Funny– you’d think I’d have a talent with chess– NOPE.

      Anyway, Kate I have learned that keeping my mouth shut was the best thing I could do in ALL situations. It seems that I either get pounded (by family mostly) or expected to solve all problems (while I was in the military).

      • I’ve got the ‘keep mouth shut’ part sorted these days. Chaos magnet just happens. The trick I’ve yet to figure is to work at a level that meets normal productivity expectations without looking like I’m doing buggerall.

        I haven’t heard from the former employer about how much extra people are needing to do with me gone, but I expect to from the people I know there. The employer before that, they had to hire FIVE people to replace me. And I was just doing what I thought needed to be done. Go figure.

        • The only way I had to lower my productivity was to get really ill with a chronic illness. I don’t advise that to anyone– friends or enemies. So you have me there.

          • It sounds pretty horrible – my productivity happens despite being narcoleptic, so I guess you’ve got to have a really ugly chronic illness for that method to work.


            • Have you heard of Wegener’s Granulomatosis? It is Vasculitis disease and I have been on chemo and prednisone for close to ten years to keep it under control. Yes, it is a pretty horrible disease.

              • Oh, that sucks royally. I’m sorry you’re stuck with that, Cyn. It’s a hell of a weight to carry.

                • I have had almost ten years to get used to it. But yea, it sucks royally. I think that my hubby is the one person who has kept me going– literally.

          • well… this year I can’t brag about my productivity. BUT let me tell you, I get really tired of people assuming my writing must be cr*p because… “There’s so much of it.”

            Mind you, six books and homeschooling make fur a very bad year. I think I’m STILL recovering from that and it was 4 years ago.

            • Oh well that is the myth of writing. I was reading something from Dean’s page and it really hit home. A professional writer writes. A hobby writer dabbles (paraphrased). So I don’t think your writing is cr*p. In fact since I read Darkship Thieves, I am really interested in dipping my toes into your shifter series.

            • I wrote two books this year, and finished up a third I’d been working on for THREE YEARS, so I can truthfully say I know how you feel, at least a bit. I very much want to read “Darkship Thieves”, and I want to read “Gentleman Takes a Chance” after reading “Draw one in the Dark”. I read for two reasons: to be entertained, or to be enlightened. Your writing is definitely entertaining, and occasionally also enlightening, especially your blog!

        • I was extremely fortunate, Kate, in finding a field in the Air Force that suited me to a “T”, and provided me with not only the basis of several civilian jobs, but also some unbelievable experiences along the way. My job with computers would have lasted as long as I had wanted it to if the damage from earlier in my life hadn’t ended that route. My problems aren’t as bad as Cyn’s, (thank God!), but they do lay me up now and then.

          • You were fortunate – at least until the other problems started to bite. I’m getting there, and mostly doing okay although sometimes the hanging on by the fingernails thing gets a bit old.

            Sometimes I think the best thing for us oddlings is to find somewhere that suits us and is able to accommodate our weird quirks. That seems to help with the worst of the issues that come from not really fitting anywhere.

            • Or do like I did, I work with equipment, any misunderstandings or arguments can be fixed with a hammer and some new parts

              • Almost any problem can be satisfactorily addressed by the proper application of a big enough hammer. 🙂

                “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Miranda Lambert

              • That was one of the things that was so much fun in my software test job — I got PAID to try to break computer programs (actually, I was testing the ability of my company’s proprietary SCSI adapters and software to handle data in a multiple-operating system environment, but that’s way too technical and not half as much fun to say — and doesn’t require hammers.).

    • I hit the study-habit wall my first year in college. I barely made it through attempting to learn learn study habits in addition to college-level first year calculus, chemistry, all the general ed coursework junk, and my engineering school core courses. What saved me was testing out of all lower division english classes via the AP exam, so I only had to write about half of what I would have.

      In my case, I think as a result of spending far to much time interacting with adults when I was a kid due to the whole “gifted” thing, my adjustment was to withdraw. In college I lived at home and commuted daily, working a job on campus, so I simply didn’t participate in those non-classwork college interactions that would have A) completely nuked my GPA, and B) actually introduced me to life among my peer group.

      And re Cyn’s comment below – by far my biggest hurdle in life was figuring out that I didn’t need to impress people with what I knew. Learning to just be quiet (and listen) was probably the hardest thing I ever learned.

      • Any time in college is a bad time to learn study habits. By then it’s simply assumed that you know all this stuff and there’s no room to learn it.

        I withdrew too, although my basic method was to become “invisible” – to the extent that unless my classmates needed something spelled (yay, me. The walking dictionary) I didn’t really exist.

        For me one of the hardest things has been – and still is – moderating the “instant on” switch. I can seem completely disinterested until something hits my interests, then it’s like the word fountain went into overdrive. I’m still not too good at controlling that one.

        • Wayne Blackburn

          Heh. Walking dictionary here, too. I had an advantage on the invisible front, though: I was told (long after we met) by one of my first college friends that I looked, “too dumb to play football”, and that he assumed that I was lost when I walked into the Physics class.

          • They’ve taken to calling me Markipedia at the Patch Factory. I keep trying to tell them I just always guess at the answer, even if I don’t know it for sure. But they’re not buying it.


            • I get treated as the walking encyclopedia at work, too. It got old and I finally quoted Ashleigh Brilliant at them.
              “There are things that have been known for thousands of years that I don’t know yet.” They still come and ask me stuff. *sigh*

          • When older son was in football, he was followed halfway home by a little guy making fun of him and telling him that unlike “you dumb football jocks” the little guy was smart. Robert was taking the hardest classes he could find, and acing them at the time.

      • I got very lucky. Portugal had a tradition of arranging forms (a form is a group of people — in my year 34– who goes through every class together) by ability. My brother — 10 years older — was in the “guide form” all through high school.

        Well, I hit it in post-revolutionary Portugal when such discrimination had been abolished. They didn’t test IQs, (They barely tested knowledge for a couple of years before that. In sixth grade, some classes, the class got to vote on each person’s grade. My brother had that in college.) They insisted everyone was exactly the same.

        High school starts in 7th grade there. … after 7th grade, we came back to find a bunch of us had been reshuffled and taken out of our “normal” forms and everyone we knew.

        What happened is they took everyone they considered “trouble” — the question askers, the ones who worked ahead, the ones who contradicted teacher — and stuck us in two forms. (We also had the highest grades from the year before in the forms we’d been in.)

        Then they put a form (mine in 8th grade) in the old carriage house (in a classroom with no windows) and the other in the attic, in a tiny room at the end of an expanse of broken furniture (mine in 9th grade.) THEN they gave us all the teachers who asked too many questions, didn’t come to workers’ meetings, etc.

        I’m going to guess they thought we’d be each other’s punishment.

        Instead, I got the most intensive two years of schooling I’ve ever had. Very free form in a way: the teachers after they figured out we worked well that way, would assign us topics, let the students research and present, then test the class on it.

        Why it was lucky — I couldn’t coast. The moment I entered that form I realized I wasn’t a precious snowflake. Teacher asked a difficult question, I waited to let no one else answer, and by the time my hand went up EVERY OTHER HAND WAS UP. Shock of a lifetime.

        So 8th and 9th grade, I learned to study and developed work habits. Which served me well in later life.

    • Wayne Blackburn

      Otherwise I’ll become a bitter misanthropic bitch.

      You say this like it’s a bad thing…

  16. Anytime someone starts talking about “genius” or its kissing cousin “talent”, I’m reminded of Howard Tayler’s fantastic “Talent? Who Needs Talent?” It changed how I looked at the world as few things have. Genetic input does not guarantee a given output where humans are concerned; there is a big question of individual choice. I reject determinism in all its forms, and in that Howard is one of my heroes.

    • The way I see it is that “talent” is nature’s head start. If you have talent you’ve got a head start in that area compared to people who don’t. What you do with it is your call.

      “Genius” you’re in another race, as it were. Genius is the dog in the dog races who figures out that he can catch that danged rabbit if he hops the fence and cuts across the field. The problem there is that genius generally breaks the game of life as played by everyone else, not always in a good way. It’s usually focused to a relatively narrow field or set of fields: Einstein was a professional level violinist, but beyond physics and music he wasn’t much chop (There are a lot of cross-relationships between music and physics, so much so that music can be thought of as a peculiarly abstract form of physics). Mozart was a phenomenal musician and composer (two quite different skill sets) but not all that good with money. And so it goes.

      My skills lie largely in the chaos magnet realm: writing is one way to find the underlying order in the chaos I attract. Software testing is another. I used to be a decent trombonist but I’m horribly out of practice. I still love music and will inflict my singing on others if I’m happy enough. Outside that, I freely admit I can’t add up worth a damn (but have no issues with calculus or algebra – my brain sees those as “puzzle” and goes off into happy-land), my interpersonal skills are… lacking, and I’m not at all good at anything to do with working with my hands.

      Of course, I also know better than to advise anyone in the areas I know I’m bad at.

    • I’m in the category of having talents and knacks for things, but I am not anywhere near genius. I’m too scattered, which is part of why I went into the academic subfield that I did: you have to learn geology, climatology, ecology, some botany and zoology, along with all the history stuff. Alas that jobs for generalists are harder to find now days, although I suspect that may be changing soon. Not necessarily for the better in terms of workload versus pay, but changing.

      • What do you teach, TX? It sounds like something I’d LOVE to get involved with. The most interesting class I’ve taken in 45 years was the one on Geomorphology I had through the University of Maryland European extension.

      • Apparantly WP didn’t like the comment I made this morning 😦 What I attempted to say at that time was that while I’m not sure about in academia, but in general a generalist is much better suited for finding employment than a specialist. Specialists usually get paid better, and if they are specialists in an in-demand field many times they can practically write their own ticket. But if their field is swamped with specialists, or technology changes and their specialty becomes obsolete, well finding work is tough, and even if they have a job they may be let go, because their specialty is no longer needed. The generalist on the other hand, may not get paid as much, but if they have a variety of skills they are competent at, their options for employment are much better, and if their current job becomes obsolete, their employer is much more likely to keep them on and simply change their job description, than they would a specialist

  17. Wayne Blackburn

    I never learned the “myth of genius”, either from my parents or from reading. After reading this article, I suspect it’s because I didn’t learn it in my early formative years that it didn’t embed itself from reading. I am pretty sure that nothing I read early on had any characters like that. I have seen books and movies or TV shows where someone is the type of genius who does something like sit down to a game of chess for the first time and beat a Master level player, but always put that in the same category as having feathers float in a vacuum.

    As I mentioned the last time Sarah brought it up, I’ve always seen Talent as being able to learn something more easily, and Genius as being able to go far beyond the norm in whatever subject(s) is/are the focus of the person’s genius. I would even say that it’s possible that a genius may not even have a talent in that area, though that’s unlikely, because he would probably tend to see, at least in part, the possibilities of what he has already learned before learning the next steps.

    • You lucky boy. I went to a preppie brat academy (Walnut Hills High School, if you’re interested). We were told and told and told that we were the elite and were going to run the world someday. (Some of us even are.) It warps a kid to hear that from, like, age 12 on. Seriously warps him. I read Flowers for Algernon and get the screaming willies. But still… There’s a wistful sense of wondering what it would be like to be normal, if only for a brief moment in a long slide into darkness.


  18. My school district file contained two notations:




    I also hold the record for widest gap between “schoolwork grades” (almost entirely As and Bs) and “citizenship grades” (on a scale high-to-low of “[E]xcellent; [S]atisfactory; [N]eeds Improvement; [U]nsatisfactory; I polled mostly Ns and Us).

    As to the uses of genius: Tested genius-level IQ — at the last job interview I took, I was told straight-out: “I’d hire you, but you’d have my job in six months, and I’m not looking to leave just yet”. So, any job I’m going to hold, either I run the show from the off, or I’m self-employed; because I Do Not Play Well With Others (mainly because they are such complete imbeciles >:) ).

  19. *does a wee search* claims the “Da Vinci bicycle” is a hoax…
    *falls into with interest*

    Oh, right, theme… We are doing our best with our Very Bright Kid to make sure that she knows that, eventually, she’ll need study habits. (She’s starting to already; doodling around and only glancing up occasionally is now insufficient in her math class!)

  20. Ms. Hoyt, more than one biologist has noted the striking degree to which human beings retain into our breeding age the characteristics of immaturity (youth). This longing for a variation on mum and dad, which takes many other forms besides (over)veneration of genius, would seem to be part of that process.

    The evolutionary argument would be, I believe, that the signature feature of immaturity — plasticity, the capability to learn and change — is so valuable in humans that the drawback of bringing other features of immaturity along, willy nilly, is worth it. And natural selection, being evolutionary rather than revolutionary, always, had no choice but to do it that way.

    If we were (or could now be) intelligently designed, then we might imagine we could retain the plasticity and enthusiasm of youth, but cast off the vague belief that someone can (or should) take care of us. It is an interesting philosophical question of whether that is actually logically possible — whether those two qualities can in fact be neatly separated.