There’s a lot to learn ingenious efforts

Phil Castle

I’ve long wondered what makes geniuses so … ingenious. 

How could DaVinci possibly have envisioned his remarkable inventions so far ahead of his time? What enabled Mozart to compose such magnificent music? Where did Einstein draw his inspiration to develop his theories on relativity?

For that matter, how, oh how, did Bill Watterson cram so much creativity, humor and insight into a comic strip about a hyperactive kid and his toy tiger?

Perhaps the more important question for the rest of us poor schmoes is this: What can we learn from geniuses and the way they approach their work we can apply to own lives? If we can’t be geniuses, are there ways we can achieve at least to some degree their levels of prowess and success? 

That’s a desirable aspiration for everyone, including business owners and managers as well as the editors who cover their efforts. Perhaps if I were able to harness at least a portion of the power of genius, I wouldn’t struggle so much to write this column. 

Craig Wright explores this very topic in his book titled “The Hidden Habits of Genius: Beyond Talent, IQ, and Grit—Unlocking the Secrets of Greatness.” A music professor at Yale University, Wright also taught a popular course there on the nature of genius.

After reading Wright’s engaging book, it’s tempting to offer answers about geniuses and their habitats. But as Wright writes about the first session of his course, he insists students chant an important mantra: “There is no answer. There is no answer. There is no answer.” To the question of what makes geniuses geniuses, Wright responds the same way: There is no answer.

For starters, there’s considerable disagreement over what constitutes a genius. Intelligence and talent are involved, but there’s more to it than that. Wright quotes the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “A person of talent hits a target that no one else can hit. A person of genius hits a target that no one else can see.”

By that definition, DaVinci and Einstein certainly qualify. But so does Jeff Bezos, who envisioned in the growing use of the internet and inefficiency in driving from store to store to buy goods what became the largest e-commerce marketplace in the world.

Genius also depends on what’s tested, Wright notes. Here he quotes Einstein: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.”

Wright offers his own definition of a genius as someone of extraordinary mental powers whose original works or insights significantly change society over time.

As unique as they are, there are some commonalities among geniuses — what Wright considers their hidden habits. Among them: work ethic, resilience, originality, imagination, curiosity, passion, preparation and obsession. 

While Wright has long studied geniuses, I’ve long observed business owners and managers. There’s some encouraging news to report in that geniuses and entrepreneurs share many of the same traits.

Let’s start with work ethic. Just as there are no lazy geniuses, there are no lazy entrepreneurs — at least any that have achieved success.  Edison — both a genius and entrepreneur — famously proportioned genius as 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Geniuses and entrepreneurs are driven to work hard, often because they see a problem they want to solve, a better product or superior service. Moreover, geniuses and entrepreneurs tend to be competitive. They want to be the best.

Add to the drive to succeed a curiosity to understand how things work and a lust for learning. Queen Elizabeth I studied three hours daily because she knew knowledge really is power. Entrepreneurs rule over business kingdoms because they’re curious about how their industries work, kind out and then use that information to their advantage.

Geniuses and entrepreneurs also succeed because they see things differently and aren’t afraid to challenge conventional thinking or the status quo. Think Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to genius. As Wright points out, geniuses can be jerks, too caught up in their pursuits to worry much about what others feel. The same can be said for some entrepreneurs. Steve Jobs comes to mind. It’s been my experience, though, successful entrepreneurs are successful because they’re good at relating to others. They have high expectations, but also bring out the best in those with which they work.

Wright makes a couple of other points in his book about the habits of geniuses — follow a daily ritual for work, find ways to engage in such creative forms of relaxation as a hot shower or long walk and get a good night’s sleep.

I’m no genius. I don’t even play one on TV. But I’d like to believe I’m at least smart enough to learn from ingenious efforts, including those of geniuses and entrepreneurs.