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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/23/2009

SPOTLIGHT: Geniuses--Born or Made? Rare or Common?

By Valerie Strauss

The annual naming of recipients of the MacArthur “genius” awards has come and gone--and, once again, there was not a grant for me.

Twenty-four extraordinary people won half a million dollars each--with “no strings attached”--from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Though true genius is supposed to be exceptionally rare, the foundation found two dozen in one year, in the United States alone. And 25 last year. And 24 the year before that.

Are geniuses a dime a dozen?

I checked on how the recipients are selected and discovered that the foundation doesn’t actually call them “geniuses.” The press does.

Winners are chosen for their exceptional creativity, a record of significant accomplishment that promises important future advances, and the potential for the grant money to help them with their creative work.

Among the winners this year: a papermaker reinvigorating the art of hand-papermaking, a photojournalist chronicling the human condition, a novelist, a painter, a short story writer, a filmmaker, an applied mathematician.

(Not an education blogger in the bunch.)

The “genius” awards are always big news in the greater Washington area--the most educated in the country--where many folks are enamored with their own brilliance and that of their children.

A mother once complained to me that her child’s elementary school--one of the best in one of the best public school systems in the world--had no idea how to challenge her brilliant daughter who understood the concept of infinity at the age of 4.

I asked some rocket scientists--real ones--if they understood infinity at the age of 4, and some of them said they didn’t understand it as adults.

In fact, Brian Muirhead, the aeronautical engineer who managed the Pathfinder mission to Mars for NASA, dropped out of college and was a Mercedes mechanic before turning to engineering. Astrobiologist Pamela Conrad said an 8th-grade teacher told her she was stupid.

I decided to find out a little more about the nature of genius and sought out Dean Keith Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis and an expert in genius, creativity, leadership and aesthetics.

Here are my questions and his answers:

Q) What exactly is a genius? Do you have to be an Einstein to be a genius?
A) The IQ definition: According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a genius is someone with an IQ of 140 or higher. This definition is rather arbitrary. Not just number, but the idea that there exists a test that can provide a meaningful score for everybody - a one-size fits-all measure. But notice that by the IQ definition you don’t have to be an Einstein to be a genius. Marilyn Vos Savant is an IQ genius, but no Einstein.

The exceptional achievement definition: Someone who comes up with ideas or productions that are both original and exemplary - models of achievement that others admire and even imitate. This a definition that fits Einstein, albeit you don’t have to have a genius that supreme to be considered a genius.

Q) Isn’t the word ‘genius’ overused?
A) Yes, I think it’s overused. It’s sometimes applied to domains that don’t really demand originality. For example, it’s stretching the term to call Tiger Woods a golf genius. Tiger has tremendous skill and talent, but you do not need to be original to win the Masters. You just have to be very, very good at driving and putting.

Q) What’s the difference between being brilliant and being a genius?
A) I don’t know what you mean by "brilliant." If you mean a high IQ, then it depends on the definition, no? If you mean that a genius has to be someone who is extremely witty in conversation and able to converse on an impressive range of subjects, then the answer is no. A lot of geniuses can be absolute bores outside a very narrow area of expertise. Like many mathematical geniuses.

Q) Are geniuses born or can they be made? In other words, can I do anything to make myself a genius?
A) Both born and made. You can’t become a genius without a tremendous amount of work. You have to acquire sufficient expertise in an achievement domain to know what you’re talking about or what you’re doing. You cannot acquire such expertise in most domains without have a certain level of intelligence and considerable drive and persistence. And these traits are to a certain degree genetic. If you’re born "stupid and lazy" forget about earning a Nobel Prize in Physics!

Q) Name a few geniuses that we all would know and explain what makes them geniuses. Is Bill Gates a genius or just someone very smart and lucky?
A) Bill Gates probably satisfies both definitions, so he’s an easy case. There’s no doubt that he was very smart and that he produced work that was original and exemplary.

Stephen Hawking would be another example. However, not all geniuses would necessarily score 140 or higher on an IQ test. This is especially true in the arts. Frank Gehry is an unquestioned architectural genius, but he may or may not meet that dictionary definition. The same holds for a great filmmaker like [Steven] Spielberg.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 23, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  | Tags:  genius, i.q., intelligence, macarthur foundation  
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It is a horrible injustice that you were passed over for a "genius" grant. This post was, indeed, "genius".

Posted by: bethesda3 | September 23, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

What did Bill Gates do that was "original and exemplary"? Traff-O-Data might be original, but no one even remembers it now. Gates used Harvard's computers to write an emulator for the machine that ran his first BASIC interpreter, but by that time this wasn't all that original. BASIC was well known by then, and language implementations were well known. Microsoft bought their MS-DOS product from someone else. Their main product in the early days was language compilers for IBM mainframe languages (at IBM's request). I'm having trouble of thinking what he did that qualifies.

I guess you could say Gates' #1 contribution to computer science was the fact that BASIC was the main personal computer language by default, instead of Forth or something, stunting generation after generation of would-be programmers. Not the sort of thing you want to be known for.

Posted by: scott59 | September 23, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

You should do a similar column interviewing experts who study "gifted" students, such as those at the SMU Gifted Students Institute.

The population of geniuses, by definition is very small. The population of gifted, by definition, is not as small, but still a unique group. The population that could be in either group is likely greater than the number of people actually labeled as genius or gifted because they were not developed or led toward their gifts as children.

Posted by: doglover6 | September 23, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

"... and all the children are above average."

Posted by: KS100H | September 23, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

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