How do geniuses come up with ideas? What is common to the thinking style that produced “Mona Lisa,” as well as the one that spawned the theory of relativity? What characterizes the thinking strategies of the Einsteins, Edisons, daVincis, Darwins, Picassos, Michelangelos, Galileos, Freuds, and Mozarts of history? What can we learn from them?
For years, scholars and researchers have tried to study genius by giving its vital statistics, as if piles of data somehow illuminated genius. In his 1904 study of genius, Havelock Ellis noted that most geniuses are fathered by men older than 30; had mothers younger than 25 and were usually sickly as children. Other scholars reported that many were celibate (Descartes), others were fatherless (Dickens) or motherless (Darwin). In the end, the piles of data illuminated nothing.
Academics also tried to measure the links between intelligence and genius. But intelligence is not enough. Marilyn vos Savant, whose IQ of 228 is the highest ever recorded, has not exactly contributed much to science or art. She is, instead, a question-and-answer columnist for Parade magazine. Run-of-the-mill physicists have IQs much higher than Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, who many acknowledge to be the last great American genius (his IQ was a merely respectable 122).
Most people of average intelligence, given data or some problem, can figure out the expected conventional response. For example, when asked, “What is one-half of 13?” most of us immediately answer six and one-half. You probably reached the answer in a few seconds and then turned your attention back to the text.
Typically, we think reproductively, that is on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past. When confronted with problems, we fixate on something in our past that has worked before. We ask, “What have I been taught in life, education or work on how to solve the problem?” Then we analytically select the most promising approach based on past experiences, excluding all other approaches, and work within a clearly defined direction towards the solution of the problem. Because of the soundness of the steps based on past experiences, we become arrogantly certain of the correctness of our conclusion.
In contrast, geniuses think productively, not reproductively. When confronted with a problem, they ask “How many different ways can I look at it?”, “How can I rethink the way I see it?”, and “How many different ways can I solve it?” instead of “What have I been taught by someone else on how to solve this?” They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly unique. A productive thinker would say that there are many different ways to express “thirteen” and many different ways to halve something. Following are some examples.
13 = 1 and 3
THIR TEEN = 4
XIII = 11 and 2
XIII = 8
(Note: As you can see, in addition to six and one half, by expressing 13 in different ways and halving it in different ways, one could say one-half of thirteen is 6.5, or 1 and 3, or 4, or 11 and 2, or 8, and so on.)With productive thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can. You consider the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches. It is the willingness to explore all approaches that is important, even after one has found a promising one. Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.)
How do creative geniuses generate so many alternatives and conjectures? Why are so many of their ideas so rich and varied? How do they produce the “blind” variations that lead to the original and novel? A growing cadre of scholars are offering evidence that one can characterize the way geniuses think. By studying the notebooks, correspondence, conversations and ideas of the world’s greatest thinkers, they have teased out particular common thinking strategies and styles of thought that enabled geniuses to generate a prodigious variety of novel and original ideas.
Following are thumbnail descriptions of strategies that are common to the thinking styles of creative geniuses in science, art and industry throughout history.
GENIUSES LOOK AT PROBLEMS IN MANY DIFFERENT WAYS.
Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken. Leonardo da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Einstein’s theory of relativity is, in essence, a description of the interaction between different perspectives. Freud’s analytical methods were designed to find details that did not fit with traditional perspectives in order to find a completely new point of view.
In order to creatively solve a problem, the thinker must abandon the initial approach that stems from past experience and re-conceptualize the problem. By not settling with one perspective, geniuses do not merely solve existing problems, like inventing an environmentally-friendly fuel. They identify new ones. It does not take a genius to analyze dreams; it required Freud to ask in the first place what meaning dreams carry from our psyche.
GENIUSES MAKE THEIR THOUGHTS VISIBLE.
The explosion of creativity in the Renaissance was intimately tied to the recording and conveying of a vast knowledge in a parallel language; a language of drawings, graphs and diagrams — as, for instance, in the renowned diagrams of daVinci and Galileo. Galileo revolutionized science by making his thought visible with diagrams, maps, and drawings while his contemporaries used conventional mathematical and verbal approaches.
Once geniuses obtain a certain minimal verbal facility, they seem to develop a skill in visual and spatial abilities which give them the flexibility to display information in different ways. When Einstein had thought through a problem, he always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible, including diagrammatically. He had a very visual mind. He thought in terms of visual and spatial forms, rather than thinking along purely mathematical or verbal lines of reasoning. In fact, he believed that words and numbers, as they are written or spoken, did not play a significant role in his thinking process.
One of the most complete descriptions of Einstein’s philosophy of science was found in a letter to his friend, Maurice Solovine. In the letter, Einstein explained the difficulty of attempting to use words to explain his philosophy of science, because as he said, he thinks about such things schematically. The letter started with a simple drawing consisting of (1) straight line representing E (experiences), which are given to us, and (2) A (axioms), which are situated above the line but were not directly linked to the line.
Note: This diagram is an approximation. Einstein’s original sketch is in the Albert Einstein Archives, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.
Einstein explained that psychologically the A rests upon the E. There exists, however, no logical path from E to A, but only an intuitive connection, which is always subject to revocation. From axioms, one can deduce certain deductions (S), which deductions may lay claim to being correct. In essence, Einstein was saying that it is the theory that determines what we observe. Einstein argued that scientific thinking is speculative, and only in its end product does it lead to a system that is characterized as “logical simplicity.” Unable to satisfactorily describe his thoughts in words, Einstein made his thought visible by diagramming his philosophy’s main features and characteristics.
A distinguishing characteristic of genius is immense productivity. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents, still the record. He guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music. Einstein is best known for his paper on relativity, but he published 248 other papers. T. S. Elliot’s numerous drafts of “The Waste Land” constitute a jumble of good and bad passages that eventually was turned into a masterpiece. In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Dean Kean Simonton of the University of California, Davis found that the most respected produced not only great works, but also more “bad” ones. Out of their massive quantity of work came quality. Geniuses produce. Period.