Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

Is There Really a Genius in All of Us?

While David Shenk's "The Genius in All of Us" hits the mark in so many ways, it also misses the mark in important ways. Read More

There are a couple of major problems in studing geniuses

One, there are too few of them and they vary in so many dimensions that it's hard to isolate one or few factors that distinguish all of them from the rest. One problem related to this is that researchers sometimes overlook the ordinary people that hold same characteristics but didn't reach any genius level. For example, it is said that genius people often work or think about a problem for years before they reach their eureka moment. But what about all the people that also think about a problem for years and never get any new insight about it?

Two, it might be that only genius people can have a better understadning of themselves and it's hard for us, the ordinary people, to study them. We don't have the tools or the perspective to even imagine what is like to be a genius.

What is genius?

Scott: Thanks for raising these points. Gladwell's books - which I also appreciate if for anything their storytelling brilliance - also fall into this category.

On one hand, these books do shed light on what does make certain stand out - i.e., the outliers - among others of their ilk. It's skill, intelligence, grit, character AND possibly when you were born, who you happened to know and befriend, where you grew up. Those factors help us appreciate the complex factors that do make up a 'success' recipe - which is far more complex than the Americana maxim of "Just pull yourself up and work hard" alone. It also does do justice to dispelling the idea that great work is performed only exceptional geniuses (quite the contrary).

On the other hand, the popular literature often dilutes the word 'genius.' We seem insecure in the fact that some people really do have superior intellects and superior gifts in certain fields. How much more hopeful, again in an American sense, to think we're all geniuses. Or that we each have a little genie inside of us that inspires us to brilliance. The word sells well, but it dilutes the fact.

What recent studies would you point us to to understand the nature of genius?

Re: What is genius?

Jeffrey, thanks for weighing in, and I completely agree with everything you just said!

I don't like using the word "genius"-- I prefer the term "greatness". By far, the best book on this topic is Dean Simonton's class "Greatness: Who Makes History and Why":

Very Best,


Hi Jeffrey,

I also agree with almost every word you say, and if you get a chance to read my book, you'll see that I also strongly prefer the term "greatness," which I use over and over again. I am guilty of using the word "genius" in the title (as Simonton did in at least two books), partly as a way to attract an audience ("greatness" simply falls flat in a title), but more importantly as an affectation meant to bring the reader to a larger point: that the real genius in all of us is the very design of the human genome -- built to adapt to the world around us and to the demands we put on ourselves. I thought I was pretty clear about that in the hardcover, but to be even clearer, I added the following to the end of the introduction in the paperback:

"The Genius in All of Us is a provocative title, and it would be easy to get the wrong impression. Let me try to defuse any potential misunderstanding: I am not arguing that every human being can become a genius. (Nor would we want a world with that many geniuses). I am not arguing that we all have exactly the same potential. I am not arguing that genes and genetic differences don't strongly influence who we are and what we can become.

"I am arguing that very few of us ever get to know our own true potential, and that many of us mistake early difficulties for innate limits. I am arguing that genetic influence itself is not pre-determined, but an ongoing dynamic process. Not even genetic clones have exactly the same potential, because genes actually depend on environmental inputs to help determine how they get expressed. The genius-in-all-of-us is not some hidden brilliance buried inside of our genes. It is the very design of the human genome -- built to adapt to the world around us and to the demands we put on ourselves. With humility, with hope, and with extraordinary determination, greatness is something to which anyone can aspire."


David Shenk

re: greatness

Thanks for weighing in David and clarifying things, including the demands of the market. I love this sentence "very few of us ever get to know our own true potential, and that many of us mistake early difficulties for innate limits." Well put, and quite accurate! Best, Scott

Link is broken to your peer reviewed article

The link is broken to your peer reviewed article but I did find it through the my library's access to the PsychArticles database.

Protzko, J., & Kaufman, S. (2010). Review of "The genius in all of us: Why everything you've been told about genetics, talent, and IQ is wrong". Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4(4), 255-258. doi:10.1037/a0020110

Link Fixed

Thanks for letting me know. I fixed the link. Best, Scott

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Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.


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