Post No.: 0348
A genius is commonly regarded as someone who demonstrates extraordinary intellectual ability and creative productivity, to an extent that it’s associated with an achievement that significantly advances our collective knowledge in a particular domain. They push our bounds of understanding and possibility.
Genius arguably requires openness, curiosity, experimentation, dedication (possibly even obsession) and opportunity. It requires child-like wondering, imagination and thinking, without embarrassment or a fear of failure. Creativity or innovation requires coming up with things that are novel and hopefully useful. Curiosity and experimentation are key common traits of intelligent species across the animal kingdom.
Thus it could be said that genius is about being able to be open-minded and free/uninhibited yet having the self-discipline to be able to focus intensively on one aim – to research, test and realise one’s radical views, and delay gratification. It’s like being a child, but one who doesn’t get distracted or impatient easily!
Genius also requires opportunities and support – to fund one’s research and experiments, and indeed for one’s education as a child whilst one has/had a highly inquisitive and absorbent mind. No one really ever makes it alone. A bit of luck thus matters too (e.g. one could’ve been born slightly too early for the technologies or infrastructure to test or express one’s ideas, or born as a female within a culture where women didn’t or couldn’t really go for careers in the sciences and be taken seriously). Whether a child regarded as a prodigy will grow up into someone regarded as a full-blown genius is therefore uncertain – there are many cases where regarded prodigies have not become geniuses, and many cases where regarded non-prodigies have.
But there’s really no universally agreed technical definition or test for ‘genius’. And even when there are some tests that some people agree upon – being good at such a test will only mean one is good at that specific set of selected standards and not necessarily any extrapolated attribute(s). For instance, achieving a high IQ test score should only be recorded as achieving a high IQ test score – not over-extrapolated to mean that one will definitely discover or invent something amazing that’ll progress the world of knowledge or possibility. One person’s ‘genius’ is not necessary someone else’s hence the highly subjective nature of this label. Some regard the term way overused in the media too (like the term ‘hero’ is overused in some contexts, and perhaps underused in others).
Exposure to diversity is key for creativity because a diversity of perspectives leads to more different and possibly novel ideas. Think and do differently – well not everything that’s merely different is good but all that pushes us forwards is different. Think laterally, be wild and don’t censor too early. Some ideas may initially be bad but they may be modified to lead to good ideas down the line so don’t censor any ideas at the early brainstorming stage.
Limit the negativity and excuses, the bureaucracy, and the fear of change, criticism or failure. Some people think that they can only be creative under certain circumstances (e.g. only after they’ve had some alcohol, caffeine or fulfilled their superstitious routines) – but such attitudes actually limit creativity because it’s a belief that one cannot be creative unless everything’s ‘just right’. Opportunities for creativity should be understood to be boundless. If we’re worried then we tend to be more tense, risk-averse, narrow-minded and tunnel-visioned though so do make yourself feel at ease by feeling comfy, yet try some things under temporary pressure too.
Change your perspective (e.g. imagine how an infant, idiot, artist, accountant, etc. would approach the problem) or apply the ‘is like’ thought experiment (e.g. ‘getting people to exercise is like getting people to go to the cinema’). One idea or technique from one situation can be applied to another context or situation (e.g. industrial sawmill sawdust extractors inspired domestic cyclonic vacuum cleaners). Nature is a tremendous source of inspiration, after having millions of years to solve certain problems. (Having a good view of greenery from your window or keeping a healthy real plant or bunch of flowers in your room increases well-being in general too, which may in turn improve your mood for creativity as well?)
Or how about thinking about doing the opposite of every solution you’ve come up with so far? Or try studying whilst upside-down, living for a day whilst blindfolded, communicating only through drawing for a day, or so on? Just play! Take a break or sleep on it if you’re stuck. Lying down may also help you to think differently. Don’t be too serious or constrained because play is learning… or do be serious and constrained because the mother of invention is necessity! Alternate between periods of high and low effort. Change your body language or get up and take a walk. Watch a funny film or pull a prank on someone. After all, the opportunities for creativity arising should have no bounds!
Younger minds tend to find it easier to think laterally because they don’t hold as many preconceptions or presumptions based on their prior experiences of the world. Coming up with firm definitions or labels too early can restrict our thinking (e.g. do you want a TV set in the corner of the room or more loosely ‘some way of watching movies’?) When the world just seems too familiar and you stop seeing what’s right in front of your very eyes – get curious again by switching your awareness from autopilot to manual, as if experiencing the world for the very first time again. Question ‘why?’ things are the way they are and try answering these questions.
Now it’s not ‘pure divine inspiration’ that sparks the greatest discoveries – you need to be knowledgeable to recognise if/when you’ve found something significant. For example, a lot of people have probably seen pencil dust stuck on some sticky tape before but it took a couple of inquisitive minds who were educated in the appropriate fields, only in 2004, to recognise that they were looking at something significant i.e. a cheap way to isolate graphene) – so never stop learning and being curious! (I’m a curious puppy… as in a puppy who’s curious about lots of things – woof!) Inspiration requires effort – when an idea comes ‘suddenly’, it’ll really have been because of a lot of previous work.
Therefore before tackling a big problem – prepare your mind in advance by spending time taking in information related to the problem. A day or more later, you may find that your mind has unconsciously worked on it and some ideas on how to tackle it will flow into your conscious awareness. Get your mind thinking about a problem before you have to really focus on it. If you try to just tackle a problem on the day you first see it then it’ll require much more effort hence, for instance, if you have some homework, look through the questions as soon as you can, even if the deadline is far away and even if you don’t intend to deal with the answers there and then. Prepare your mind with the relevant questions and your mind will give you a head-start when you do decide to consciously deal with the solutions. Your mind will be primed to look for some possible answers – just like if your mind was primed with thinking of designs for hats, you’ll start to notice more what hats other people are wearing as you casually go through your daily life. People won’t be wearing more hats than usual – you’ll just be paying more attention to them than before. (This is related to our limited attentional resources, our energy and time-saving assumptions (internal models), and how much information we miss from our environment every single day.)
So give your unconscious mind some time to work on a problem by exposing your conscious mind to that problem as soon as possible – give a chance for your less inhibited unconscious mind to contribute. Prime your mind by working feverishly on a problem, then give yourself a release of effort by doing something completely different (e.g. go to a museum, read some magazines, play fetch with your new favourite squeaky toy, go on the train, etc.) to immerse yourself in unrelated things so that your mind can make serendipitous connections; but don’t stress yourself over the process if you can. You can also try distracting your conscious mind by doing something else that’s mentally taxing, or by sleeping. Occupy your conscious mind with something else so that your unconscious mind is allowed to explore other ideas that you haven’t thought of before. During sleep, the brain is highly active when dreaming, and is busy working through thoughts, feelings and ideas – thus sleep is a key creative tool too. It’s therefore good advice to sleep before making any important decisions, even though it might be difficult to sleep with so much on one’s mind i.e. try your best not to think about the problem when in bed. Post No.: 0154 has some more problem-solving tips for you.
Innovation is typically more of a team game nowadays because of the budgets, skills and growing ambitions involved, hence the notion of ‘genius’ being attributed to single persons in a story has become rarer (although we still like to find them because a single human face to a story is more attractive to the media; similar to the ‘identifiable victim effect’ when it comes to tragedies). This is overall great because of the greater diversity of ideas that bounce between different people with the same goal. Our own blind spots are compensated for by others who share different ideas and experiences from us, rather than entrenched by people who share the same. Diverse and complementary, rather than homogenous, teams are how the total becomes greater than their parts when it comes to creativity and problem solving. Mixing things or teams up encourages more creativity, even when we change just one thing or person.
However, when group brainstorming sessions are used, these can actually produce fewer and less original ideas than if each person was working alone. This is because people may put in less effort than when each person is alone. It’s due to the ‘diffusion of responsibility’ and ‘social loafing’ – on your own, success or failure is all yours, but in groups, success is shared (and failures are blamed on others!) Vociferous members can also dominate discussions thus leaving the more quiet members unheard.
Boredom and mind-wandering are in fact frequently times of great creativity. So embrace the occasional period of boredom. You may think you’re wasting time if you don’t fill that time up with ‘stuff’, which tends to be stuff like more time spent on social media or browsing online videos, but such activities are usually mindless in themselves and so you’re missing out on spending time thinking about or doing things like being mindful of the present and noticing the details and awe experiences found in the environment or bigger picture, and ultimately missing out on opportunities for imaginative creativity. Boredom is a problem like being hungry – except it spurs the mind to look for or create ways to solve one’s boredom rather than solve one’s growling furry tummy. Using your own creativity to tackle the problem of boredom is a skill, and like any skill it needs training, and you won’t train it if you rely on mindless or readymade distractions to fill your time – just like cooking is a skill to tackle the problem of hunger, and you won’t train your cooking ability if you keep on ordering takeout meals to fill your belly.
Genius is partly nature and partly nurture, and partly serendipity when coupled with a mind that is inquisitive and intellectual enough to recognise when something discovered is significant or not. So, if you’re not already one, maybe your moment of genius is yet to come?