Ep 287: The Science of Raising a Genius

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teenagers. I'm your host. Andy Earle.

We're talking today about how to raise a genius.

While genius is something that may seem elusive or magical, there are actually consistent patterns and habits followed by history's greatest geniuses.

And if you understand how genius works and where it comes from, maybe that can help you raise a genius of your own.

Craig Wright has spent many years traveling the world to study history's greatest geniuses.

He is a professor emeritus from Yale, where he taught the popular undergraduate course, Exploring the Nature of Genius for years.

And he's the author of The Hidden Habits of Genius: Beyond Talent, IQ, and Grit. Unlocking the Secrets of Greatness.

Craig, welcome to the Talking to Teens podcast. Thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Craig Wright: Delighted to be here. Looking forward to the discussion.

Andy Earle: You have written a book all about genius and you teach a course on this. You've been studying genius. What got you so interested in the topic of genius? How did you become an expert on this?

Craig Wright: Two things. Lots of ironies here because when I went to my own children, I told them I was going to teach a course on genius, I'm going to write a book on genius, and they all laughed.

They thought it was the funniest darn thing they'd ever heard. You write a book on genius? You're not a genius. You, sir, are a plotter. And they were absolutely correct. But the more I thought about it, the worst person to understand a genius is a genius, because they do it so often naturally and intuitively that they don't think about, they don't analyze the process.

So maybe like many things in life, maybe you want to organize a corporation. Maybe the best thing to do is step outside of that corporation. Maybe if you're a psychologist and you want to analyze a group of teenagers, maybe don't be a teenager yourself, but observe from the outside. So that's how I got interested in this, my own children to some degree.

And one other strange thing. A long time ago, it was 1984, I believe out came a new and quite spectacular movie that won, I think eight or nine Academy Awards, Amadeus. The premise there was that this person had the capacity to generate all these spectacular ideas just off the top of his head. Is this really possible? Isn't success in life or genius all an issue of hard work? What's the relationship between natural gifts and hard work?

So I started thinking about this and then I got really interested to the point that became something of obsession. I go all around the world. I went to Berlin, I went to Krakow, of course, the Vienna many times, Salzburg many times, Paris, Washington DC, looking at all these autographed manuscripts of Mozart to see if this was really true.

And lo and behold, it is essentially true. This creature had the capacity of just sitting down and just hearing all this stuff stream through his head. So it's following people such as that at one very high level. And then also observing life in the form of my children and then eventually grandchildren.

That got me going with this quite fascinating topic. And it continues to have relevance. What's the relevance of genius in the age of DEI. We've got diversity, equality, and inclusion.

So which of those three do you think is anathema to, works in opposite directions of genius?

Andy Earle: I have no idea.

Craig Wright: In that book, I seem to be arguing for A, either specialization or B, diversity of approach. Are you going to go a thousand miles deep, or are you going to go a thousand miles wide? Are you going to be the hedgehog or are you going to be the fox? So which did I argue for there rightly or wrongly?

Andy Earle: Diversity seems to be really important.

Craig Wright: Okay, good. Yeah. Diversity. Look at all kinds of things. Be just obsessively curious about the world.

Don't go down a rabbit hole. So diversity is part of this. What about equality? What about inclusion in that book? If you want to get your brain full of great ideas, where do you move? I actually grew up in Iowa and I love the people of Iowa, but if I wanted to get a lot of great ideas in my head, I'm going to go to New York City, Chicago, or maybe I'll go to Paris or London.

I'll find a place that's full of immigrants. Because they're bringing in ideas to a central location that then percolate around the entire community. So I think inclusion is very important here. And where I was going with this was equality.

Let's look at this in terms of we want equality in terms of opportunity, but we don't want equality in terms of outcome. Because, when you say genius, you're setting up some kind of hierarchy here. And that's why when I was teaching this at Yale, the last years I was there, there was pushback. The dead white man here who's talking about genius. That becomes a more difficult sell because the whole notion of genius is presupposing some kind of inequality, exceptional outcome. So that's a bit of the structural framework, philosophical basis, that I approach this topic of genius with.

Andy Earle: Okay. So just to frame everything and take a little bit of a step back. What exactly is genius, or what does it take to be a genius, or what does that mean?

Craig Wright: A genius is a person of extraordinary mental powers. Whose original works or insights change society in some significant way, for good or for ill, across time and across cultures. And that's a very good, very useful definition of genius, and I used to teach that, and then I realized, None of my students could remember that.

That's too long. It's too complex. It's actually, I think, true, but it's not very practical or very useful. And almost after writing this book, I slapped my forehead and realized Greg, you really are no genius.

You should have come up with a different sort of approach to this. You should have been able to do what Einstein would do, take a complex material, complex ideas and bring it down to a simple formula, such as E equals MC squared or something like that. All the complexity of this down to three letters.

So eventually I figured this out and I come up with G equals S. Times D. Now what is all that? G is genius equals significance. What do I mean by that? And how do we measure that? Maybe significance is simply being kind to people every day, being charitable to people every day.

Maybe genius is inventing a new tennis shoe. Kanye West. Maybe genius is coming up with a formula for penicillin or something like that, an antibiotic or for a virus, some kind of antidote to a virus because that will affect millions of people. If you have a run of tennis shoes or t shirts, it might be hot stuff or a number one selling song for a period of time, but it's not going to last very long.

So how significant is something? Penicillin, I would say, is really significant. Understanding the genome and genetics is extremely significant. A new style for t shirts, or haircuts, or tennis shoes, they may seem important at the moment, but they're transient. They're not very significant.

Kanye West generates about 600, 000 pairs of his tennis shoes. Well, There are millions of people whose lives have been saved through penicillin. So it's one penicillin I would submit is far more important than a new style of tennis shoe. Okay. So then that takes us to the D portion of this.

And so we multiply significance by duration. And I was talking about pop songs recently, Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton, whoever your favorite might be. Generally speaking, they have a short shelf life. Mozart, Beethoven, they're still running, we're still listening to Mozart.

There's a question of duration. So that's how the D is. Over time. So some things such as the scientific theory that is actually the earth moving around the sun that has a lot of sustainability, has been here for a long period of time.

So we take the significance we multiply by duration. And thereby we get the A list of geniuses, people such as Mozart, or the incomparable Leonardo da Vinci, or Albert Einstein, whatever list you want to compile. Maybe you are somebody who was raised in an African American community and your whole cultural heritage is different.

So you have another set of standards that you can apply for thinking about genius and thinking about significance. Something may be significant to me may not be as significant from someone with a different ethnic background.

Andy Earle: Yeah. And so much that is really interesting to me about how genius is really depends on how you're perceived or how you're remembered, or it's an interaction between kind of the person and their works or their ideas and also the culture or the like larger scope of humankind.

Craig Wright: All the geniuses that were accepted at one point in history, or weren't accepted, such as Bach or Vermeer, who were ignored early on. And others that were accepted and they're now being canceled for a variety of reasons. We could go to Paul Gauguin and his allured portraits of teenage girls. So these are some of the issues involved in this discussion of genius.

Andy Earle: You talk about grades in the book, which I thought was interesting. And also test scores. Yeah. What's the relationship? Which is really very interesting. Yeah.

Craig Wright: Yeah, it's a fascinating issue. And you know where I come down in the book.

I think the test scores are overrated. Though, even today, Harvard has followed the lead of Yale, and reinstituted the SAT as a standardized test that would be required.

And there are reasons in favor of this and against it. The standardized tests are somewhat overrated. It measures really two things.

It measures quantitative ability and verbal ability. There are all of these other things that make up a human being, an exceptional human accomplishment that are not measured. Creativity. An SAT test is essentially thinking within the box and these geniuses, they think outside the box and you can come up with a list of really exceptional people such as Beethoven or Picasso or Darwin or Edison.

Who, if you looked at them in terms of their grades and any kind of standardized test scores were abject failures. Couldn't get through the fourth or fifth grade, particularly Picasso. Beethoven no better. But they're very smart. It is just that they're not smart in traditional kinds of ways.

But I think generally speaking, I think it is good to have those standardized tests. I think it is good to have grades.

I have actually been looking a lot of this with my own grandchildren. What are universities admissions offices really looking for? What do they want to see in a candidate? Is it high test scores? Is it letters of recommendation from somebody that runs IBM or General Motors?

Is it a great artistic ability? Is it somebody that's worked very hard to overcome hardships, shows a good sense of resilience? What are they looking for? And you know what? Time and time again, I see these people emphasizing this. What they want to see, I think, is they're asking this question. What will this applicant bring to our institution that will change our institution for the better?

Now, maybe having a lot of smart people maybe that means they'll have better ideas and change it for the better that way. But they may be looking for people that have demonstrated in their secondary school system, being leaders, that have brought changes, improved things, that have a long standing track record of making things better in their own environment.

So that's what they're looking for. Where do they get the information on this? If you have somebody that's actually gone into the community and done this or that. Let's say they've decided they want to volunteer for an ambulance service.

And I've seen teenagers do that. And then suddenly the mayor of the town out of nowhere writes them a letter thanking them for their years of service as an EMT person at age 17 or 18. Now that looks really good because it's an unsolicited letter and it's doing good in the community. But mostly what these admissions officers are looking for are people who have really fine recommendations from their teachers.

What does this person do in a group setting? In a community setting? Is it a leader? Is it a person that is tolerant of other ideas? Is this a person that can accept other people and get everybody to move together in a useful, productive way? I think it's that as much or along certainly along with these test scores and grades that are so important.

So if I were prepping a teenager for college, do things that are going to change things for the better.

Andy Earle: Yeah, it comes back to significance and doing something that's makes an impact. That has an influence on your community, on your school, on your classroom.

Craig Wright: Yeah, maybe they set up a new podcast, something like that about, about talking to your teenagers. So that would be something significant. Yeah very hugely significant transformative.

Andy Earle: Genius.

Another big theme and something you've already mentioned a couple of times here is curiosity, or deeply engaging with subjects and having broad interests.

Craig Wright: I think in life, that's the most important thing. And all of these geniuses that I've studied, if you were to put your finger on the one thing, these people are hugely curious. Also, it links with passion. It links with perseverance. And it's difficult to separate them sometimes.

But being curious, just wanting to learn about things, and doing so for a lifetime learning, is the difference between everything, both success as traditionally defined, or creative genius. Being curious is very important. And the question is, let's say you are the parent and you have a teenager. Can you teach your child to be curious?

I have an opinion about that, and at this point I'm factoring in a total of 11 subjects here, children and grandchildren of four children, and they're actually surprisingly different in their degree of curiosity. But it causes me to think about how does one become curious?

Is that a natural gift? Is that innate, a God given talent? Or is it something that we can learn? When you were in school did you ever take a course on curiosity? How in the world is it that the most important thing in the world is curiosity, and we're not very curious? Why is that the case?

Is the presupposition here that it can't be taught? You have to be born with it? I don't know. As a parent, what do you do? And I think about this a lot. Talking to teenagers when you're a parent, it's just trying to survive, right? Trying to get through the day. Just trying to get everybody in the bus. Once when a five or six year old was sent to school and asked, what does your daddy say at home, get in the car, God damn it. You just want to keep life rolling because you got so many things to contend with.

You got a job, you got a mortgage to pay, maybe the roof blew off in a hurricane or something, there's a mudslide, you got a gazillion things that you have to deal with. And these children, they're lovely, but you just don't have a lot of time. And you're so stressed out. It's very difficult to deal with.

Now, when you're a grandparent, aha, now you get to the good part. Because you can sit there and observe. It's like the non genius stepping back and watching human development. And at that point you begin to see things very differently. And I would offer different instruction as a grandparent than as a parent, and I have watched this.

It was very interesting with a two year old sitting at a breakfast table and a knife in front of the two year old. And I'm watching my daughter with her two year old daughter, and how they're going to react to this.

Don't touch anything. Don't touch any of that stuff. How does a child know the danger, a knife that could be very dangerous? How do we get that across? There's a tendency with parents, I think, naturally, to want to protect. And that's all to the good.

And the great challenge for parents is to find this proper balance between protection and encouragement to satisfy one's innate curiosity. That child really wants to find out the difference between a pencil and a knife. And is it a bad thing? That's fascinating to watch, and it comes to, there you are as a parent of teenagers, they just got their driving license, alcohol is available, you want them to go out and explore the world, develop a sense of independence, see what's out there, but you want them to come back. You want them to come back safely.

And the worst thing as a parent, the worst thing that could ever happen is when, at one, two o'clock in the morning when the telephone rings. I remember getting one of these, it was actually an arrest, but we needn't go into the specifics of this.

That's what you worry about. And you want to encourage, have them explore, but have them explore in a non dangerous and life threatening environment. Don't you think, Andy?

Andy Earle: Oh, yes, I think it also ties into another discussion that you have in the book on taking risk and how geniuses tend to be risk takers or tend to take risks or push boundaries. And I think there's an aspect of parenting that's hard where you want to protect kids, like you're saying but how do you find that balance?

Craig Wright: That's another very interesting issue. Tolerance for risk. Is that an innate gift? Is that something that is genetic? Maybe people are born more with a tolerance for risk than other individuals. Maybe some people are just terrified by taking chances, whereas other people, it doesn't bother them at all. And it would also intersect with a sense of self confidence, I think. There are some people who are just so self confident, they think they can get away with anything.

And think of all the politicians, and leaders of major corporations, movie producers, that behave in very bad ways because they think they're invincible.

They get away with this. Risk does not exist for them. Because they've always beat the system and they're going to beat it again. So I don't know whether they were born this way with this exceptional tolerance for risk or whether they developed it as these other capacities came to the fore and they succeeded time after time.

We want people to not be risk averse. We want them to be out there doing challenging things, but at the same time, we want them to do it in a safe and humane and respectful way.

I'm sure we would all agree about that.

Andy Earle: But by nature of taking risks by definition, it's not always going to go well. The more risks you take, the more likely something's going to go wrong. You're going to have an issue. So how do you think we keep that in mind?

Craig Wright: You have to look at failure as an opportunity. And I think it was Oprah Winfrey that said, there's no such thing as failure. It's just opportunity carrying you in a different direction. You can learn something new. Okay. And I think that was a good advice, but you also have to have self confidence to a degree. And all these geniuses were self confident to the point of delusion, almost.

They just believed in themselves.

Andy Earle: Really good advice for us all.

Craig, thank you so much for coming on the show today. I've really enjoyed this discussion. I think there are so many more fascinating ideas in the book.

I want to highly encourage people to pick up a copy of The Hidden Habits of Genius. Where else could we send people or what else should we let people know about you and what you're up to and how to follow updates from you, maybe?

Craig Wright: Thank you Andy for inviting me and allowing me to opine.

If the topic really is of interest to you, I have with Yale's support and Coursera, the Coursera platform, a free online course. It's called The Nature of Genius.

And it is essentially taking my genius course at Yale and putting it online. And it was actually done after this book. So the ideas here are more up to date. There are interviews with psychologists, there are interviews with private equity people, there are interviews with Silicon Valley innovators, rock musicians. It's really fun.

And it talks about a lot of things that we've talked about. So all you have to do is Yale Coursera, The Nature of Genius. Or it could be Craig Wright, Yale Coursera, The Nature of Genius. It's free. Play around with it. I think you'll enjoy it.

Andy Earle: Wow. Sounds amazing. Yeah, it's really cool to see all this work you're doing to just spread the knowledge and help people understand better the nature of genius and how we can maybe all get a little more of it.

Craig Wright: And thank you once again, Andy for, a very robust discussion.

Andy Earle: We're here today with Craig Wright talking about how to raise a genius and we're not done yet. Here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

Craig Wright: Don't be afraid to move, don't be afraid to travel, don't be afraid to see things, open your eyes, embrace everything that's out there. Creativity is just bringing things together.

But unless you've seen a lot of different things, you're not going to be able to make these creative transformative couplings.

And there's a tendency with, let's say you got a kid that's very good math or something like that. You typecast the kid far too early, I think, if you praise that kind of behavior.

I'm not sure that anybody really loved living with one of these geniuses. I think we all love how they have the capacity to make life better. But on a daily basis I don't think there's a lot of empathy and love there.

It's all love of oneself and one's own ideas.

Andy Earle: Want to hear the full interview? Sign up for a subscription today.

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Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Craig Wright
Craig Wright
Professor emeritus. Author of multiple books. Creator of the 6th most popular online course in China, "Listening to Music". Expert on the science of genius.
Ep 287: The Science of Raising a Genius
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