Science and Scientists

Genius, Sustained Effort, and Passion

Posted on May 27, 2008 by Peter Turney

It seems safe to say that significant discovery, really creative thinking, does not occur with regard to problems about which the thinker is lukewarm.

— Mary Henle

There seems to be a growing consensus that genius is all about hard work; really hard work, for at least a decade. What can motivate that kind of sustained effort? The answer must be passion. If you care very deeply about a certain thing (e.g., science, art, sports), you will be motivated to work hard at it for decades, and, with a bit of luck, you may eventually be blessed with the label “genius” (although you probably don’t really care about that particular blessing).

People tend to link genius with IQ, but I think this is misguided. I suspect that IQ scores are closely connected to personality. There seems to be some weak evidence to support this hypothesis. IQ tests typically involve a certain kind of puzzle solving, and it seems to me that the people who do particularly well on IQ tests are those who have the kind of personality that enjoys puzzle solving. And the people who make IQ tests are also people who enjoy puzzle solving, and who believe that puzzle solving is an important and valuable ability (i.e., they are passionate about puzzle solving, interpreted in a very general sense). Essentially, an IQ test measures the overlap between the passions of the test taker and the passions of the test maker.

(Disclaimer: I have very little scientific evidence to support the wild conjectures in the preceding paragraph. I enjoy puzzles, in a general sense, such as the puzzle of life.)

Ideally, teachers would focus on one single thing: getting their students really, deeply excited about the subject of the course. Everything else, the students can do on their own. If you don’t know how to do research, but there is a research question that really excites you, then you will figure out how to do research.

(This post was inspired by discussion with Daniel Lemire.)