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Walter Isaacson: 5 Traits of True Geniuses

As the biographer to Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, Isaacson knows a thing or two about geniuses. Here's what he's learned.
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People tend to think of geniuses as singular and incomparable characters, who can't be categorized or likened to anyone else. That's partly true, but according to Walter Isaacson, the former CNN chairman who has written biographies on Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and, most recently, Steve Jobs, there are certain character traits that geniuses do tend to share.

On stage at New York City's 92nd St. Y Sunday night, Isaacson kicked off the inaugural "7 Days of Genius Festival" by sharing his thoughts on what he believes, having studied the lives of three of the world's biggest thinkers, are the markings of true genius.

Here's what he said:

1. They have a passion for perfection.

The most important thing to know about true genius, Isaacson said, is that it's not simply analogous to intellect. "At a certain point in your life, it becomes apparent that smart people are a dime a dozen. What really makes someone special is if they're imaginative. If they think different," Isaacson said.

One of these differences is that geniuses--Steve Jobs' is a great example--tend to be obsessive perfectionists. To illustrate this point, Isaacson told the story of the time during Jobs' childhood when he was building a fence with his father. His dad, an auto mechanic, told Jobs at the time that it was important to make the back of the fence as beautiful as the front. When a young Jobs asked his father why that was, since no one would know the difference anyway, his father replied, "But you will know."

That's a lesson Jobs carried through his career at Apple, painstakingly poring over even the hidden details, like the circuit boards in the original Macintosh computer. And that, Isaacson says, is one reason why Jobs was a genius. "A real artist cares even about the parts unseen," he said. That's also why he managed to build such a lasting and world-changing company. "A lot of companies keep their eye on making a profit," Isaacson said. "If you really want to make a company that will survive, you focus on making good products. If you care about making good products, eventually, profits will follow." 

2. They love simplicity.

The beauty of Apple products is, of course, their simplicity, which Isaacson says is another obsession of true geniuses. When Jobs was first working on the iPod, he was fixated on ensuring that it would only take three clicks to get to any song in the iPod library. "He told the team, 'Don't show it to me, until you can get it in three clicks,'" Isaacson said. Out of that desperation to keep things simple, the team came up with the expertly designed wheel, that allowed users to scroll, rather than click, through songs. 

The wheel met Jobs' standard for simplicity. The large on/off button, however, did not. "Steve said, 'Why do we need that?'" The answer, as we now know, was that the iPod didn't need an on/off switch, but could power itself up and down on its own.  

3. They make other people do what they never thought was possible.

"Steve was a real jerk to work with, but he gathered around him the most loyal people, because he drove them to do things they didn't know they could do," said Isaacson. Jobs' trick was not giving into other people's hesitations and self doubts. Instead, when employees or colleagues claimed that a task was impossible, Jobs would just stare at them and say, "Don't be afraid. You can do it." It's the tactic he used to convince his team that they could shave 10 seconds off the boot up time for the original Macintosh. In the end, despite initially considering it impossible, the Apple team members shaved a full 28 seconds off the boot up time. "Steve could drive people crazy," Isaacson said, "but also drive them to do things they never knew they could do."

4. They challenge other geniuses.

It was Albert Einstein who taught Isaacson this genius trait. Einstein came along, of course, centuries after Sir Isaac Newton, another great mind whose theories were respected by the rest of the scientific community in Einstein's time. But it was only in challenging one of Newton's theories, Isaacson says, that Einstein stumbled upon the theory of relativity.

"Newton says time marches along second by second, irrespective of how we observe it," Isaacson said. Einstein, however, refused to take that theory at face value, and instead, developed the theory that time is, in fact, relative to our state of motion. "That ability to think different, and think out of the box, that's what made him Einstein," says Isaacson. 

5. They appreciate diversity.

Ben Franklin, Isaacson says, possessed a quality that people may not typically associate with the word genius. His genius, says Isaacson, was tolerance. "He understood if you create a society with great diversity and everyone is tolerant, it will be stronger," Isaacson said.

With that tolerance, comes humility and the ability to humble yourself to other peoples' opinions. "Most creativity comes from a group of people who play off each other, who cover each others' weaknesses, and amplify each others' strengths," Isaacson said. "Over and over again you see Franklin's wisdom, which is bringing people together. That's part of his genius."

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Mar 3, 2014




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