Geniuses, we all know, are smart. But do they share any other qualities like quiet personalities, large social networks, or wild hair?
It's a topic I've covered before when it comes to titans of the arts. According to one classic study on the subject, creative geniuses like poets, painters, and famous inventors, tend to be open-minded, with a high tolerance for chaos, disorder, and contradiction. But when your focus is the top minds of science instead of wacky artistic types, the picture, it seems, looks a bit different.
That's the takeaway of a fascinating, short Big Think video from author James Gleick who has written biographies of science greats Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman, among others. On the surface, he explains, the two men couldn't have been more different.
"Isaac Newton was solitary, antisocial, I think unpleasant, bitter, fought with his friends as much as with his enemies. Richard Feynman was gregarious, funny, a great dancer, loved women," he says. But look deeper at genius, he continues, and you'll see at least one essential commonality.
No focus, no genius
What is this one trait that binds together incredibly different if equally brilliant minds? In short, a prodigious ability to focus.
"When it came time to make the great discoveries of science, he was alone in his head. Now, when I say he, I mean both Feynman and Newton, and this applies, also, I think, to the geniuses that I write about in The Information, Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, Ada Byron. They all had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals like me to grasp," claims Gleick.
It's an intriguing similarity as it echoes observations of some of today's most impressive minds. Bill Gates, for example, has been described (in his early years, at least) as capable of almost superhuman acts of solitary focus. "He'd be in the middle of a line of code when he'd gradually tilt forward until his nose touched the keyboard. After dozing an hour or two, he'd open his eyes, squint at the screen, blink twice, and resume precisely where he'd left off -- a prodigious feat of concentration," Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has related, for instance.
What makes this characteristic even more interesting is that, unlike exceptional intelligence, you can cultivate it. We can get smarter, sure, but no level of effort will help most of us approach the sheer mental horsepower of Gates or Feynman. But we can do plenty to control our capacity to focus, including simple ideas like just hiding your beeping phone to making sure to schedule periods of alone time for deep, uninterrupted thought.
These actions won't make you like these geniuses, of course, but they could help you borrow a dusting of their magic for your own work.