Contrarian Thinkers May Be on the Path to Genius

Jordan Gross

And what it really means to be intelligent.

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What do Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso, Beethoven, and Albert Einstein have in common? Or better stated, what uncommon thing do these men have in common?

Well, they were all pretty terrible at school.

Jobs left high school with a 2.65 GPA. Picasso would be a terrible Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader contestant, considering he couldn’t pass 4th-grade math. Beethoven could not perform basic multiplication. Einstein could barely read growing up.

But these people are trailblazers. They’re titans of industry, wizards of innovation who made groundbreaking contributions to not only their fields but the world. So, what set them apart?

When I was in elementary school, we would celebrate the days where we’d be able to take a field trip to the planetarium. We were fortunate to have a planetarium in our high school, so every so often, we’d take a bus down the road and marvel at the stars.

Mrs. C was the white-haired, blue-eyed lovable woman who would draw pictures in the sky and teach us everything we could ever want to know about space. As a kid, I would just call her planetarium lady, but upon growing up and attending high school where she was director of the planetarium, I learned that I should have been calling her doctor. Mrs. C had a Ph.D. in astrophysics and retired from her job years ago because she wanted to combine her passions of astronomy and children. During my teenage years, I was able to realize just how incredible of a woman she was. From the time I was a wide-eyed elementary school student to the times I walked the halls as a high schooler, I always considered her a genius.

But to my surprise, Mrs. C admitted to me that she was no genius at all. In fact, she hardly knew anything outside of astronomy and astrophysics. She was a fool at pop culture, she knew nothing about history, and she could barely score better than writing her name down on the grammar portion of the SAT. So why did I think she was a genius?

Who do you think of when you hear the word genius? Why is anyone a genius? What are the common characteristics of people who are considered geniuses around the world? Thankfully for these questions, we have Dr. Craig Wright.

The Hidden Habits of Genius

Beyond talent, IQ, and grit, there are other characteristics that can help unlock the secrets of greatness. Dr. Craig White, Professor Emeritus of Music at Yale University, has been studying genius for the last twenty years, and he teaches one of Yale’s most popular courses, the “Genius Course”. His recent book, Hidden Habits of Genius highlights some of the primary attributes of geniuses throughout time, but White highlights one thing that is the primary argument of this piece. “If you’re a contrarian thinker, then you’re on the path to genius.”

Dr. White sat for an interview with Jessi Hempel of Hello Monday podcast and discussed the genius methods outlined in his new book. The most fascinating link was the fact that geniuses challenged the status quo. They decided to question conventional wisdom and pursue unidentified questions, diving deeper to develop their own answers. They weren’t afraid to be wrong, challenged, or defend their opinions even if it meant massive amounts of criticism from the masses.

Jobs created what nobody had ever seen. Beethoven played music nobody had ever heard. Einstein studied what no man could figure out. Picasso created in ways that nobody had before. Mrs. C decided to take a route that not many women were taking during that time.

These people were geniuses because they dared to be different and they didn’t conform when the masses wanted them to. Genius thinkers consistently, unabashedly, and relentlessly challenge the status quo. When you are able to do this, then you can make a tremendous impact on the world.

What Does Intelligence Really Mean?

In school, I was always considered a smart kid. I studied hard, I got good grades, had a high IQ, and I finished near the top of my class. But when I was talking to other kids about music, I never felt smart. When I overheard friends’ parents talk about stocks, I never felt smart. But what does smart even mean? I always wondered this. I always thought that smart had too strict a definition. It was too black and white, smart, or not smart. But I believe people are smart at different things, and I am glad Dr. White concurs.

During the interview, Dr. White shared his thoughts about intelligence.

“I think IQ is overrated because it’s a standardized test that you take. It’s such a small part of the human experience that it’s not particularly relevant. I tend to think of this in terms of what Howard Gardner called multiple intelligence. What the heck does it mean to be smart? There are all kinds of smart in this world and people such as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. I have no idea what they would have scored on an IQ test, but they certainly had particular kinds of skills that could never have been measured on the standardized IQ test.”

Hempel and White go on to discuss what White coined the genius equation. He believes that more so than IQ, EQ, or any other Q, genius equals significance times number of people influenced times duration.

Genius = Significance x # People Influenced x Duration

Intelligent people, or geniuses for that matter can be identified by the significance of their work on the world, the number of people their work influenced, and how long they were influencing society. But the funny thing here is that one of these variables, significance, is totally subjective. Society or external variables deem what is actually significant, so in turn, intelligence and genius are based on subjectivity and inequality, because of who has the ability to influence more people and who deems what is significant. For you, this means that you have the opportunity to inspire on your own terms.

Final Thoughts

So, what do Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso, Beethoven, and Albert Einstein have in common? Or better yet, what uncommon thing do these men have in common? Well, I guess you could call them all geniuses.

These men, and Mrs. C, all devoted their lives to thinking like a contrarian. They have done work that is significant to the world, and more importantly, significant to them. They have influenced countless people, and they did so for years and years.

Now it’s your turn to find your genius. You may not be able to influence the same number of people as these figures, but you can shift your mindset, work on what is significant to you, and act in the service of others for as long as you live. Now that’s genius.

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