The Hidden Habits of Genius (2020) is a guide to the traits that set geniuses apart from the rest of us. Drawing on the lives of extraordinary creatives, thinkers, and disruptors from ancient Greece to modern Japan, it traces the factors that make up the complex and fascinating phenomenon that we call “genius.”
About the author
Craig Wright is a professor of music at Yale University, where he teaches the sought-after course Exploring the Nature of Genius. Originally from Oklahoma, Wright is the author of Listening to Music and The Maze and the Warrior, among other works.
Take a child’s perspective on the world:
Dr. Frankenstein’s famed monster is one of the most well-known Halloween monsters, but did you know that Mary Shelley’s creator was just 19 years old when she published her legendary novel?
She started writing Frankenstein when she was only 18 years old. After a bet with her soon-to-be husband, poet Percy Shelley, and his friend Lord Byron who could write the scariest narrative, the inspiration for the book came to her unexpectedly – and a literary masterpiece was born.
There’s no arguing that Mary Shelley’s ability to write Frankenstein as a teenager demonstrates her brilliance – yet we might be overlooking Mary Shelley’s age as a hurdle she overcame. Perhaps the fact that she wrote when her youth was still fresh in her mind was an advantage.
Looking at the world through the eyes of a child is the main lesson here.
While Mary Shelley’s best work was created as a youngster, another genius, Pablo Picasso, created masterpieces as he grew older. Picasso, unlike Shelley, isn’t best known for a single young work, but that doesn’t mean he can’t teach us something about the significance of a juvenile perspective.
His artist father mentored Picasso as a youngster, and it was thanks to his father’s guidance that the young Picasso was able to produce stunning and technically brilliant works of art from an early age. However, there was a snag.
Despite his paintings’ perfection, they lacked something crucial: actual invention and inventiveness, which is precisely what we mean when saying “genius.” So, how did Picasso break free from his father’s expectations and start painting in the bold style we know today? It’s as easy as that: he adopted a childishness.
“It takes a long time to become young,” Picasso once stated. The great artist had to learn how to utilize youthful impulses in his work, so he experimented with bold lines, comical figures, and daring colors.
As a result, perhaps we should think twice about pushing children to mature. As Mary Shelley and Picasso demonstrate, a fresh, clear, and sometimes infantile view of the world is often closer to brilliance than a grown-up perspective.
Develop a deep sense of wonder:
Who comes to mind when you’re asked to name a genius? Perhaps Einstein? Shakespeare? What about one of the Renaissance’s most illustrious figures, Leonardo da Vinci, the multitalented artist?
Leonardo encompasses everything we mean when we say “genius” to many people. The well-known Italian artist worked as a painter, sculptor, engineer, architect, and anatomist, among other things. More importantly, Leonardo didn’t merely perform these tasks; he excelled at them, considerably beyond his peers’ efforts and expectations.
But the truth is that Leonardo wasn’t a well-educated guy by today’s standards, having gotten no training in Latin or Greek, which were considered the foundations of outstanding education at the time. How do we explain Leonardo’s intelligence in the lack of an elite education? It all comes down to a matter of curiosity.
Curiosity comes in all shapes and sizes, and different people are interested in various topics. Stamp collecting is a hobby for some people. Others are fans of baseball. Only a few people learn about ancient civilizations’ epic military campaigns. But what sets apart rare geniuses like Leonardo from the rest of us is their apparent curiosity about practically everything.
Take a look at Leonardo’s to-do list for a single day in Milan, for example. Calculating the extent of the city and its suburbs, finding a book outlining the area’s churches, learning how to square a triangle mathematically, inspecting a crossbow, learning how to repair a canal lock, and asking a guy about the measurement of the sun were among his responsibilities. That’s only the tip of the iceberg!
Leonardo’s active mind was always trying to learn about and understand the world around him, and it was this insatiable curiosity propelled him to the famed achievements he achieved.
Few of us will become Leonardos, but we may strive to be more open to our surroundings. Try to adopt an open and eager approach toward new experiences if you wish to build your sense of curiosity. Allow yourself to stroll around if you’re in a new city; if you’re in a bookstore, pick something you wouldn’t typically be interested in. Curiosity enriches the world we live in.
Give your entire focus to your work:
For a moment, let’s stick with Leonardo da Vinci. We’ve already established that he was incredibly curious about the world around him. But that alone isn’t enough to become a genius; a few more essential factors are required to build an artistic ability as remarkable as Leonardo’s. Outstanding focus abilities are at the top of the list.
Leonardo preferred a method of creating art that was slow and deliberate. He could agonize for weeks over seemingly insignificant details, such as a fold of clothing or a shaft of light, instead of jumping in and getting started right away.
When an abbot remarked on how long Leonardo was taking to paint The Last Supper, he responded that great geniuses need time to conceive the “ideal ideas” they subsequently materialize with their hands. So, what is the takeaway here?
Many geniuses share the capacity to concentrate for long periods and with extreme intensity. Take Albert Einstein, for example. You presumably imagine him working on his innovative theories in a quiet study or at a dusty chalkboard in a lecture hall. In actuality, Einstein was able to concentrate regardless of where he was.
Although the home stank of diapers and stale smoke, a friend who visited Einstein in 1903, when he’d recently become a father, said that the great genius seemed unmoved. With his child on one knee and a notepad on the other, he would scribble mathematics while rocking his baby.
Although every genius appears to understand the significance of solid concentration, not everyone can tune out background noise like Einstein. Many of the world’s brightest minds take considerable measures to keep their work environments as quiet as possible.
Leo Tolstoy, a Russian novelist, had a practice of closing the door when he was writing. Vladimir Nabokov penned Lolita in the back seat of his parked car, proclaiming it the world’s lone spot free of drafts and annoying noises.
Whether concentration comes naturally to a genius, as it did to Einstein, or if a genius, like Nabokov, requires a distraction-free atmosphere, the capacity to focus totally on the work at hand is at the heart of any genius’s skill.
Dare to break the rules:
Andy Warhol couldn’t help but notice that something wasn’t quite right when he came to New York to work as a commercial graphic artist. The art he saw in galleries seemed out of touch: there was a gap between the natural, money-driven metropolis he knew and the art on the walls in front of him.
A merely gifted artist would have seen the disconnect between the art world and the actual world and applied the implicit rule: If this is what sells and draws praise, this is what I should paint as well. Warhol, though, is an exception.
Warhol, like most geniuses, was not a big believer in orthodoxies and rules. Instead of disregarding the modern face of New York, he preferred to focus on the city’s consumerism.
Warhol focused on everyday commercial products such as a Coke bottle and a Campbell’s soup can. He earned a notable place in the history of twentieth-century art by going against the grain and defying the rules.
But there have been other rule-breaking geniuses in the past who took even more significant risks than Warhol, such as Martin Luther, the former monk who turned against the Catholic Church and started the Reformation.
Martin Luther broke all kinds of norms when he fastened his Ninety-Five Theses, a list of objections to established Catholic procedures, to the door of a German church in 1517. In his perspective, the survival of Christianity rested on his disobedience.
Luther had built a new Christian sect with its theology and rituals by the end of his life, established the right of clergy members to marry, and sparked religious tensions that would erupt in Europe for years to come. Few geniuses have had such an impact on history as he has, but the present world would be substantially different if he had followed the laws.
It’s not uncommon for geniuses to cause havoc. They make the boat sway. They give us the creeps. Whether we like it or not, they are changing our world. They don’t do it by following the rules, either.
A genius may convert a flaw into a source of inspiration:
The notion that creativity and insanity are linked is old, dating at least as far back as ancient Greece. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, there is “no great brilliance without a touch of madness,” according to the Greek philosopher Aristotle.
He wasn’t alone in his observation: “great brains are sure to lunacy near associated,” said the renowned English poet John Dryden centuries later. To put it another way, there’s a fine line between being a genius and going insane.
But what can those of us who don’t have any creative crazy stimulate our imaginations to learn from legendary men and women who did?
It’s a widespread belief that creativity is related to mental illness, but it’s not just a cliché. According to a study of the lives of prominent British writers and artists, poets were the most likely of all creatives to encounter mental health disorders.
But what can those who don’t have any creative genius to inspire us to learn from renowned men and women who did?
It’s a common misconception that creativity is linked to mental illness, but this isn’t just a myth. According to a survey of the lives of notable British writers and artists, poets were by far the most likely of all creatives to experience mental health conditions.
Kusama doesn’t let her problems paralyze her; instead, she turns them into grist for her artistic mill, turning her hallucinations into paintings. “I’ve been trying to cure my disease” by creating art, she says.
Kusama’s method is illuminating. Complex and frequently unpleasant mental health disorders can be used for artistic reasons by geniuses. Rather than perceiving a disease as a hindrance to their job, intellectuals find a way to exploit it to their advantage, viewing their difficulties as a source of inspiration.
Allow time for relaxation:
When do your brightest ideas come to you? Is it when you’re sitting at your computer? Or while you’re dealing with emails? Most likely not. If you’re like most of us, inspiration comes when your mind is free to wander — while you’re showering, walking, or even dreaming.
Concentration has already been mentioned as a critical component of brilliance. For example, Isaac Newton possessed the ability to retain an issue in his mind and dwell on it for hours at a time, resulting in revolutionary advances in physics and astronomy.
But genius is more than just being able to concentrate. It also includes the ability to relax, which is the polar opposite of hard effort and focus.
According to many geniuses’ creative habits, the most excellent approach to come up with fresh ideas is to take a break from your work for a time, allowing your tired mind to slacken and relax. Getting some exercise is one of the most common ways to do this.
This isn’t a novel concept. According to legend, a Greek philosophical faction known as the Peripatetics conducted their debates and deliberations while roaming about Aristotle’s school grounds. Novelist Charles Dickens is claimed to have walked up to 15 kilometers a day while working on A Christmas Carol in more recent times.
There are, however, more calming states than walking, the most restful of which is undoubtedly sleep. We enter a phase of sleep known as REM, or Rapid Eye Movement, sleep in the depths of our slumber when we dream.
The far left and right sides of our prefrontal cortex, which play a critical role in logical cognition, turn off during REM sleep. At the same time, memory, emotion, and image-related areas of our brain go into overdrive. As a result, we have the strange phenomenon of dreaming, a condition in which visionaries ranging from Salvador Dal to Paul McCartney of the Beatles have experienced some of their most significant creative breakthroughs.
But, geniuses or not, there’s a lesson here for everyone. It’s not the best way to develop new ideas and insights if you’re constantly working. Concentration periods must be interspersed with periods of profound relaxation for optimal creativity.