Five myths about genius

Eric Weiner

It’s not always easy to know when we’re in the presence of “genius.” In part, that’s because we barely agree on what it means. In Roman times, genius was not something you achieved but rather an animating spirit that adhered itself to people and places. In the 18th century, Romantics gave genius its modern meaning: Someone with special, almost divine abilities. Today, we’re quick to anoint a “marketing genius” or a “political genius,” oblivious to the fact that true genius requires no such modification. In truth, real geniuses transcend the confines of their particular domains. They inspire and awe. Which is precisely why we should use the word sparingly, lest it lose some of its magic. That’s not the only misconception. Here are some others.

Myth No. 1

Genius is mostly about genetics.

In 1869, a British polymath named Francis Galton published a popular book called “Hereditary Genius.” As the title suggests, Galton argued that genius is determined by genetics, or what he called “inheritance.” That idea stuck. “Genes appear to have a big role in our intelligence and talents,” one website declares. Others breathlessly report that scientists have uncovered a gene that makes some people brilliant.

The truth, though, is that genius is not transmitted genetically like blue eyes or baldness. Genius parents don’t beget genius babies, and there’s no “genius gene.” Genetics is part of the mix, but only part. “Much of the literature concludes that hereditary factors play a minor role at best in the determination of creativity,” University of Minnesota psychologist Niels Waller wrote in Psychological Inquiry.

There are other factors, too. One is hard work — the “drudge theory” of genius. Others suggest that attitude matters as well. A study of young musicians found that it was not the number of practice hours students racked up that determined their success but rather their “long-term commitment .” In other words, genius requires a certain mind-set, an unflappable persistence.