Is genius a simple matter of hard work? Not a chance
What do you think of when you hear the word “genius”? Most of us, I suspect, picture a fellow in a white coat who squints into a microscope, twiddles a knob, and says, “Eureka! I’ve found the cure for cancer!” More often than not, though, scientific and creative discoveries are the result not of bolts of mental lightning but of long stretches of painfully hard slogging. This unromantic reality is the subject of “Sudden Genius?: The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs,” a new book in which the British biographer Andrew Robinson examines key moments in the lives of such giants as Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci. The conclusion that he draws from their experience is that creative genius is “the work of human grit, not the product of superhuman grace.” Along the way, Mr. Robinson also takes time out to consider one of the most fashionable modern-day theories of genius—and finds it wanting.
A painting of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at age 13.
The theory is known in England as “the 10-year rule” and in the U.S., where it has been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “Outliers,” as “the 10,000-hour rule.” The premise is the same: To become successful at anything, you must spend 10 years working at it for 20 hours each week. Do so, however, and success is all but inevitable. You don’t have to be a genius—in fact, there’s no such thing.
K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist who is widely credited with having formulated the 10,000-hour rule, says in “The Making of an Expert,” a 2007 article summarizing his research, that “experts are always made, not born.” He discounts the role played by innate talent, citing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as an example: “Nobody questions that Mozart’s achievements were extraordinary. . . . What’s often forgotten, however, is that his development was equally exceptional for his time. His musical tutelage started before he was four years old, and his father, also a skilled composer, was a famous music teacher and had written one of the first books on violin instruction. Like other world-class performers, Mozart was not born an expert—he became one.”
An undated photo of Charlie Parker
It’s easy to see why the Ericsson-Gladwell view of genius as a form of skill-based expertise has become so popular, for it meshes neatly with today’s egalitarian notions of human potential. Moreover, there is much evidence for the validity—up to a point—of the 10,000-hour rule. My own favorite example is that of Charlie Parker, the father of bebop. As a teenager, he embarrassed himself by sitting in at Kansas City jam sessions before he had fully mastered the alto saxophone, thereby acquiring a citywide reputation for incompetence. In 1937 the humiliation overwhelmed him, and he took a summer job at a Missouri resort and began practicing in earnest for the first time in his life. Eight years later, he had metamorphosed into the glittering virtuoso who teamed up with Dizzy Gillespie to record “Ko-Ko,” “Groovin’ High” and “Salt Peanuts,” thereby writing himself into the history of jazz.
The problem with the 10,000-hour rule is that many of its most ardent proponents are political ideologues who see the existence of genius as an affront to their vision of human equality, and will do anything to explain it away. They have a lot of explaining to do, starting with the case of Mozart. As Mr. Robinson points out, Nannerl, Mozart’s older sister, was a gifted pianist who received the same intensive training as her better-known brother, yet she failed to develop as a composer. What stopped her? The simplest explanation is also the most persuasive one: He had something to say and she didn’t. Or, to put it even more bluntly, he was a genius and she wasn’t.
13-year-old Bobby Fischer in 1956.
To his credit, Mr. Robinson unequivocally rejects what he calls “the anti-elitist Zeitgeist.” At the same time, he believes that while “genius is not a myth,” it is merely an enabling condition that can be brought to fruition only through hard and focused work. This seems to me to strike the right balance—yet it still fails to account for the impenetrable mystery that enshrouds such birds of paradise as Bobby Fischer, who started playing chess at the age of 6. Nine years later, he became the U.S. chess champion. His explanation? “All of a sudden I got good.”
Anyone who thinks himself capable of similar achievements would do well to heed the tart counsel of H.L. Mencken: “Is it hot in the rolling-mill? Are the hours long? Is $1.15 a day not enough? Then escape is very easy. Simply throw up your job, spit on your hands, and write another ‘Rosenkavalier.’” Even if you don’t care for Richard Strauss’s most popular opera, you get the idea. Disbelievers in genius are hereby invited to prove their point by sitting down and creating an equally great work of art. You have until 2020 to comply. Any takers?
Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, writes “Sightings” every other Friday.
Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703805004575606490403919122.html