How to be a genius.



Eric Weiner has written a wonderful book, The Geography of Genius. In it he deconstructs what makes a place, and someone in there, a genius. It’s not simple. It’s more art than science, but that’s not to say there aren’t a few things we can learn.

Constraints are good.

Da Vinci was an illegitimate child, and couldn’t grow up to be a lawyer, “settling’ for artist. Donald Campbell said the greatest things about being Scottish was “having something to push against.”

I’ve podcasted about this (episode #012), and we’ve seen other creative people advocate for constraints. Daymond John calls it the ‘Power of Broke,’ Amanda Palmer noted that “limitations can expand rather than shrink the creative flow.” Seth Godin made his video game shorter – because there wasn’t enough bandwidth – and his video game became more popular.

The most successful production company right now isn’t Disney, it’s Blumhouse productions. Who?

The studio that made Paranormal Activity for $15K which brought in $194M.  Filmmaker Rob Cohen worked with Blumhouse and said this about limited budgets:

“You’re going to have to be clever, and that cleverness stretches you, it makes you think outside the box because the money panacea isn’t in your arsenal anymore. You have to fix the problems another way.”

Flyting is good.

Guess who argued? Everybody. Ancient Greece had the symposia, Florence had their workshops, Edinburgh had flyting (15th century rap battles), Calcutta had the adda. Each day of a place of genius ended the same way, arguments then beer.

Places of genius were places of ideas. Those ideas didn’t live in silos (which can kills companies), they lived between people. Not only that, but the conversations pushed boundaries, changed minds, and made the world a better place.

Today we can create deep connections more easily than ever. Nicholas Megalis did it. Austin Kleon suggests you do it too. Penn Jillette did it at clown college. Dan Coyle calls them “hotbeds.” Judd Apatow works with a long list of people because they make him better.

Arguing is a good way to use Twitter

A major theme from Civilization by Niall Ferguson is that people do better when they connect. Ditto for Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From.

Bimodal is good.

You don’t get to genius level if you don’t come up with something awesome.

Mozart, Weiner writes, “constructed symphonies like Pixar does movies.” Small children and sophisticated patrons enjoyed them the same. Ditto for Florence, where the Wall Street tycoons of the day (Medici family) were patrons of the arts, but demanding. Here is a commission and money for it, but it had better be good.  Kolkata was “acculturation without assimilation.” Silicon Valley was hippy engineers.

Great ideas are mixtures of oil and water. They are things that we never thought of combining in novel ways. They are bimodal.

Nassim Taleb suggest a bimodal fitness strategy, long walks and heavy weights. Charles Duhigg suggests a bimodal goal system, lofty ambitions and concrete steps. Cal Newport suggests a bimodal work strategy. Employment may become more bimodal.

In #askGaryVee, Gary Vaynerchuk writes, “I spend all my time in the clouds and dirt.”

The advantage to a bimodal model is that it combines things at both spectrums, things that wouldn’t normally overlap. Combining old things in new ways is one path to genius.

Walking is good.

“The ancient Greeks were great walkers,” explains Weiner’s Athens tour guide. What’s amazing is often walking is credited – and for really wonderful things.

The best advocacy for walks may be Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals:

Beethoven? “After a midday dinner, Beethoven embarked on a long, vigorous walk, which would occupy much of the rest of the afternoon. He always carried a pencil and a couple of sheets of music paper in his pocket, to record chance musical thoughts.”

Soren Kierkegaard? “Typically, he wrote in the morning, set off on a long walk through Copenhagen at noon, and then returned to his writing for the rest of the day and into the evening.  The walks were where he had his best ideas, and sometimes he would be in such a hurry to get them down that, returning home, he would write standing up before his desk, still wearing his hat and gripping his walking stick or umbrella.”

Charles Dickens? “Promptly at 2:00, Dickens left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London, continuing to think of his story and, as he described it, “searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.” Returning home, his brother-in-law remembered, “he looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir.”

Why? I have two guesses; we built a better brain, and we give it a chance to work.

Molecular Biologist John Medina explains the biological angle:

“Exercise also aids in the development of healthy tissue by stimulating one of the brain’s most powerful growth factors, BDNF. That stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor. “I call it Miracle-Gro, brain fertilizer,” says Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey. “It keeps [existing] neurons young and healthy, and makes them more ready to connect with one another. “

In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explains the second “the history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll.” Johnson suggests that we think differently, in a way where things that might not normally connect do.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

If you liked this summary of a book — you might like my book: 28 Lessons from Start-ups That Failed.

// Update. An early draft of this post was first published. I corrected it on 3/22/16 at 10:55am. 


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