Sudden Genius: The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs

Have you ever wondered how you can creatively grow? This new book, Sudden Genius, shares how others have. What path shall you explore to unleash your own?

Chip Hessenflow gets a gold star for this one too!

From The Chronicle of Higher Education
November 21, 2010 written by By Evan R. Goldstein

Jean-Paul Sartre said that the greatest gift a father can give his son is to die early. Sartre’s remark, though harsh, isn’t implausible. In a new book, Sudden Genius: The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs (Oxford University Press), Andrew Robinson notes that a remarkable number of super-high achievers suffered the death of a parent at a young age. He cites a 1978 study of almost 700 historical figures that found that 25 percent of them—including J.S. Bach, Dante, Michelangelo, Leo Tolstoy, and Richard Wagner—lost at least one parent before the age of 10.

Robinson entertains the possibility of a correlation between tragedy and extreme creativity. Some psychologists believe that trauma can lead a child to turn inward and cultivate a taste for solitude. “The ability to be alone is critical,” says Robinson, a former literary editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement, in an interview, noting that Mozart, who had an active social life, nonetheless withdrew for long stretches to focus on his work. “You don’t write The Marriage of Figaro in six weeks if you go out and get drunk every night.” Even in the sciences, where collaboration is common, Robinson says, major breakthroughs have been spearheaded by figures—Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein—with pronounced solitary streaks.

What are we to make of all of this? Not much, apparently. The notion that genius is nurtured by childhood adversity “is a tempting one,” Robinson writes, but it crumbles under careful scrutiny. For every figure that fits the bill (Joseph Conrad was a bookish, withdrawn child whose parents died before he turned 12), another genius bucks the pattern (Henri Cartier-Bresson clashed with his wealthy parents, but they were supportive—and alive). Indeed, Robinson dismisses all unified theories of creativity, of which there have been many over the years. “They don’t apply across the board,” he says.

So where do big ideas come from? Sudden Genius looks for answers in the lives of 10 pioneering thinkers and artists, including Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Satyajit Ray, Virginia Woolf, and Christopher Wren. Robinson tries to ferret out the “sources, ingredients, and patterns” of their talents. The big—if bland—takeaway is this: Geniuses are made, not born. Breakthroughs that appear like flashes out of the blue in fact result from at least 10 years of preparation, if not a lifetime of industriousness. When Thomas Edison died, he owned 1,093 patents (that’s about one every two weeks of his adult life); Picasso produced more than 20,000 works; Henri Poincaré published 500 papers and 30 books. The lesson, Robinson says, is that “hard work does pay off.”

If the sources of genius remain something of a riddle, Robinson is emphatic about what does not contribute to creative excellence: higher education. The academy’s emphasis on specialization and its “inherent tendency to ignore or reject highly original work that does not fit the existing paradigm” is an impediment to creativity, Robinson argues. He points to several intriguing studies. One, by Dean Keith Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, suggests that creativity flourishes best among those with the equivalent of two years of an undergraduate education—no less, no more. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, has also looked at the relationship between education and innovation. In his 1996 book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, he argued that formal education has historically had little effect on the lives of creative people. “If anything,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “school threatened to extinguish the interest and curiosity that the child had discovered outside its walls.”

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