What Makes Geniuses So Special?
Become who you are by learning who you are”- Pindar
Bill gates. Elon Musk. Stephen Hawking. Michael Jordan. Muhammad Ali. We know all of these individuals as the master of their crafts. They are the epitome of excellence in whatever they do, and the pure excellence is dazzling to the commoners like us. We end up looking at them in awe, and submit their powers are gifts- unattainable for just any mere mortal. But some of us have always wondered about the element that makes these people special and tried to find the secret sauce of greatness. Science, too, showed its own share of interest on the matter. The most profitable beneficiary of human brilliance, Science knows the gravity of human genius, creativity and brilliance. If they can find a potential path leading to the riches of genius, those remarkable results that Newton, Darwin or Einstein produced can be replicated.
But whoever walked on that road knows how difficult the task is. No true formula exists that can make you an overnight sensation at any topic. But this is common knowledge. Success takes time, perseverance, and hard work- we can all agree to that. But these exceptional names mentioned above are not just successful. They are extraordinary, who are/were able to bend the limits of reality and achieved something godlike. What makes these gentlemen and ladies different from the rest of humankind?
Many have invested their life in the pursuit of a suitable answer to this question- Laszlo Polgar is one of them. An educational psychologist from Hungary, he studied the biographies of more than 400 intellectuals and upon inspecting them closely, came up with a revolutionary idea- A genius is not born but is educated and trained. He believed that It is our educational systems and the preconceived notions of learning and teaching that is barring us from breaking the limits of human potential. The only prerequisite he found out was starting early and focusing intensely. But Polgar was not a man of just preaching, he knew the significance of execution. He decided to enact his theories in real life, and with his real children. Polgar and his wife Klara raised three daughters together, and they raised them to be three chess prodigies. The daughters, Susan, Sophia and Judit, famously known as the Polgar Sisters, achieved phenomenal success in chess, an unimaginable feat for any woman in that era. Susan and Judit both became world champions with Sophia not trailing far behind with a rank of 6 in Women’s chess. Judit went on to be the only female chess player in the history of the sport to have been ranked in the top 10 worldwide.
Having been fascinated by the story of the Polgar Sisters, I have indulged much time into the relevant resources and found out that they have long been a subject of interest in the scientific community. Researchers who want to crack the code of exceptional performance have studied many personalities throughout, including the Polgar Sisters, and have reached to some key ideas. Those ideas can be attributed to guarantee most of the success found in peak performers, but not all of them can explain it fully.
One of these ideas is Practice. Practice Makes Perfect- the banal adage often finds its way in most of the conversation in practice. Yet this theory can not refute the fact, as studies found more experienced doctors on average score lower on tests of medical knowledge than less experienced doctors. The result came back somehow astoundingly similar, when conducted on other field experts such as Physicians, Technicians, Auditors, Stock Brokers, and Judges. If practice is the cornerstone of perfection, then why don’t all of the veterans with 30+ experience reach the zenith?
The answer lies in the practices of the erstwhile masters. It is not the practice that made them perfect, but a special blend of passion, perseverance and practice- termed as Deliberate Practice by the community. There are many frameworks available that can essentially give you an idea of Deliberate Practice, but let me provide a simpler version- Set Specific goals- Build a Training System- Focus on Improvement- Active Feedback from Mentor- Repeat.
Setting Specific Goals is the fundamental of any system. The moment someone knows their true calling, it becomes evident for them what their life goal is going to be. Michael Faraday knew for a long time that electricity is his mojo, Darwin was hooked to the eccentricities of nature from Childhood, Benjamin Franklin had the burning desire to be a better writer. Finding your life’s task makes the path clear for us.
Building a training system is as methodical in its core as it sounds. Deliberate Practice is a systematic approach and a structured curriculum would only help to converge the fleeting ideas into one.
Focusing on Improvement is the next step and perhaps one of the most ignored phases of mastery. Once we become quite handy with any craft, we tend to automate the task in our brain. It is our primal instinct to avoid uneasiness of learning; and we trade perfectionism with complacency. Deliberate Practice breaks this with effective emphasis on improvement. No task should occur aimlessly, repetition is not our goal. Making smaller segments of a big task, and making tiny improvements each day to the specific segment- this is what this stage is for.
Active Feedback from Mentors is the stage where the game decides the winner. Studies through the geniuses have revealed the role the mentors and guides played in their lives. From Tiger Woods to Mozart, from Sachin Tendulkar to the Polgar sisters- a mentor is the game changing catalyst found in all the stories. Feedback from a guide holds much more value than we can imagine. Genuine feedback points out where we are lacking, not only on the surface, but inside , so we can work on that deficiency. Consider yourself lucky if you have found one, else actively seek for a mentor who can elevate you to your potential.
Finally, repeating the whole ordeal day in and day out is the final step. Showing up to the pitch each morning is what seals the deal. The truly passionate people find it intrinsic, others have to maintain it throughout their lives. But putting in your work no matter what is the ultimate form of passion and perseverance. No wonder Deliberate Practice is incomplete without it.
We take up many projects in life, small, big, extraordinary. We all want to succeed in them. But ultimate success has always been an elusive prize- few were able to attain it. Now that we know the path to get there, it is on us to make the journey forward. The only missing link on this path is called Motivation. The dream that doesn’t let you sleep more than what your diary says, the calling that compels you to eat broccolis on Christmas Eve and the fire that drives you to exercise after a 12-hour shift- scientists are trying to look for the seed of passion in us. Once that mystery is unlocked, once we are handed over with the key to activate our motivation at our will, we will be unstoppable. Till then, let’s go back to our roots each morning, ask- what it is that you want to become, and start Practicing.