The Making of a Genius: Required Ingredients

What goes into the making of a genius? More mundanely, what factors are required for success in any field? Your answer will differ based on what factors you consider to be the most important for success.

Photo of the obverse of a Fields Medal made by...

Photo of the obverse of a Fields Medal made by Stefan Zachow for the International Mathematical Union (IMU), showing a bas relief of Archimedes (as identified by the Greek text) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one can deny the large role that intelligence and talent play in the making of a genius, or to achieve moderate levels of success compared to peers. We can probably club these two factors together as ability, that is more or less inborn, and is not very easy to increase or amenable to interventions.

Let me be a be it more specific. I consider ability to be made of two components: specific talent in a particular domain, say singing talent or mathematical talent; and fluid intelligence, or the ability to solve problems in real time using cognitive resources like working memory and typically measured by IQ. While talent is domain specific, fluid intelligence is domain general, but both will be required to be successful in a domain. Intelligence (fluid) will enable one to learn at an exceptional rate and also to learn form ones mistakes and improve.

Both talent and intelligence have been shown to explain up to 50 % of variance, in say, academic performance. Thus they are definitely required to achieve extraordinary success/ genius.

However, another stream of research informs us that putting in 10,000 hours or more of deliberate practice is what does the magic. As per research by Andres Ericsson and colleagues to achieve and expertise in any domain you need 10,000 hours or more of focused, deliberate practice. Here two things are important to note:  you are not putting in brute force efforts blindly, but following a process of deliberate practice (picking up a weakness, working on it constantly to improve soliciting feedback etc) and the second is that you do put in more than 10,000 hours of such efforts to attain some expertise and then again 10,000 hours more to achieve genius level expertise.

Thus, one can subsume these factors under the common label effort: comprising of a daily ritual of deliberate practice or Riyaaz or smart efforts; and a long term fruits of putting in 10,000 or 20,000 hrs of such efforts in the form of expertise or domain specific crystallized intelligence.

Both indulging in deliberate practice daily and building expertise by putting in the required hours are correlated with genius level expert performance or success.  In more mundane terms, if you really want to make contributions to mathematics such that they deserve a Fields Medal, you need to systematically work on which areas of Maths need improving and actually spend hours daily honing your maths skills for a few years before hoping to get one.

and of course as Angela Duckworth says, talent * effort = skill and skill* effort = performance, so effort counts twice and is an important determinant of success.

But this brings us to the question is effort same as grit, another factor that has been shown to predict success/ achievement/ genius?

While to the naive mind they may appear same; to me effort is willingness and ability to work smart and work hard; while grit is more about being passionate about a particular super-ordinate goal and getting back on track and showing persistence in the face of setbacks/ adversity.

And of course another personality factor or character strength that is similarly predictive of success is self-control. Self-control is the ability to resist temptations and forego pleasure-in-the-now for gains-in-the-future. It reliably predicts success in many domains and is domain general trait.  Grit however is more domain specific. Also while Self-control works on a shorter time scale, Girt works on a longer time scale.

Both can be subsumed under goal-commitment: a in the moment domain general self control factor and a long term domain specific grit factor.

And this brings us to the final set of factors which are equally important for success: enjoying and being engrossed in what you are doing and being curious/exploratory about the things you don’t know/ haven’t experienced yet. These are emotional-motivational processes that ensure that you actually do put in the efforts required to meet the goal commitments and to actualize your ability.

Recent research has shown that a hungry mind is very important for predicting academic success. This hungry mind is conceptualized as intellectual curiosity. Curiosity as initially defined by Todd Kashadan et al was comprised of Exploration (or Curiosity as they define now per se) and Absorption. Later Todd et al have disowned absorption as a part of curiosity, and they are right to do so, but given the high correlations between  absorption and exploration, I think they were on to something. Important for us is to remember that curiosity or the appetitive strivings for novelty, complexity,uncertainty and ambiguity; and Absorption or flow or full engagement in specific activities, taken together are again strong predictors of success/ achievement.

Thus, we have a fourth big factor predicting and causing success, viz Engagement: one sub-factor of which is a domain/ task specific flow or absorption and the other a domain general or task independent curiosity or love of learning or intrinsic motivation.

With that we can probably summarize the ingredients required to make a genius:

  1. Ability, both talent and intelligence
  2. Effort, both daily deliberate practice and 10,000 hours of expertise
  3. Goal commitment, both self control and grit
  4. Engagement, flow as well as curiosity

As an aside, this fits my ABCD model: Engagement or flow/curiosity are Affective in nature; Effort is Behavioral; Ability (intelligence) I consider as Cognitive and goal-commitment as Dynamic/motivational.

So, what are you going to do different to achieve extraordinary performance after having learned this? Will you work on your curiosity, put in more hours of deliberate practice , ensure you are feeling flow and absorption or work or your self-control muscle. There are many paths to greatness, and you can choose to focus on one or more to take you where you need to be!

Openness/ Intellect and the MBTI

As per the Big Five/FFM or the HEXACO model, Openness/Intellect appears to be an important personality dimension on which humans differ from each other. People high on this dimension are variously described as creative, imaginative, intellectual etc. We will be only focusing on this trait of the big five/HEXACO/FFM for the purpose of this post.

fancy logo/writing for use in MBTI articles

fancy logo/writing for use in MBTI articles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MBTI is based on Jung’s theory: People may be Extroverted or Introverted, based on whether they find stimulation in the outer world preferable or find the inner world more a focus of their attention; and are low reactive/ high reactive respectively. They can also be predominantly focused on processing information and acting and deciding consistently (and thus using the Judging function) or on taking in information and acting flexibly and keeping options open (and thus using the Perceiving function). Within the judging function, they may rely more on logical analysis etc (the Thinking function) or go more by case-by-case basis (The Feeling function). Within the perceiving function, they may restrict themselves to facts and givens (the Sensing function) or  go beyond the givens and add meanings and interpretations (the iNtuition function). Depending on your propensities/ reliance on these four functions you would be categorized as INFP or ESTJ etc.

Some of the MBTI dimensions have been mapped onto the Big five/FFM/HEXACO.  The mapping of introversion-extroversion to eXtraverted trait of FFM/HEXACO is a given and self-evident, There could also be made a strong case for Judgement-Perception dimension to be mapped onto the Conscientiousness trait of the big five/FFM/HEXACO. However, there is no ready correspondence to Openness/Intellect trait and any of the MBTI dimensions/functions.

For the remaining analysis, I will like readers to refer to this article [pdf] that talks about AB5C model and lists five factors of personality:

For the NEO, the column defined by high loadings from the Extraversion facets is labeled Factor I, for the Agreeableness facets, Factor II, for the Conscientiousness facets, Factor III, the Neuroticism facets, Factor IV, and the Openness to Experience facets, Factor V.
Its important to note that Openness to Experience, like other NEO factors, is made of six facets. These are Openness to Aesthetics, Openness to Feelings, Openness to Ideas, Openness to Actions, Openness to Values and Openness to Fantasy.  The paper goes on to show that different facets of Openness to Experience can be construed as a combination of core Openness to experience factor V as primary factor and either low/ high  Conscientiousness (factor III) or low/high eXtraversion (factor I) as a  secondary factor.

For eg. Openness + high Conscientiousness = factor V + high factor III = terms like analytical, intellectual, intelligent, knowledgeable. This sub-factor of openness may be related to intelligence and may be called Intellectual. Its my contention that NEO facets like Openness to Ideas belong here. This is also closely related to the Thinking function of MBTI and is cognitive in nature (as per the fundamental four model).

Similarly, Openness + low eXtraversion = factor V + low factor I = terms like artistic, creative and imaginative. This sub-factor of openness may be related to creativity and may be called Instinctual. NEO facets like Openness to Feelings and Openness to Aesthetics belong here. This is also closely related to the Feeling function of MBTI and is affective in nature (as per the fundamental four model).

Similarly, Openness + low Conscientiousness = factor V + low factor III = terms like changeable, unorthodox. This sub-factor of openness may be related to fantasy-proneness and may be called Imagination. NEO facets like Openness to Fantasy belong here. This is also closely related to the iNtuition function of MBTI and is motivational/dynamic in nature (as per the fundamental four model).

Similarly, Openness + high eXtraversion = factor V + high I = terms like experimenting, original, prefer variety. This sub-factor of openness may be related to reality-orientation and may be called Innovation. NEO facets like Openness to Actions and Openness to Values belong here. This is also closely related to the Sensing function of MBTI and is behavioral in nature (as per the fundamental four model).

Talking in more abstract terms, the sub-factor of openness called Intellectual may be concerned with Truth, the sub-factor Instinctual with Beauty; Imagination with Possibility/probability while Innovation with Utility. While the former two are idealistic in nature (and being related to Thinking and Feeling, belonging to Judgement), the latter two are more pragmatic in nature ( being related to iNtuition and Sensing, belonging to perception).

To me this linkage of MBTI with openness to experience facets looks a promising future direction and makes immense sense; In a later post I will talk more about MBTI and FFM in more general terms.

PS: this post followed as a result of reading a recent paper [pdf] by Scott Barry Kaufman et al on structure of intuitive abilities and its relationship to Openness to Experience/ intelligence.

Welcoming the One Millionth Reader

I know its a bit premature (the blog visit count on my blog is only about 99,8000 yet and it will take another 2-3 days to hit that milestone) but I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all the ~1 million readers who have thought it worthwhile to visit my blog at least once. You know who who you are: thanks to the Moms and the Grandmoms (those readers who were the only ones to visit it in the early days) and thanks also to the Siblings and Cousins (those blogs which encouraged, accepted and sometimes generated a healthy sibling competition of sorts in the early days?).

Maker Faire 2008, San Mateo - a life size vers...

Maker Faire 2008, San Mateo – a life size version of the Mouse Trap board game (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My blog is ~12.5 years old, finishing the tween years and preparing to enter adolescence (if I may anthropomorphise it….I don’t really know if in the species called blogs, teenage begins at 13 years or whether a 13 year old is already an ageing blog on the verge of retirement/ death?), and I have mixed feelings about it.

To begin with, the following lines from an old popular TV commercial sensitizing people against gender discrimination comes to mind:

‘Ka maine kokh sahi na jani?’

English translation: ‘Did I not give birth to the right child?’

As some of you may know The Mouse Trap has not been able to generate much discussion (only 45 comments as per stats and 1313 comments as per WP dashboard, most of which are my own backlink comments), is a relatively ‘Quiet’/ introverted child (only 540 posts in ~12.5 years), and may even be a specially abled/ differently abled child (it may have missed its developmental milestones like getting a one million hits in the first five years itself:-) ), but I am more than satisfied with my baby. It bears repeating that each child is unique and special, and that I am a proud parent.

The only regret I have is whether I have spent enough time with my child? Did I read enough stuff, reflect on it, and then take careful time out to craft a good post? I know that my blog can never live up to the extraverted ideals – of posting daily, of taking care of SEO etc to ensure enough stimulation (visibility/ interaction) etc, but I am also doubtful whether I really worked that hard to make content the king. Did I not start taking my blog (and its readers) for granted? Did other commitments, like curating content on or other social media, not take away from the time I could have spent with the Mouse Trap?

Also, am I expecting too much from my child, and that too, too early? I had decided to put ads on The Mouse Trap earlier this year, and the revenue I get from that is still not able to cover expenses for hosting The Mouse Trap on fast servers (so that the readers can have a good experience), so are my expectations unrealistic? Should I wait till young adulthood before expecting The Mouse Trap to be able to sustain itself?

But then when I look at shining examples of other young adults out there (like Brain Pickings or Wait But why?) who are walking upright, I know that the Mouse Trap could also walk one day on its own feet. The hope lives on!

PS: Thanks, last but not the least, to my baby (The Mouse Trap) which is a bundle of joy. Like all parents, I take great solace in your potential and warmth, whenever feeling down or in a low mood. Reading older posts brings back memories of joy and thinking about your future fills me with excitement and vigor. Long Live The Mouse Trap.

Big Love: Loving from a Place of Authenticity and Courage

When I was offered a chance to review ‘Big Love’ I was skeptical- The title seemed too touchy feely.  My specialty is reading, and sometimes reviewing, psychology books so I was not even sure it would make  good match. Also I had never heard of Scott Stabile and the PR blurb seemed too good to be true. However, as they say don’t judge a book by its cover. The book is a memoir cum advice from hard learned life lessons, and though its not a psychology based book, I could not find any contradictions with what psychology tells us about life and love. The need for vulnerability, courage and authenticity is all essential for love to inform our lives and all these shine throughout the book- the book, and Scott, leads by example.

Scott writes in a witty, humorous and genuine style and its a pleasure reading though the book, each of whose chapters are woven around an anecdote/story from the life of Scott and end up with practical life lessons, tips, attitude changes with which you can benefit.

Scott has had his share of adventures, and misadventures, including writing the screenplay for a Hollywood film that bombed, losing his parents to murder when just 14, or having to deal with his brother’s and roommates addiction/ overdose as also having a strong Facebook community and being a member of a cult for 13 years – however its not the experiences themselves but what he has done with the experiences that make this book stand out.

I hope his efforts at spreading love get even bigger and this book finds the right readership.

The Four Kinds of Happiness

I have written previously about four major goals that one pursues in life: to recap they are Happiness, Success, Meaning and Morality. I have increasingly come to regard them as forming a stage wise progression- one moves from Happiness to Success to Meaning to Morality.


Aristotle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Its important to clarify here that by Happiness I mean here pleasure or the Pleasant life, as contrasted with the Successful life, the Meaningful life or the Virtuous life. Refer the Life Orientation Profile by Paul TP Wong.

One can even say that initially as a child/ adolescent, one is primarily driven by pleasant life; then in early adulthood the focus is on achieving success; in late adulthood the focus shifts to helping others and connecting to a bigger whole (meaning) and finally in old age the focus is entirely on being moral/spiritual.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that thousands of years earlier, Aristotle too had delineated four kinds of happiness worth striving for, I am mixing that with the three levels of happiness as elaborated by Nettle in his book Happiness: the science behind your smile.

  1. Laetus: Happiness derived from material objects; this is the domain of material and sensual pleasures; its also the domain of felt emotions on a day to day basis. The idea is to maximize positive emotions and minimize negative emotions. People primarily driven by this have the pleasant life orientation. These are momentary feelings of joy and pleasure as per Nettle. I refer to this as happiness in the colloquial sense.
  2. Felix: Happiness comes from ego gratification, being compared with others and coming out on top; this is the domain of achievement and competition. There is a lot of social comparison involved; you evaluate your life with reference to the life of others. Life satisfaction is a construct proper in this domain, where you implicitly compare yourselves with others and having more money can help you feel better here. People primarily driven by this have the successful life orientation. These are judgements or evaluations about feelings as per Nettle; your life satisfaction arises from how you perceive you are feeling relative to others. I refer to this as Success.
  3. Beatitudo: Happiness comes from helping others, and making the world a better place; this is the domain of altruism and co-operation. The orientation shifts from self to others.  There is drive towards generativity,  of living a meaningful life. People need to feel that their lives have meaning and they are contributing to a greater cause. People primarily driven by this have meaningful life orientation. These represent higher level of meaning as per Nettle. I refer to this as Meaning.
  4. Sublime Beatitudo: Happiness comes from being a moral person; experiencing moral joy of being a transcendent person whose nature is unconditional love.  There is drive towards living life in harmony with ones deepest values. People primarily driven by this have a virtuous life orientation. I refer to this as morality/ Integrity.

What is interesting is that one can find tantalizing neural and chemical correlates of above four kinds of happiness, I am extending the FTI model of Helen Fisher to happiness domain:

  1. Pleasant life: Material pleasure is associated with Dopamine system. All sorts of pleasure or rewards are associated with dopamine. Thus pleasure= dopamine. On the flip side, endorphins that are anti-pain may also be associated with this system. The focus is squarely on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Helen fisher also calls this the curious/energetic temperament.
  2. Successful life: Achievement and competitiveness are strongly associated with Testosterone system. All sorts of aggression and active competition can be traced to high testosterone. On the flip side, when the other party is too strong (say a predator), then if one wants to do something other than passive freezing, then flight or fight system kicks in and adrenaline (epinephrine) calls the shots. The focus is on winning/ fighting and succeeding. Helen Fisher calls this analytical/ tough-minded temperament.
  3. Meaningful life: Helping others and cooperation are strongly related to estrogen/Oxytocin system. All sorts of cuddling, bonding and trusting happens as a result of oxytocin and vasoprassin. On the flip side, I speculate that excessive self-centredeness may result in endocannaboid release and may also be part of this system. Helen Fisher calls this pro-social/ empathetic temperament.
  4. Virtuous life: Morality and integrity are associated with Serotonin. Serotonin is involved in both preventing harm and ensuring fairness- the two major dimensions of moral behavior. Religion and traditionalism would also be valid associates here. On the flip side, I see anti-anxiety GABA playing a role here. Helen Fisher calls this the cautious/ social norm compliant temperament.

To me the fact that one can come to the four kinds of happiness from multiple sources, vouches for their validity and utility; and the fact that we have some tantalizing candidates of ‘happy chemicals’ that can be mapped to the four kinds of happiness is another converging evidence.

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