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!

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