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!

Research Summaries: Childhood IQ and risk of bipolar disorder in adulthood: prospective birth cohort study

Today’s research summary focuses on an article [pdf] that throws some light on the oft debated question of the association between intelligence, creativity and mental illness.

Age-standardised disability-adjusted life year...

Age-standardised disability-adjusted life year (DALY) rates from Bipolar disorder by country (per 100,000 inhabitants). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. It has been hypothesized that various mental illnesses like Bipolar disorder, Schizophrenia etc persist in the gene pool because they are associated with some positive mechanisms that also confer survival or mating benefits, either to the patients or their close relatives. One such mechanism is thought to be apophenia (ability to see patterns, sometimes when there are none:-) ) , which is related to divergent thinking, imagination and creativity; another such mechanism is thought to be intelligence or the ability to solve complex adaptive problems flexibly.
  2. One method to settle the debate is correlational in nature. Sweden maintains rich and exhaustive data about its citizens. Mining data form the Swedish population registries, it was found that bipolar patients, as well as their relatives,  were more likely to be in creative professions;  and that bipolar traits may be associated with leadership qualities.
  3. Another method is to look at twins, one of which has the bipolar disorder, while the other hasn’t; and it was found that the other twin had high scores on sociability and verbal fluency; hinting that these may be linked to the bipolar proband.
  4. Yet another method is to look at longitudinal studies like the Dunedin studies, which track a child cohort since birth or early age and track them over time. The Dunedin studies found that low childhood IQ was associated with Schizophrenia spectrum disorder, depression an anxiety in adulthood; but high IQ was associated with mania in adulthood.
  5. The authors of this study used a longitudinal study design, analyzing the results of ALSPAC, a large UK birth cohort. This cohort consist of about 15,500 participation, but after all the dropout etc only about 2000 subjects results were part of the study results.
  6. This study focused on association of childhood IQ (which is an imperfect measure of true intelligence) with propensity for bipolar disorder in young adulthood. This study did not look at creativity and did not look at actual occurrence of bipolar disorder, thus all the results should not be extrapolated wildly.
  7. Childhood IQ at age 8 was measured using WISC-III and separate verbal and performance IQ as well as Full IQ scores were used in analysis. Propensity towards bipolar was measured using HCL-32 (hypo-mania checklist) which consist of 32 yes/no answers to statements like ‘I am more easily distracted’ when in a state of ‘high’ not associated with drug use. Only 28 items from this checklist were used.  This was administered at ages 22-23 years.
  8. Childhood IQ was indeed associated with higher scores on HCL-32. The scores on HCL-32 were converted into percentile scores. Those subjects, who were in the lowest decile of HCL-32, or alternately had the lowest risk for later bipolar, had IQ scores that were 10 points on average lower than those subjects who were in the highest decile of HCL32 (had the highest bipolar risk).
  9. The IQ scores were also made categorical. Looking at data from another way, those who had the lowest verbal IQ scores (were in the ‘extremely low’ of VIQ) had on an average 7.1 points less score on HCL-32 than the ‘average’ VIQ group. The ‘ Very superior’ VIA group had scores  1.83 points higher than ‘average’ IQ group.
  10. As the age at which, HCL-32 was administered, not many people have the first manic/ depressive episode; so it might be capturing risk towards bipolar rather than actual incidence. Verbal fluency seems a more stronger predictor of bipolar risk than intelligence per se.
  11. As per my views, Bipolar pro-band may have more to do with creativity than intelligence and if future studies could operationalise and measure childhood creativity and look at later risk or occurrence of bipolar disorder, than that will settle the debate to an extent. Also important to remember that intelligence and creativity though correlated are different, with one perhaps requiring a threshold of intelligence to be creative.
  12. Lastly, if you are intelligent or creative, don’t fear, the risks seem to be too small and other factors like stress play a much more important role in triggering an illness. And even when triggered, it can be managed well!

If you liked the study and want to dig deeper, the full text  article [pdf] is online.

Research Summaries: Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents

Today’s research summary focuses on a very early article by Angela Duckworth, that first catapulted her to fame. Co-authored with Martin Seligmen, the article focuses on how non-cognitive factors like self-control are a better predictor of scholastic achievement than say cognitive factors like IQ.

Two college students wrestling (collegiate, sc...

Two college students wrestling (collegiate, scholastic, or folkstyle) in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Authors use the awkward term self-discipline in the paper, but all they really meant was self-control, defining which, and around which, a rich literature already existed. Angela clarifies as much in her new MOOC on Coursera, so don’t start wondering what this new concept means in psychological literature.
  2. Self-control (which the authors surprisingly didn’t define), as per VIA, is the ability to be disciplined and to regulate what one feels and does; it involves both feelings and actions; it is the ability to delay present gratification for future benefits, and it also about not getting distracted by temptations and able to focus on the task at hand. It is the opposite of being impulsive.
  3. The present studies (two of them) focused on class VIII students and were partly driven by Angela’s observation as a math teacher that hard working students who could control their impulses, sometimes fared better than those who could grasp concepts easily. That drove part of the hypothesis.
  4. Earlier works has shown that Self-control, as measured by Marshmallow test, in 4 year olds, can predict positive life outcomes decades later; similarly, in college students out of 32 measured personality traits (like extraversion, energy levels etc), only self-control predicted later CGPA more robustly than earlier SAT scores. Thus, it was reasonable to hypothesize that self-control in eighth graders will predict academic achievement better than IQ.
  5. Self-control is a difficult thing to measure accurately. Thus, they used self-reports, teacher reports, parent reports as well as a test that gave students hypothetical choices between a small reward now or a big reward later. Angela actually wanted to do an age appropriate  test similar to marshmallow test with the eighth graders, but Marty was skeptical; in the second study they did include a behavioral measure of delay of gratification task, whereby they actually handed out 1$ envelope to students with a choice of  keeping that or returning it now to get 2$ next week.
  6. Academic achievement was measured by grades achieved at end term, attendance, selection into a high school program, and achievement test scores.
  7. IQ was measured using a standard IQ test; keep in mind that IQ is a very narrow assessment for a part of broader cognitive factors/ intelligence.
  8. What they found was that self-control not only predicted academic achievement and who would improve school grades over the class term, but that it was twice an effective predictor than IQ (explained twice as much variance).
  9. This is an important paper as it makes the case for enhancing and working on the self-control of students, for better academic performance. Self-control, by all means, and like any other character strength, is malleable and can be increased by proper interventions.
  10. This paper is personally relevant to me, as last year I worked with IXth class students on their character strengths and this year I am working with VIII class students focusing on their character strengths.  Although the results, I believe, will be applicable and generalize to other age groups, its heartening to note that at least for VIII class, barring cross-cultural effects, there is proven research showing that increasing strengths like self-control pays big dividends.

if the above has you wanting to read more, go to the source- the original article can be found here.

Practicing deliberately for excellence


Malcolm Gladwell had popularized the ‘10,000 hour’ rule to expertise in his popular book ‘Outliers’. As per his formulation, anyone who puts in 10,000 hours of effort could excel in a particular field. What one required was determination and raw effort. He had based these conclusions on the work of Anders Ericsson and colleagues and now Anders Ericsson (with Robert Pool) in his new book ‘Peak’ has tried to clear the muddied waters surrounding the 10,000 hour rule.

You can read an excerpt from peak here , where Anders himself clarifies that it doesn’t necessarily take 10,000 hours to develop expertise- for some it takes longer while for others it is much lesser. Also that the number of hours required varies form domain to domain;  and that for exceptional performance you may need another additional 10,000 hours; he adds all that nuance but the most important caveat is that not any effort will do, it has to be 10,000 or more hours of ‘deliberate practice‘.

So what is ‘deliberate practice’ and how does it differ form mere blind efforts? As Scott Barry Kaufman brilliantly explains in this article:

Deliberate practice involves a series of techniques designed to learn efficiently and purposefully. This involves goal setting, breaking down complex tasks into chunks, developing highly complex and sophisticated representations of possible scenarios, getting out of your comfort zone, and receiving constant feedback.

And this is over and above purposeful practice , which again is a different beast from mere effort or repetition and involves, well-defined specific goals, focused efforts, , feedback and getting out of one’s comfort zones. Add to that specialized learning (and teaching) techniques available in a field, learning from a coach or mentor to constantly push oneself beyond one’s limits, the use of mental representations and  conscious and intentional improvement efforts and you have a perfect recipe for deliberate practice.

However, important caveats apply.  Deliberate practice is useful/ applicable only in highly specialized domains (what a downer!).

But as they note midway through their book — and I believe this is a really important caveat— the techniques of deliberate practice are most applicable to “highly developed fields” such as chess, sports, and musical performance in which the rules of the domain are well established and passed on from generation to generation. The principles of deliberate practice do not work nearly as well for professions in which there is “little or no direct competition, such as gardening and other hobbies”, and “many of the jobs in today’s workplace– business manager, teacher, electrician, engineer, consultant, and so on.”

Important points to note here: for most messy fields, like say expertise in psychology, the 10,000 hours rule may not apply as there are no clear techniques for being a  better psychologist that one can learn from a  coach/ mentor and improve by getting instant feedback on one’s skill as a psychologist – so there is little room for deliberate practice…..moreover deliberate practice as I understand applies more to development of skills and not so much to knowledge, so many academic disciplines will likely remain out of its ambit.

I myself have been guilty of wrongly understanding and applying the 10,000 hour rule- my about page proudly proclaims that I have developed expertise in psychology by the hard way- by putting in more than 10,000 hours of self-study- however as long as the 10,000 hour is rightly applicable to domains in which one can learn under the guidance of a coach and consciously keep improving and pushing limits, my 10,000 hours of self study is unlikely to make me an expert or anything like that as per the research is concerned.

However, I can think of one example from my life where I did indulge in deliberate practice. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, it was while preparing for a high stakes educational assessment called JEE (entrance test of IITs‘), and this may be applicable to other high stake testing like GRE/GMAT /SAT also.

One can consider the final exam / test as a performance and all the prior preparation like mock tests etc as practice. Now, I used to study in  a coaching class under the guidance of an expert teacher in mathematics, and the teacher (Mr Bansal) used to stretch us beyond our comfort zones by constantly exposing us to problems that were difficult to solve and also helping us see what we can do to improve and where we needed to put in more efforts. Although the whole duration of preparation was about an year, and I definitely did not become a maths expert after that, it was enough to crack the JEE, but the larger point is that if that sort of deliberate practice was continued, I might have become an expert in maths.

So having just said above that deliberate practice may not apply to academic pursuits,  on second thoughts I would grant that it may apply very well to some academic pursuits by building skills of thinking and solving problems.

Creativity of course would be a different beast and as Scott rightly notes may involve more than the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. But while everyone may aspire for creativity, and its origins still remain mysterious, Anders with ‘Peak’ had demystified how to be an expert in any field.

‘Peak’ is a much needed and timely book that will help you apply the principles of deliberate practice to all parts of your life , including your work life, and can take you to the next level- of course you will have to put n the right efforts, keep motivated , find the right coach , but the sky is the limit once you decide to achieve expertise in the domain and Anders is there to help.

Do yourself a favor, do read this book on expertise , by the world’s foremost authority on the subject and then choose a domain and stick to it. You may surprise yourself with what you are able to achieve

Autism and ADHD: the intelligent and the creative child!
A new study by Ruthsatz and Urbach is doing the rounds nowadays. That study has nothing to do with Autism or ADHD per se. The study focuses on child prodigies and finds that they have high levels of intelligence, enhanced working memory and that they pay attention to details.

What the study also found was high level of autistic relatives and high scores on Autism spectrum for the prodigies. The relation between autism and prodigiousness was mediated by the endo-phenotype ‘paying attention to detail’ and none of the other symptoms of ASD seemed to play a role.

Many savants also are high on ASD and have exception working as well as long term memory. There too they pay excessive attention to details and are fascinated by speical interests.


On the other hand there is gathering literature that suggests that the ADHD kid is basically on the creative side of the spectrum – restless, trying multiple strategies,  having diffused and peripheral attention, and to an extent novelty and sensation seeking.

Also, if one thinks about that for a minute, autism and ADHD seem to be opposed on a number of dimensions. The three basic features of ADHD are 1) inattentiveness and distractibility vs  too much focus and fascination for an object shown by Autistic kid 2) impulsiveness vs restricted and repetitive motions and interests of the autistic kid and finally 3) hyperactivity vs restrained interactions and communications of the autistic kid.

There is also some data from fly models that suggest that autism and ADHD are opposites in a sense.

I may even go ahead and stick my neck and say that while autism is primarily characterized by emotion of Interest/ fascination/ attention ; ADHD is characterized by emotion of Wonder/Awe/surprise.

One theory of autism suggests that the social and communicative difficulties arise as the child hides in a cocoon to prevent over-stimulation and sensory overload; a theory of ADHS says that the child is under-stimulated and needs stimulants like Ritalin to achieve baseline of activation and sensory stimulus.

Another popular theory of autism posits that it arises primarily due to ‘weak central coherence’, or inability to see the context/ gestalt/ ‘the big picture’. The ADHD kid on the other hand is hypothesized to use a lot of peripheral attention and daydreams missing what is being centrally taught in the classroom.

And that brings me to the root of the differences in my opinion; while the Autism spectrum is characterized by a local processing style, the ADHD-psychotic spectrum is characterized by a global  processing style.

Some clarifications are due here. I believe ADHD to fall on the psychotic spectrum and have been proposing the autism and psychosis as opposites on a continuum model for close to eternity.

Also, when I say global/local processing styles I dont restrict the application to perception alone, but extend it to include cognitive style too.

There is a lot of work that has been done on global/ local processing styles with respect to perception, using Navon letter tasks and it is fairly established that normally people lean towards the global processing style.

Forrester et al extend this to cover there GLOMOSYS system that posits two basic types of perceptual/cognitive style- global and local.

It is instructive to pause and note here that psychosis is associated with a global processing style while autism with attention to details.

It is also instructive to pause and note that similar to autism-psychosis continuum , it seems Intelligence and creativity are also in a sense opposed to each other. Also while creativity  is associated with broad cognitive style that is divergent; intelligence is conceived of as narrow and focused application of abilities.

That brings me to my final analogy: while autistic kids may have pockets of intelligence and savantism and may be driving the evolution of intelligence; it is the ADHD kids who are more likely to be creative and are driving the evolution of creativity.

The romantic notion that psychosis is the price for creativity may not be untrue.

Joanne Ruthsatz, & Jourdan B. Urbach (2012). Child prodigy: A novel cognitive profile places elevated general intelligence,
exceptional working memory and attention to detail at the root
of prodigiousness Intelligence DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2012.06.002

Jens F¨orster, & Laura Dannenberg (2010). GLOMOsys: A Systems Account of Global Versus Local Processing Psychological Inquiry, DOI: 10.1080/1047840X.2010.487849

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