The Nature of Genius

September 15, 2011

In a classic article from 2006, Daniel Pink at Wired Magazine took a step back to look at what genius actually looks like.  How does innovation come about?  Is it instantaneous?  A flash of brilliance, burning bright in some young prodigy.  Or is innovation found through trial and error?  The deliberate accumulation of life experience that blossoms to brilliance in later years.

To David Galenson, an economist, both types of genius exist and foster innovation.  Galenson calls the first type of genius the "conceptual innovator":

"'Conceptual innovators,' as Galenson calls them, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young. Think Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles. They make the rest of us feel like also-rans."

Then there are the "experimental innovators":

"Geniuses like Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers."

As Galenson argues, both types are central to innovation and the creative process.  Though he found these two types by analyzing painters and artists throughout history, Galenson's insights hold true across the disciplines.

Why look at this article today, some 5-plus years after it was written?  As growth stalls throughout the Western world, we are looking for the skilled worker, even the genius, to bring about the innovation that will foster growth today and especially in the future.  We are victims of our own success, wealthy beyond the means of most other countries in the world, and yet struggling to find the next big thing that will drive us further into the future.  By knowing what sort of innovation to look for, we know that this growth may come as much through the next Steve Jobs as it may from a Sam Walton.  Both types of genius are to be fostered through our policies, educational system, and in our workplaces.