October 13, 2010

What makes Genius : Part 6 : Context

Almost all struggles for those infected with genius is a struggle of context. Wrong place, wrong time and the gift isn’t activated. Or is only realised well after their lives have played out. When things are set in the right context we have a sense of their relevance to us.

Life flourishes in a relatively slim band. For our planet, being nestled neatly in the Goldilocks Zone, with just the right tilt, afforded us to neither a fireball nor snowball planet be. It took a few billion years to get to this happy Holocene era, wherein life has blossomed – wildly – for the last 12,000-odd years. Opportunistic as life is to maximize good seasons, we humans cracked the game faster than anything that’s gone before us – bacteria may be more successful, but they’ve been around for longer.

Our rapidly evolving tools have allowed us to tinker with time and space. We bend the physical environment to suit our specific needs or if we’re lucky, simply fly to another part of the world where we’re happier, or take a pill to make it so. The narrow band of temperature, pressure, light, sound that humans can operate in natively hasn’t stopped us from dangling into volcanoes, visiting oceanic abysses, listening to the crackle of radiation from distant galaxies, see in the dark with special goggles, command the fates of animals that would otherwise quickly dispatch of a tool-less human, we even routinely get our children to tinker with hazardous chemicals as part of their education.
Who needs big sharp teeth? We have these super-senses and protections that we can apply at will, without the encumberance of waiting for nature’s slow delicate engineering to select it out for us. As a species our context opportunity band is vast. We even have representatives living off-planet for goodness sake.
It isn’t as easy to insulate our brains from context as we do our bodies though.

“You can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel” – Prof Phil Zimbardo

Activating genius appears to require a narrow band to open within the opportunity spectrum. Intelligence is robust and adaptive to almost any circumstance like a hardy weed, but genius is fragile. Too much money or average and uninteresting problems can leave it dormant – as confused venture capitalists in the dotcom boom or parents of evidently bright but underachieving kids have learned to their frustration. Unless character and tenacity are available to bolster the mind, curiosity and courage are blunted out of social convenience, in grownups as much as in young ones.
As fortunate as it may sound to have a genius around, it’s generally an unwanted intrusion. They require an unusual amount of time and space to devote to seemingly unproductive tinkering, they’re always experimenting, testing their ideas out on the world – most of which will be useless/ugly/odd, the urge to tick the cultural checklist of expected behaviours is often mislaid as they wander into realms the rest of us don’t inhabit yet. And most often they aren’t even recognised – it takes talent to spot ’em – most people can’t discern genius from weird (don’t believe? check the Joshua Bell/Washington Post experiment at post’s end).
Smart we get, genius eh, it’s generally a little too far away from current measures of celebrity – whether in science or the arts. Until such time we can’t relate to them, their context hasn’t been established in our frame of reference yet.

Being in the right place at the right time looks a lot like luck, and sometimes it is. But there are ways to stack the odds.


Genius takes what is available to everyone else in a similar environment, but repurposes common elements to solve a known problem in an elegant and unexpected way. Sometimes it comes from the effort of a single person, but most often it’s a collaborative effort of a cluster of people racing each other to the breakthrough; sometimes one person fits the last piece and snags the accolades. Ask any research scientist.

There’s an awfully good set of reasons for smart people to hang out in the same environment together. Sometimes that’s as big as a city – we’re recognising that some cities crystallize a creative class of pioneers, engineers and the cultural experimenters – sometimes it’s in small gatherings like the Lunar Society or TED. But gather they must. The physical context we find ourselves in shapes us profoundly. Stuff happens in physical proximity that simply misses out in digital contact – which is why online dating is still dominated by local searches with 100km range. Choose your spaces wisely and if you have no choice, gather the finest people and tools to defy stagnant or oppressive contexts with vigour. Genius begets genius as contagiously as evil begets evil.


Being too far ahead of the recognition – and reward – curve has most often led to the archetype of the starving genius battling their life through, and only generations down the line getting what they were banging on about; consecrating museums, cars and companies to their legacy, buying their creations for millions. Smart and talented is almost invariably better than genius if you care to enjoy success while you are with body. Being ahead of your time sounds like a compliment, but is more often a curse. Short of grand old style patience and fortitude, that may pay off eventually, no other time hackery is surer than education. Educating your audience – through informal/ social learning infused through cultural experiences in particular – can shorten the time between generational changes and hasten bobrow-schopenhauerthe crowd to casting the glad eye your way.

“All truth passes through three stages.
First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer

You need to to be in the right context to frame your work appropriately, otherwise most people simply won’t see its value. Place, people, price give cues to how we allocate worth. Messed up, but there it is. Let’s not totter into the sticky debate of absolutism and relativism, save to say that humans have a hard time recognising standalone genius.

Maybe this will make you feel better: (long, but worth the time-out; a little context: it’s a Pulitzer Prize winning piece) >> Pearls before Breakfast : wherein one of the world’s finest musicians + multimillion dollar Stradivarius test whether people have an innate sense of appreciating quality. (Video snippet & spoiler below)

It doesn’t just happen at the subtle world of the arts, the same goes for simple stuff like food, we have no reference for beautiful artisanal coffee (wine, chocolate, pizza..) until we’ve had really bad coffee and have something to weigh it against, and even then, if the packaging & price don’t give us the right clues, we may miss it. Ah, being human. The upshot of all of this is that even if you are most exceedingly brilliant person in your field, if you’re out of context you’re most likely to be undervalued and overlooked.

“For humans, everything is relative. There are no absolute measures. Our judgement becomes swamped by local context. We can only tell you how pleasurable or painful an experience is based on our previous experience of what is painful or pleasurable, hot or cold, slow or fast and so on.” – Nick Chater (Professor of Cognitive and Decision Sciences UCL)


Contextual Links:

The International Space Station
Phil Zimbardo
The Big Bang’s Echo
Lunar Society
Dan Ariely’s Books – must reads if this fascinates you
the Hershey’s Kiss and Pricing Irrationality
Texts without Context writing and the Web (NY Times)
How Supermodels are like Toxic Assets
Pearls before Breakfast

October 13, 2010