What Is Genius?

Went to the Jelly Belly Factory on a field trip with my daughter’s 2nd grade class. The young man assigned to escort us on the tour misquoted a brilliant saying by one of my favorite icons.

The guide delivered his canned speech, spoke of how long and complex the process to make even one single jelly bean, but that nothing great every came easily, “as the inventor, Thomas Edison said: ‘Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.’”

But that is NOT what Tom said. He said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

So what is my issue with the mere 9% our tour guide misquoted?

Mr. Thomas Alva Edison was trying to tell us that to get good (‘genius’) at ANYTHING takes HARD WORK (‘perspiration’), and a lot of it. He should know. It took him and an educated team of men many years and over 5,000 exploded glass bulbs to invent the light bulb.

Still, you say, it’s only 9%. The eight year olds the tour guide was talking to didn’t even know what percent meant. And while this may be true, there were 15 adults with the pack of 40 kids the guide was leading. And the parents understood. Most had probably never heard the saying before. It is somewhat obscure, which is a shame because it is an astounding insight. What the tour guide misquoted did not communicate the gravity of Mr. Edison’s meaning.

In the beginning of the 4th grade our son failed several math tests in a row, and upon inquire we found he didn’t understand the material. When asked why he hadn’t asked for help from either his teacher or us, he confessed he felt afraid he’d look dumb. Having always done fairly well in math, when he got lost he felt too stupid to ask. He was supposed to be smart, but maybe he wasn’t he cried, clearly shamed.

I hugged him, held him, and reminded him of old Tom’s saying for the hundredth time. Then my husband and I got to work, played tag team, alternating afternoons, evenings and weekends to teach our son what he needed to know. Within three month of daily math he not only grasped the material presented but excelled to the top of Math Swap in his grade level and remained there through elementary school.

Our son now loves math. It’s his favorite subject. He works hard at it and that hard work just placed him in the most advanced math class at his new middle-school. Failing those math tests in the 4th grade turned into a great education for all of us. We got to see directly how hard work pays off. And though our son may not always tow the line of excellence, he now knows that ‘smart’ is not given, but earned.

The New York Times Magazine had an article a few months back on ‘genius.’ It sited Anders Ericsson’s research on The Making of an Expert, which concluded ‘genius’ wasn’t born, as previously thought, but made.

“Outstanding performance is the product of years of deliberate practice, not any innate talent or skill.” According to K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely.

Most everyone starts out with the 1% inspiration. It comes with being human, and our ability to think abstractly.

Few of us have the tenacity, or the determination to endure failure after failure and continue through that last 5-10% it takes to achieve excellence. Most of us settle on gawking at greatness instead of pursuing it.

So, the question isn’t ‘What is genius,’ or even excellence, but what motivates persistence?

Good grades, or better at piano or guitar, or soccer, [or parenting] takes ‘deliberate practice.’ We need to impart Tom’s wisdom to our children, teach them by example, with unwavering diligence that reaching their potential can not be achieved blowing most of the day in front of the PS3 playing Street Fighter VI, or rereading Harry Potter for the 5th time. Work with our kids, nag them, hound them, but get them to devote the 99% perspiration— the time, energy and effort necessary to put them on the path to success. Whether it be a school report, a science project or a math test, achieving excellence is not only doable for most every child, but for all of us with hard work and persistence.


Something weird I found on the net but can’t corroborate:
“After struggling to develop a viable electric light-bulb for years, Thomas Edison was interviewed by a young reporter who boldly asked Mr. Edison if he felt like a failure and if he thought he should just give up by now. Perplexed, Edison replied, "Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp." And shortly after that, and over 10,000 attempts, Edison invented the light bulb.”


neonator said...

Interesting article. I'd like to add that the perspiration part can't be just mindless repetition, there must be some intention and some learning along the way.

Anonymous said...

I am inspired, not by Mr. Edison's perspiration but rather his passion, determination and tenacity. Your story is similar to his in that he too was empowered by his mother. Nothing like the power of a mother on a child!

Bert said...

Interesting parallels to Gladstone's Outliers, which I'm currently reading and was thinking of mentioning to you anyway- fascinating stuff!

J. Cafesin said...

Thanks B! I'll check it out.