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What Makes a Genius?

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What makes a genius is a story that never gets told, argues Adam Westbrook, the creative mind behind The Man Who Turned Paper Into Pixels. There is a single thread that connects history’s greatest achievers. “Well,” Westbrook argues, “actually it’s pretty simple but it’s the complete opposite to how we think today.”

It’s about the difficult years. In his book Mastery, which studies the patterns of history’s greatest achievers, Robert Greene describes this period as:

A largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years [and] receive little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery.

Michael Faraday, who was brought to our attention in Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field, a recent book recommendation of Charlie Munger, worked as a lab assistant for 7 years before he was even allowed to do his own experiments. “Stephen King wrote every day for nine years before he even sold his first novel. And John Coltrane practiced the saxophone every day for 17 years before he got his first big hit.”

This sounds an awful lot like hard work. Today people think that genius and success are instantaneous and easy, yet this is the case only when extreme luck is involved. In the vast majority of cases it involves a struggle that we never see — the hours of deliberate practice, the failed businesses, the long nights writing, the paintings that failed to please clients. We never read about the struggle. And while there are no assurances that with struggle comes reward, without it the odds are lower.

Still curious? Check out part one of the video series as well as Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image.