What's the most essential quality of a genius? Let me answer the question with a question: What drives creativity and innovation? Ideas. What drives ideas? Questions. If you trace the genealogy of genius output, you eventually find your way to a question.
It was a question that led to the idea that led to the output. But we’re still not done with the causal chain. There are two more questions to ask: Who asked the question? That takes you to an individual. And finally, why did that individual ask the question? There are various answers to the last “why” question: Geniuses ask questions for all sorts of reasons — including need, interest, curiosity, exploration, fun, passion, pain, service, love, ambition and competitiveness, to name a few.
Regardless of the particular motive, it all starts with a person who is willing to ask and willing to search for an answer. Yes, geniuses are creative. I don’t question that. But as important as creative drive is to creative genius, the quality of independence is just as important. It may be even more important. The courage to ask and pursue may be the single most important factor.
Steve Jobs observed, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
When I think about that statement, I ask why more people don’t try to make new connections. Why don’t more people have a sense of independent exploration?
Each year the MacArthur “Genius” Fellows are awarded annually to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” That’s the official statement from the McArthur Foundation. What it clarifies is the intimate relationship between originality and self-direction.
The implications are massively important. We should worry about cultivating independence before we cultivate creativity, because the one is an enabling condition of the other. Independence spawns creative thought and action. In other words, people are independent before they are creative, not the other way around.
There is perhaps no more common pattern among creative geniuses. In fact, I suggest that you go to the MacArthur Foundation website and read profiles of the 2011 “Genius" grant recipients, because they are nothing alike except in their self-directed natures. Beyond the usual suspects of scientists and academics, the latest crop of fellows includes a silversmith, cellist, poet, jazz percussionist, architect, radio shows host and public historian. As you watch these people interviewed, the common quality of self-directedness is extraordinary.
One of the recipients, Peter Hessler, a long-form journalist, went to China for 10 years, mastered the language and produced uncommonly rich accounts of a rapidly changing society. Now he wants to go to Egypt with his wife, start all over again, learning Arabic this time, and document that society in a similar way. His independence precedes his creativity. What if Hessler were highly risk and loss-averse, or spent a lot of time watching TV? He never would have left the country.
In her book, "Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born," Denise Shekerjian discovered that “the creative person is one who can look at the same things as everybody else but see something different. A creative act takes unremarkable parts to create an unforgettable whole.”
How, then, could Hessler produce rich narratives of China’s rapidly urbanizing landscape? Certainly there are hundreds of other journalists in China who see the same things. They see the same things, but Hessler sees more. He digs deeper. His powers of observation and interpretation are more developed. Why? Because he was more self-directed to immerse himself in the language and culture. He’s more independent and therefore more creative.
Another one of the recipients, Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an African-American economist at Harvard, who is striving to relieve racial inequality in America, flatly states, “I will not my let own personal views stand in the way of helping children.” That’s a bold declaration of independence if I’ve ever heard one.
So what makes a genius? Independence first.
Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.