Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Luis Alvarez

The memory of persistence

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In Origins of Genius, which is one of my favorite books on creativity, the psychologist Dean Simonton makes an argument that I’ve tried to bear in mind ever since I first read it. While discussing the problem of creative productivity, Simonton states emphatically: “If the number of influential works is directly proportional to the total number of works produced, then the creators with the most masterpieces will be those with the most ignored and neglected products! Even the most supreme creative genius must have their careers punctuated with wasted efforts.” After quoting W.H. Auden, who observes that a major poet will tend to write more bad poems than a minor one, he continues:

If the creative genius is generating failures as well as successes, this seems to support the assumption that the creative process is to a certain extent blind. Even the greatest creators possess no direct and secure path to truth or beauty. They cannot guarantee that every published idea will survive further evaluation and testing at the hands of audiences or colleagues. The best the creative genius can do is to be as prolific as possible in generating products in the hope that at least some subset will survive the test of time.

This still ranks as one of the most significant insights into the creative process that I’ve ever seen, and Simonton sums it up elsewhere, like a true poet, in a form that can be easily remembered: “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.”

Simonton has a new book out this week, The Genius Checklist, with a long excerpt available on Nautilus. In the article, he focuses on the problem of intelligence tests, and in particular on two cases that point to the limitations of defining genius simply as the possession of a high IQ. One revolves around Lewis M. Terman, the creator of the modern intelligence scale, who had the notion of testing thousands of students and tracking the top performers over time. The result was an ongoing study of about 1,500 men and women, known as the “Termites,” some of whom are still alive today. As Simonton notes, the results didn’t exactly support Terman’s implicit assumptions:

None of [the Termites] grew up to become what many people would consider unambiguous exemplars of genius. Their extraordinary intelligence was channeled into somewhat more ordinary endeavors as professors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and other professionals…Furthermore, many Termites failed to become highly successful in any intellectual capacity. These comparative failures were far less likely to graduate from college or to attain professional or graduate degrees, and far more likely to enter occupations that required no higher education whatsoever…Whatever their differences, intelligence was not a determining factor in those who made it and those who didn’t.

Terman also tested two future Nobel laureates—Luis Alvarez and William Shockley—who were rejected because they didn’t score highly enough. And Simonton notes that neither James Watson nor Richard Feynman, whose biography is actually called Genius, did well enough on such tests to qualify for Mensa.

Even if you’re a fan of Marilyn vos Savant, this isn’t particularly surprising. But I was even more interested in Simonton’s account of the work of Catharine Cox, Terman’s colleague, who decided to tackle the problem from the opposite direction—by starting with a list of known luminaries in all fields and trying to figure out what their tested IQs would have been, based solely on biographical information. This approach has obvious problems as well, of course, but her conclusion, which appears in her book The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses, seems reasonable enough: “High but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence.” And in her discussion of qualities that seem predictive of success, persistence is prominently mentioned:

We may conclude that the following traits and trait elements appearing in childhood and youth are diagnostic of future achievement: an unusual degree of persistence—tendency not to be changeable, tenacity of purpose, and perseverance in the face of obstacles—combined with intellective energy—mental work bestowed on special interests, profoundness of apprehension, and originality of ideas—and the vigorous ambition expressed by the possession to the highest degree of desire to excel.

Cox concludes: “Achievements…are not the accidents of a day. They are the natural outgrowth in individuals of superior general powers of persistent interest and great zeal combined with rare special talents.”

If we really want to identify the geniuses of the future, it seems, we should look for persistence as well as intelligence, and we might even be tempted to develop a test that would gauge a student’s “tenacity of purpose.” The ability to remain focused in the face of failures and setbacks is clearly related to Simonton’s rule about quality and quantity, which implies that a genius, to borrow John Gardner’s definition of the true writer, is someone who doesn’t quit. But there’s an even more important point to be made here. As I noted just the other day, it’s easier to fail repeatedly when you occupy a social position that protects you to some extent from the consequences. It can be hard to be “as prolific as possible in generating products” when even one mistake might end your creative journey forever. And our culture has been far more forgiving of some categories of people than of others. (In discussing Terman’s results, Simonton makes the hard decision to omit women from the group entirely: “We’re talking only of the males here, too. It would be unfair to consider the females who were born at a time in which all women were expected to become homemakers, no matter how bright.” And he might also have cited the cultural pressures that discourage a woman from taking risks that are granted to a man.) When you look at lists of canonical geniuses, like the authors of the great books, they can start to seem maddeningly alike—and if we define privilege in part as the freedom to make repeated mistakes, it’s no wonder. Over time, this also reduces the diversity of the ideas that are available for cultural selection, which can lead to a crisis in itself. The only solution is to increase the range of voices, and it isn’t easy. In the absence of such advantages, even the individuals who beat the odds must have been confronted at every turn by excellent reasons to give up. But nevertheless, they persisted.

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