Genius must sweat it out with intensity and focus

I would like to speak about genius from personal experience, but I can't. All I know is what I have read and seen

I would like to speak about genius from personal experience, but I can't. All I know is what I have read and seen. Being a genius is hard work. Although one must be very clever, it isn't necessary to be wise or kind, and eccentricities of behaviour are common. I will illustrate these points by reference to some examples of scientific genius.

Probably the best and most succinct definition of genius was coined by Thomas Edison: "Genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration." A genius, by definition, must produce brilliantly original work. This cannot be achieved without accepting and working out the profound truth in Edison's statement.

Edison himself was the embodiment of his definition. The most successful inventor of the modern age, he received patents for 1,093 inventions and saw 1,052 of them go into commercial production in his lifetime.

A principal reason genius is such hard work is that to produce a successful breakthrough it is often necessary first to go through a long succession of failed attempts. Failure is often a necessary precursor to success.


Edison performed more than 11,000 experiments before he discovered the carbon-impregnated filament that led to the first successful electric light bulb. He was interviewed after he had carried out 5,000 unsuccessful attempts to find a working filament.

The reporter asked: "Isn't it time you gave up your attempt after 5,000 failures?" Edison replied: "Young man, you don't understand how the world works. I haven't had a single failure. I am simply 5,000 steps closer to success than I was when I started these experiments."

Sir Isaac Newton is widely regarded as the greatest scientist who ever lived. His many discoveries in physics and mathematics laid the groundwork for the modern era. He was asked later in life how he had been able to make such an enormous contribution. Newton replied: "By thinking of nothing else."

Newton's assistant described his work habits. Newton was "so intent, so serious upon his studies that he ate very sparingly, he often forgot to eat at all. He very rarely went to bed till two or three of the clock, sometimes not till five or six, lying about four or five hours."

The "absent-minded professor" is a stereotypical image of the academic. It is not an accurate picture of the average academic, but could describe a small minority of brilliant academics deeply engrossed for long periods in highly creative efforts.

The absent-mindedness here is not to be understood as any sort of vacuous day-dreaming. Far from being "absent", the mind is intensely active but present elsewhere.

Newton's assistant once found the great man sitting on the edge of the bed and leaning down to adjust his shoe. He left the room and returned five hours later to find Newton still sitting in the same configuration, deep in thought.

Some productive line of reasoning had struck Newton as he tied his shoelace and, for him, the obvious thing to do was to pursue that thought, to the exclusion of everything else, until he reached a conclusion.

THE intense focus of the genius can produce very eccentric behaviour. Newton was very introverted and had few friends. However, he would occasionally have guests in his rooms in Cambridge.

On such occasions it would not be uncommon for him to leave to get a bottle of wine from the other room, be struck by a thought on the way, forget about the bottle of wine and sit down at his desk and begin working. Hours later his friends would get up and quietly leave.

Another misconception about genius is that sometimes great discoveries are made by accident. This is rarely if ever the case. As Louis Pasteur said: "Fortune favours the prepared mind." It is possible for anyone to accidentally observe something of great significance.

But if the observing mind is not extremely bright, confident and disciplined, the significance of the observation is usually not appreciated. Also, if the observing personality is not capable of extremely hard work and of overcoming numerous failures, the matter will never be pursued to the point of proving the case and making the breakthrough.

In 1697 Gottfried von Leibniz and Johann Bernoulli unearthed a mathematical problem of the most enormous difficulty. Neither could solve it and issued the problem as a challenge to any mathematician in Europe. The motivation behind the challenge was probably an attempt by a jealous von Leibniz to embarrass Newton who was seen as the greatest mathematician of the age.

The problem was delivered to Newton's house. Newton came home from work at four in the afternoon, took the problem to his room and did not emerge until four the following morning, with the solution. No other mathematician in Europe was capable of solving this problem, but 12 years earlier Newton had developed a mathematical technique that could handle it.

Newton published the solution to the problem anonymously, but when Bernoulli read the manuscript he immediately recognised the author, declaring: "I recognise the lion by the mark of his paw."

So, if you are very clever and want to be a genius, you know what you must do. You must have a brilliant idea, focus intensely on it and work extremely hard to develop it, going through innumerable failures and rejections without losing heart until eventually you make your breakthrough. Incidentally, if you want to be successful at any level below that of genius, this is also the formula you must follow.

William Reville is a senior lecturer in biochemistry at UCC