By the time he was thirteen, Picasso was already a master painter.
He was admitted to Barcelona’s School of Fine Arts, where he completed the usually-month-long entrance exam in a week. In fact, he was so good that it’s rumoured his art-teacher father despaired over his talent and declared that his barely-teenage son had surpassed him.
There are stories like this everywhere. Mini Mozart, jumping onto a piano stool with help from his father, before dazzling audiences all over Europe – a marvel that’s been replicated with every precocious child pianist appearing on The Ellen Show. And although one normally pictures Albert Einstein as an eccentric old man with frizzy hair, it was in his twenties that he published four papers that showcased magnificent discoveries about how the universe worked.
It’s easy to feel inadequate in the face of such stories. All of them seem to have been privy to some power, inaccessible to all but a select few. Most people flounder in their twenties, but for those individuals, their immortal status was cemented.
What is genius?
The idea of genius being made, not born, has been around for a while – even Shakespeare, himself a historical genius, knew it, proclaiming in Twelfth Night ‘some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em’. But most of us still default to the assumption that those who are born great remain so, and those who weren’t have no way of reaching that gilded pedestal.
In fact, it seems as though once you hit thirty, you’ve lost your chance.
As it turns out, the way we think of genius and inspiration isn’t complete. Inspiration is usually described as a spark, where someone feels something close to an electric shock and suddenly finds that all the pieces have fallen into place.
There are plenty of moments like that scattered throughout history. Isaac Newton’s falling apple and subsequent discovery of gravity. Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin. Even the fabled philosopher Aristotle, in letting out the immortal cry of ‘Eureka!’ when he realised objects float in water.
But that’s not the only way inspiration happens. Sometimes it seeps in instead of striking.
Conceptual vs experimental innovators
David Galenson, eminent economist, proposed a theory of innovation which challenges the idea of genius being defined by young people. It split innovators into two categories: conceptual and experimental. Conceptual innovators are the ones we’re used to – they’re the prodigies who pick up a pen and write a best-selling novel right off the bat. They thrive off moments of concentrated inspiration, going off their instincts to create something remarkable.
Experimental innovators are a different story altogether. They generally share a few characteristics – slow to break through, careful and conscientious, riddled with self doubt. Usually, they aren’t very good until they’ve toiled for years, and more often than not, decades.
The latter might seem undesirable – after all, who wants to embark on a journey of creative production knowing they might not make anything worthwhile (potentially until decades have passed)? However, the latter also includes people like Mark Twain, Alfred Hitchcock, and Paul Cézanne.
Malcolm Gladwell, famed writer of Outliers, extrapolated on Galenson’s theories by pointing out that experimental innovators aren’t visionaries who were only discovered in their old age, but that ‘what Galenson’s argument suggests is something else – that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.’
It’s a unique proposition, especially when contrasted with the commonplace understanding of his 10,000 hours idea. However, those 10, 000 hours of practice aren’t a guarantee of innovation. They’re more like a guarantee of proficiency – after all, if you spent 10, 000 hours, almost three hours a day, on drawing pictures of plants, you’re going to create some decent looking plants.
So after 10, 000 hours of deliberate practice, experimental innovators in many fields are decent. They’re proficient in a way you’d expect after logging in that amount of time. But it may take significantly longer to create something revolutionary.
It’s not necessarily easy to go through, and that might be why people give up so easily. Some might find that the act of continually putting out work that’s unsatisfactory and subsequently critiqued is demoralising and time-consuming. But for those who were lucky enough to become renowned geniuses when alive, like Cezanne or Hitchcock, the toil of mediocrity garnered immense reward.
And, as it turns out, there are also people who start on the journey much later than expected. It’s usually assumed that if someone finds their calling late in life, they’re destined to become a hobbyist. Unlikely to make any significant impact, but happy enough gardening or making pottery.
Julia Child would beg to differ. She had no interest in French food until 1948, where her famous career kickstarted at the age of 36. Child then revolutionised the American culinary world by introducing French cuisine to the general public, and her age only helped to make her more endearing.
Likewise, Vera Wang only became a wildly successful bridal wear designer when she was 40, after an abandoned ice-skating career and years working for Vogue and Ralph Lauren. Although she was immersed in the fashion world from the time she graduated from university, it took her almost twenty years to find her place as a creative talent. She’s now one of the most popular designers in the world, nicknamed ‘The Queen of Wedding Fashion’.
When we hear stories like that, it’s easier to accept that genius is cultivated, and that innate talent is less important than hard work, but it’s tough to genuinely practice that in our daily lives.
Growth vs fixed mindsets
Let’s have a thought experiment: imagine that a child in your life was upset over a bad mark on a Maths test. This child is a skilled basketball player. They’re bright, great at writing and art. But they fare poorly on more logic-based subjects, like Science and Maths.
What would you tell this child, despondent over their performance? You might say that they could work harder next time. They could find an adult, even you, to help them work through their homework and consolidate their knowledge. But equally likely is that you tell them that Maths isn’t for everyone, that some people are stronger in Maths than others. You might encourage them to think about the things they are good at: English, History, drawing, basketball.
As it turns out, this way of thinking is limiting – a fixed mindset about how intelligence works. The issue stems from the fact that as a society, we generally have fixed ideas. Someone you know is smart, someone else is artistic, and your neighbour is a great cook – we don’t usually talk in terms of potential.
The key, to change lies in a growth mindset – the idea that any particular skill can be honed and improved through consistent attention and practice.
An idea devised by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, growth vs fixed mindsets can affect more than just your understanding of intelligence – it can impact how you approach challenges. If you have a fixed mindset, you might give up, with the understanding that the challenge is too large and your ability too small. In contrast, if you have a growth mindset, you’ll be more confident about the challenge, knowing that it’s a step in the right direction, and even if you fail, you’ll at least learn something. Failing doesn’t mean failure forever, something essential for anyone who wants to improve their craft to the point of being considered a visionary.
Growth mindsets are incredibly important for devising innovative solutions. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the case of entrepreneurship.
There’s a lot of debate about whether younger or older entrepreneurs are better, and there’s no easy answer. Young entrepreneurs are wide-eyed and often wildly creative, ready to take risks with comparatively less to lose. Older entrepreneurs bring a wealth of experience to the table, generally with years of professionalism under their belts. The true test of whether a start-up founder is an entrepreneurial genius, regardless of age, comes years after the initial burst of enthusiasm, when it’s clear whether the company has flourished or failed – that’s when the growth mindset comes in handy.
A successful company needs to adapt to societal changes as they come, and to do that they need to have someone at the helm ready to move with the times and spin society’s demands into gold.
And there’s an industry in which almost all players have thrived through time, taking on society with relative ease: the fast food industry. The founders of many companies we easily recognise weren’t spring chickens, themselves. McDonalds founders Richard and Maurice McDonald were 39 and 46 respectively, instant ramen inventor Momofuku Ando was 48, and KFC founder Harland Sanders was 50.
As a fast food entrepreneur, there are a couple of things to consider. You need to have a recipe that’s easy to repeat, but with some essential quality that means your competitors don’t grab hold of it, and people keep coming back to your food. In fact, to be a fast food entrepreneur, you need to be an experimental innovator. Radical recipes don’t happen on the first try.
And to keep their customers, they needed to have a growth mindset, that saw changes to tradition as an advancement rather than a betrayal. The fast food industry’s biggest threat has been the move towards healthy eating, but the fast food industry has managed to weather the culinary storm. Cheeseburgers are being taken out of the US’s Happy Meals (they have to be specifically requested), while KFC has committed to remove 20% of calories ‘per serving’ by 2025. And while instant ramen still has its fair share of sodium, there are moves to make it healthier.
An experimental innovator with a growth mindset almost seems like the opposite of what most people think of genius as being. Those people experiment with their craft over years of fruitless labour, and yet aren’t deterred. The rewards of dedicated hard work over a consistent period far exceeds the difficulties that came before.
Ultimately, there are more shades of genius than we really believe. You might’ve known someone in childhood who peaked early and rode the wave to the top, but there might also be someone in your life who hasn’t hit their stride yet. It’s not about one moment of insight – it’s about working hard and steadily, about being open-minded enough to keep going after setbacks. Your window of opportunity can be opened whenever you want. You just need to muster up the enthusiasm and effort to draw back the blinds and look outside.