Become a Mad Genius in Two Simple Steps

Burrell Smith solved problems like nobody else could. As one of the top engineers on 1983's Apple II computer project, Burrell translated the young Steve Jobs’ impossible-sounding demands into realities every day. So when, one night at the video arcade, he stepped up to a game called Defender and told his fellow programmers he’d come up with a new way to beat it, his friends stood aside and smiled in anticipation.

In Defender, the player flew a little spaceship around the screen, trying to save humans from being abducted by evil alien ships. Burrell’s innovation was simple: He shot all his humans. Then as the aliens closed in on him from all sides, he picked their ships off one by one.

As he racked up a new high score, Burrell turned to his friends with a grin and explained, “Make a mess. Clean it up.”

The three traits

When we look for traits to imitate in our heroes’ lives, it’s the weird ones that tend to stand out. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. Nikola Tesla died a virgin. Hunter Thompson and Paul Erdős and John Lennon did lots and lots and lots of drugs.

But our heroes’ wilder sides are only half the story — or one third of it, to be exact, according to a research paper published this year by psychologists Guillaume Furst, Paolo Ghisletta and Todd Lubart. These researchers describe three “super-factors” of personality that predict a person’s creativity:

  1. Plasticity — openness to change and new experiences
  2. Divergence — non-conformity and impulsiveness
  3. Convergence — skillful precision and hard-nosed persistence

Guess which of these three factors is getting utterly ignored in most comment threads about this paper!

If you guessed convergence, you’re a winner!

It’s so much more fun to focus on the crazy traits, though, isn’t it? That’s why those comment threads are filling up with all the quotes you’d expect — Lewis Carroll’s “We’re all mad here” and Aristotle’s “No genius without madness” and so on — with hardly a mention of the actual reasons that crazy successful people are so successful.

Guys, let’s be clear. Bill Gates didn’t drop out of Harvard because he was wild and crazy; he dropped out of Harvard because he had an operating system to sell. Paul Erdős used amphetamines to power an all-but-ceaseless output of award-winning papers on set theory and combinatorics. Even Hunter Thompson paid for his coke binges by filing razor-sharp political commentary for national newspapers.

These people didn’t earn their hero status by acting weird — they’re our heroes because they created and did deeply meaningful, useful things.

The two phases

That’s the second main point those psychological researchers make in their paper — creativity consists of two distinct phases:

  1. Generation — the phase of producing ideas like crazy
  2. Selection — the phase of refining some of those ideas until they’re actually useful

You might recognize this duo of ideas from Darwin. You might also remember Darwin’s emphasis on the fact that every day, far more creatures are born than can possibly survive to adulthood.

The problem is that, much like when some of us watch nature documentaries, we want all the wild variety but none of the thinning of the herd. We want the fun of the mess without the work of cleanup.

We want highlight reels.

And the saddest part about this is that it stifles our own creativity. It makes us want to give up when we feel unexciting, because we feel that for true geniuses it’s just day after day of groundbreaking ideas and flashes of cosmic insight.

Our heroic narratives fast-forward through our heroes’ months and years of dead ends; their long nights wrestling with infuriating problems; the thousands and thousands of times a guy like Burrell Smith had to die in Defender before he finally hit on the one strategy that clicked.

Make no mistake — work often sucks for geniuses, too.

Becoming brilliant

Everyone on earth has brilliant original ideas several times a day. This means you. And it’s tempting to believe that those ideas will blossom into brilliant projects if we just Get Weird and give vent to our wildest impulses. There’s always room for that, of course. In the early stages of a project, especially, too much restraint can strangle creativity.

But without a selection phase—without some process by which we start to shear away irrelevant excesses, and all this wildness begins to crystallize into a useful, meaningful, concrete result — all our grandiose imitation of our heroes’ wild lifestyles boils down to a big game of dress-up.

If you want to be like your favorite mad genius, learn how he or she cracked big problems. Learn how he or she looked for problems to crack. Learn how, exactly, such a bizarre lifestyle helped him or her crack those problems. And then emulate that process.

Do that, and the world might just remember you as a mad genius one day.