How to Hack Genius

A formula for unlocking true human potential.

This article discusses more than the concept of human motivation. Motivation is a vehicle for getting things done. I don’t want to just get things done. I want to achieve extraordinary or even genius outcomes.

Please note: this article is not just a discussion. My mission is to share what I have learned and to teach you the specific actions you can take to harness your own genius.

Today, there is a common misconception of what the word genius actually means. Let’s explore this by looking at some people whom a large proportion of the world consider to be geniuses.

  • Albert Einstein: a theoretical physicist known for his contribution to physics, his development of the theory of relativity, and of course: E = mc^2.
  • Leonardo da Vinci: a polymath often credited to inventions such as the parachute, helicopter, and the tank.
  • Steve Jobs; an entrepreneur widely recognised as a pioneer of the microcomputer revolution. He founded the first company ever to reach a trillion dollar valuation.
  • Elon Musk; a business magnet (not a typo) who has built numerous billion dollar companies as well as pioneered invention and innovation in areas such as space travel and energy.

All of these people are extreme. They have done incredible work that has effected millions, if not billions, of people’s lives. However, many people have done incredible things.

The thing that makes these people stand out is the number of times they do the incredible things.

But are they geniuses?

To say that any of those people were geniuses all of the time, would be wrong. There are countless references to times where each of these people have been wrong. None of them are perfect.

Don’t believe me? Type in a genius’s name, with the word “failures”, into Google and you’ll find many instances of non-genius work. For example, before Steve Jobs had his genius moment with the iPhone, iPad, iPod, etc. He actually got kicked out of Apple in 1985. He then built the NeXT computer company which was a flop. It wasn’t until 1997 when they rehired him that he started to do “genius” things again.

Strange… this begs the question; what actually is genius?

What is Genius? 🤔

If we actually look up the origins of the word “genius”, we find that it originates as a Latin word. Interestingly, the early use of the word was to describe an external being who would aid a person for a period of time.

The following is a passage from an article I found online.

“The Greeks and the Romans both believed in the idea of an external daemon of creativity — a sort of house elf, if you will, who lived within the walls of your home and sometimes aided you in your labours. The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius — your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, that the Romans didn’t believe an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.”

This view point suggests that genius is something you get for a period of time, as opposed to something you posses from birth. It also suggests that everyone can have a moment of genius, it is not limited to a select few. Actually, the term genius wasn’t actually used to describe a specific person until somewhere around 1800s.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love — which spent 199 weeks on the New York Times best seller list — discusses this idea in her TED talk. She describes how, during the Renaissance, they changed the meaning of the word to align with the popular beliefs at the time. During the Renaissance, there was a movement to put the individual human being at the center of the universe. Hence why it the meaning of genius began to revolve around a specific individual.

Elizabeth then described this change in meaning as “a huge error”.

This information suggests that genius is not a trait given to you at birth. Rather, it is a temporary state (or moment) in which a person achieves extraordinary (or extra-ordinary) outcomes. The world can then use these outcomes as a means of understanding more about the universe, of which we know very little.

You don’t know what you don’t know — until someone has a genius moment and tells you.

So then, how did these people get into a genius state?

I have discovered some very interesting information surrounding this idea. As a result, I have a theory on what this genius state and how to induce it. The following details how I came upon my theory and how you may induce your own genius state.

The Cult of Extreme Productivity 🏃‍

For the last 9 months, since the start of 2018, I have been working full-time as an entrepreneur. In other words; I have been working without pay and living on my savings, as I attempt to build a technology product that people will want to buy.

I have not yet got to the point where someone has purchased my product. However, this is not for lack of trying.

In that time, I have built 4 different, fully working tech products. I come from a very technical background and have a degree in computer science and marketing. I study entrepreneurship pretty much in every free moment I have — which is a lot of time when you don’t have another job.

So then why have I not sold anything?

Every time I would build a product, I would build it to the point where it worked and I could sell it. But as soon as it came time to sell it, I froze. I would ask a few people to try the product out and see if they liked it. More often than not, they would be supportive and say it was “nice” and then never use the product again.

Rather than taking the time to refine the product, I would come up with one of the following excuses:

  1. I was not passionate about the problem.
  2. I was not using the product myself and therefore could not see the true value.
  3. I didn’t want to spend the next 10 years on this product.

That is only the start of the list of excuses. And once I had an excuse, I had a reason to stop working on that idea and start working on the next idea, which I though was more aligned to my values.

The problem is, when you have the mindset that you need to test as many ideas as possible in a small amount of time, you naturally become extremely productive! I was so productive, I even wrote an article on how to be more productive…

Then one day, I was scrolling through youtube when I saw a video on the cult of productivity.

Being as productive as I am, I assumed I was part of this cult. I thought this video might give me some more tips on how to be more productive. I was wrong.

The video explores the idea that, to be more productive, you must enter a contract with yourself. The contract contains the goal you wish to achieve, how you will achieve that goal, and finally, a terrible punishment for not achieving the goal.

The main theory of the video being that; the pain of executing on your goal would be less than the pain of the punishment. It makes sense. Let’s say I want to make my bed every morning for a year. Then lets say my punishment for not doing so would be to get punched in the face.

I tell you what, I’d make my bed any day to avoid getting punched in the face.

The video ended with a photo of the presenter with significant bruises on his face. He also has terrible posture — which i’d suggest was self-induced. Okay great, the key to being extremely productive is to use fear as your friend.

But I don’t want to spend my life living in constant fear…

There is also a flaw in this idea. As a natural human behaviour, the more we are exposed to a situation, the more familiar and comfortable we become with it. This explains why naughty kids stay being the naughty kids; they become familiar, and therefore less afraid, of punishment. It explores why doing something for the first time is always the most difficult and daunting time to do something.

As such, the more we expose ourselves to a punishment, the more we learn to accept it. For example, if I forgot to make my bed and did get punched in the face, I would no longer have such a large fear of being punched in the face. So to combat this problem, you incrementally increase the punishment.

And then one day, you forget to make your bed, and you die.

So the theory falls down. However, it does raise a very interesting question. Can we hack our mind in order to improve motivation and therefore productivity?

The Carrot 🥕 vs The Stick

All through my childhood, I was told by teachers and peers that a carrot (a positive incentive) is a much greater than a stick (a negative incentive). I know that my dog won’t respond well to punishment, but she sure as hell will sit down to get a doggy treat.

So I did some research and the results are interesting.

There is a video online (more than 16 million views) which discusses the idea of motivation relative to incentive. It explores the research conducted behind the carrot vs stick idea.

With a positive incentive, productivity increases when a person is required to do a task which requires little to no cognitive effort. Examples of these tasks are digging a hole, sweeping the floor, and turning a crank.

However, when a positive incentive put as a reward for achieving a task which required cognitive effort, the participants flopped. They’re productivity levels actually declined as opposed to increasing.

By giving a person a positive incentive, you also gave the person something to lose.

Let’s say you have a blog writer with a salary of $100 per blog post. And then you gave them an incentive of an extra $100 dollars if the post got a thousand views. In the mind of the blog writer, they now have a base level of $200 and will only achieve $100 when they perform poorly.

What started off as a positive incentive has now become a punishment for poor performance…

Moments of Extraordinary Achievement 🏆

So we’ve come to the conclusion that neither positive or negative incentive are good forms of incentive in relation to cognitive tasks. Now what?

This lead me to ask a new question: what am I really looking for?

I realised that I wasn’t actually looking for a productivity hack at all. What I truly want is a way of performing at a level which I would consider amazing, incredible, or extraordinary. I want to do something incredible in my life. I want to do something that makes me stand out.

So I decided to create a list of the moments in my life where I achieved an outcome which surprised me. An outcome that was extraordinary.

I suggest you take a moment to make your own list, too. You can then use your list to test my theory.

Here is a brief summary of the times I achieved an outcome which I would deem far greater than my regular performances.

  1. Year 10 health ed class: I forgot to study and had to cram the information in the 15 minutes before class — I got 99% for that test.
  2. Year 12 final engineering exam: I was so sick of studying my other subjects that I spent the 3 days before the exam playing Skyrim on my PlayStation 3 — I got 94% in that exam.
  3. Playing football for West Coast Cowan: the coach and I argued and so he “taught me a lesson” by putting me in another team. The other team didn’t think I was good so they waited until the 2nd Quarter to put me on and then put me in back pocket (a position which doesn’t see much of the ball) — at the end of the game, I was awarded 2nd best on ground.

My total list is a little longer than this. However, I think you get the point. To tell the truth, showing that list makes me feel as if I am bragging. I don’t mean to. I was a good student and tried very hard in all my work, I was also an good football player and put in many hours of practise.

But what made these particular scenarios different? Why could I not do this all the time?

Then it clicked.

All the situations in my life where I achieved an amazing outcome, I went into the task with the same mindset. Seriously, not one item on my list was an exception.

The mindset I was in was in, was a mindset of no expectations.

Expectations is too broad of a concept to be helpful. So I endeavoured to find a more clear explanation of what was actually happening to my brain and how I could replicate that same mindset.

The following the characteristics I recognised in every scenario.

1. Skill ⛷

All through high school, I studied diligently and regularly received good grades. I was a good student, I’d almost describe myself as the “teachers pet” back in primary school. Thankfully I realised that this title may be detrimental later on in life, but regardless, I was a good student.

I also played football for the majority of my life. I had played for close to a decade before the West Coast Cowan game. At the age of 14, I was one of 4 or so players from my local club who were drafted to play in a development squad for my region, the Claremont Tigers. Eventually, I was dropped from the squad about 2 season later. Regardless, I was a good player.

I would regularly get “good” marks on my tests. I would regularly play “good” games for my footy club.

But I was not great.

My great moments were fleeting. They only happened at random and specific moments. They had no pattern. I was never able to predict when I would have a stand-out game.

Years of training had prepared me to be a good at these things. I had developed skill in these areas. Without this skill, I would not have been able to think through my tests or mark the ball confidently in my games.

I had built up the potential for a great performance.

I do not believe skill needs to be developed with years of practise. It just needs to be enough skill to start the task. Naturally, the more skill you have, the more potential you will have.

2. Fears 👹

In every situation, I entered without fear of unserious consequences. When I say unserious consequences, I mean consequences that do not negatively impact on my current or future wellbeing or the wellbeing of others.

For example, in my health ed. test, the consequence for not performing well was failing health ed. I didn’t care about failing health ed (sorry Ms Jones). Failing health ed would not lead me to be an unsuccessful student or set me up poorly for my career.

The same was for my football game. I didn’t care if I played poorly in that team, they put me on in the 2nd Quarter, down in back pocket. They expected me to play poorly. So if I actually did play poorly, there was no harm done. I was also in a different team and knew about 2 people prior to the game. They wouldn’t care if I played bad, they wouldn’t see me next week anyway.

Without the fear of punishment, I attempted things I was too afraid of attempt before.

One of Facebook’s posters.

3. Rewards 💰

More than having no fears, I also had no perceived expectation of a reward. There were no real positive consequences for me doing well in health ed class.

Great work on that health test, Jack. That will really help you achieve your dreams… #sarcasm

There was no benefits for playing in the other football team. The coach only moved me over for one game, then I would return to my team the next week. No one else from my normal team was there to see me play well. I could play as well as I wanted and no one would know.

As I believed there was no perceived reward for good performance, I essentially could do what ever I wanted. My behaviour shifted from doing what I thought would help me achieve my reward, to what seemed the most logical thing to do in the situation.

I wrote answers to the test that seemed logical to me at the time, not because I rote-learned the concepts. I moved myself to positions on the football field where I logically believed I would receive the football. I didn’t go to positions I expected my coach would want me to go, because he wasn’t there.

I was applying the skills I had learned in the past to a situation where I didn’t have any self-imposed expectations of what I should do. There was no framework.

I was not forced to follow someone else’s expectation of what I was meant to do.

Suddenly, I found that I began to challenge myself. I wanted to see how close to the answers I could get without much study. I wanted to see how many times I could touch the football throughout the game. Not because I would be rewarded for doing this, but because it was more fun.

Football is meant to be fun. Learning is meant to be fun. This is natural human curiosity.

4. Timeframe ⏰

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle was the timeframe. In every scenario where I excelled, I felt like time was against me. There was a pressured, almost unrealistic timeframe.

I only had 15 minutes to study before the health ed test. I was only put on in the 2nd Quarter and had 20 minutes less playing time than everyone else. In my year 12 engineering exam, I didn’t have a short timeframe to study, but I distinctly remember the exam having more questions in it than I had ever seen before. I had the perception that I didn’t have enough time to do the things I wanted to do.

The timeframe was also strict.

No more working on that test after the bell. No more playing football after the siren. I had a chance then and there to perform. There was always a second chance. I knew that. But I knew I had an opportunity to perform there and then. Why would I wait until my next opportunity when I can act now?

But why didn’t I freak out knowing I had a short timeframe?

Well, there was no consequences for performing poorly, so who cared. Instead of freaking out; I calmed myself, brought myself back to reality, and focused on only the things that mattered. I focused on the tasks that would have the biggest impact on my performance.

I didn’t have time to focus on the unimportant things. In my mind, it was better to get a small amount of important things finished, than it was to follow the normal routine and get all of the things finished. I simply didn’t have time to get everything finished.

With a lack of time, I was given clarity and focus on what was most important.

The Theory of Inducing Genius 📝

Genius is not given at birth, it is the outcome of a temporary mindset.

Every moment in my life where I achieved an extraordinary outcome, was a moment of genius. And every one of those moments, had the same combination of factors which put me into the genius mindset.

Here is the formula required to achieve genius.

Skill + No fear + No reward + Unrealistic but strict timeframe = Genius

To clarify.

  • Skill: a sufficient level of skill developed that enables you to begin the task at hand. Note that you do not need to be a master. You just need to know enough to start the task.
  • No fear: the perception of no unserious punishments for trying something new. Unserious being punishments that do not negatively impact you or another persons current or future wellbeing.
  • No reward: the perception of not having anything to gain from the task.
  • Unrealistic but strict timeframe: the perception of lack of time. This motivates you to begin as soon as possible and is a constant reminder to only put the most important tasks at the front of mind.

By surrounding yourself in an environment where all these factors come into play, as humans, we are able to hack ourselves into the genius state of mind and achieve beyond what we would ever think possible.

The next time you go into a test, play a game of sport, or even attempting to talk to a romantic crush; try this mindset out. Remove your perception of potential fears and rewards, prepare yourself with some skills, and give yourself a strict timeframe with a little pressure. I’m sure you’ll be surprised with the results.

Oh yeah, and remember that list I told you to make, see if your scenarios match up. I’d love to hear your story in the comments.

A Fear of Not Being Different 💁‍

After going through that little thought journey, I realised that my excuses for not following through with any of my entrepreneurship ideas, were all false. None of them truly explained the reason for me deciding to stop working on my ideas. None of them explained why I would continuously create full products, stop, and eventually begin to work on my next idea.

The real reason I stopped working on these products is exactly the same reason why I wanted to start making these products in the first place.

I want to be different.

I don’t want to be the guy who starts a profitable tech company. There are thousands of those people. They are not special. I want to be the guy who builds something incredible which everyone loves and do it in a timeframe which no one can believe. I want to own a Lamborghini at the age of 25. Not because I like cars or because I like driving fast. I actually get very anxious at fast speeds.

The reason I want to own a Lamborghini at 25 is because that would make me different. That would not make me “one of those rich guys who made money in tech” but rather it would make me the one and only, Jack Scott; the person who stood out.

The money is a side effect of standing out.

It’s a side effect of being different.

It’s a side effect of genius.

Let me know if you enjoyed this article by hitting the applause 🙌 button or leaving a comment below. It would mean a lot.

You can also hear more of my thoughts over on Twitter.

After writing this article, I shared my draft with a few friends to get their opinions. Ironically, I found that “wanting to be different” is a characteristic of many people. A good amount of my friends told me they had the same desire. A desire to be unique.

I’m not too sure where this trait comes from, but if and when I figure that out, i’ll write another article.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by + 371,663 people.

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