Slow-fermented Genius

That genius Kathy Sierra gives hope to all of us *mumble*somethings who haven't yet taken the world by storm with a post entitled It's Not Too Late To Be A Genius! She references an article by Dan Pink in the July issue of Wired Magazine entitled What Kind of Genius Are You? The article chronicles the work of economist David Galenson, who - through exhaustive study of the value of various artists' paintings - discovered that geniuses fell into one of two camps: Conceptual and Experimental.
"What he has found is that genius – whether in art or architecture or even business – is not the sole province of 17-year-old Picassos and 22-year-old Andreessens. Instead, it comes in two very different forms, embodied by two very different types of people. “Conceptual innovators,” as Galenson calls them, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young. Think Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles. They make the rest of us feel like also-rans. Then there’s a second character type, someone who’s just as significant but trudging by comparison. Galenson calls this group “experimental innovators.” Geniuses like Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers. Galenson maintains that this duality – conceptualists are from Mars, experimentalists are from Venus – is the core of the creative process. And it applies to virtually every field of intellectual endeavor, from painters and poets to economists."
The tale of how Galenson sleuthed his way to this insight is an archetypal tale of experimental innovation, and a ripping yarn to boot!
“Since the Renaissance, genius has been associated with virtuosos who are young. The idea is that you’re born that way – it’s innate and it manifests itself very young,” Galenson says. But that leaves the vocabulary of human possibility incomplete. “Who’s to say that Virginia Woolf or Cézanne didn’t have an innate quality that simply had to be nourished for 40 or 50 years before it bloomed?” The world exalts the young turks – the Larrys and the Sergeys, the Picassos and the Samuelsons. And it should. We need those brash, certain, paradigm-busting youthful conceptualists. We should give them free rein to do bold work and avoid saddling them with rules and bureaucracy.

But we should also leave room for those of us who have, er, avoided peaking too early, whose most innovative days may lie ahead. Nobody would have heard of Jackson Pollock had he died at 31. But the same would be true had Pollock given up at 31. He didn’t. He kept at it. We need to look at that more halting, less certain fellow and perhaps not write him off too early, give him a chance to ride the upward curve of middle age.
As the old malapropism says: I resemble that remark! Or can harbor the fantasy that I do...

UPDATE: The Agonist discusses the distinction between liquid and crystal intelligence; the former being the analog of Galenson's conceptual genius, and the latter being analogous to experimental genius. Except that crystal intelligence involves garnering a critical mass of understanding of an area of knowledge (crystalizing), not necessarily experimenting itself. A very keen insight!

posted by Mike at 3:17 PM


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